The pull-up 3-pointer is changing the NBA … again


Every basketball fan knows Stephen Curry revolutionized the game. Three years ago, ESPN’s  Kevin Pelton set out to quantify it. He noted that Curry was one of seven players to make more than 100 pull-up 3-pointers in 2016-17, after only three did the previous season. Before the 2019-20 shutdown, nine players had already crossed that threshold, per NBA.com. Curry, injured for most of it, wasn’t even one of them.

Pelton found that the players who took the most pull-up 3s were generally the best guards in the league, and that the increase in these shots made the pick-and-roll harder, more efficient on a league-wide level. It wasn’t necessarily that these (difficult!) shots were all that great, but that ballhandlers used the threat of these shots to break down defenses. 

The following season, James Harden broke everything. He began launching his stepback 3, an essentially unguardable shot, with impunity. This was at once an answer to switching, a revival of iso-ball and, admittedly, a bit annoying — if you weren’t put off by his foul-drawing and foot-shuffling, you were probably put off by the conversation about his foul-drawing and foot-shuffling.

Coaches, trainers and players watched Curry and Harden win MVPs. At the risk of oversimplification, they are directly responsible for the type of shot Pelton called “the most important shot in the modern NBA” in 2017 becoming even more important. 

It’s not just the star guards anymore

The Boston CelticsJayson Tatum has spent 63 percent of his minutes at power forward this season, per Cleaning The Glass, and he’s seventh in pull-up 3s and has hit them at a 39.9 percent rate. The Athletic’s Jared Weiss recently went deep on this area of Tatum’s game, noting that he studied how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George operate in the pick-and-roll. Here he is targeting Carmelo Anthony, another one of his influences:

Tatum is particularly scary shooting off the dribble because he’s so long that it’s difficult to contest his shot. Seeing someone his size run high pick-and-rolls isn’t jarring the way it is when Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns does it: 

Pascal Siakam is not the marksman that Towns is, but he’s worlds better than he used to be. He went from a non-shooter to a stationary shooter to this guy in a flash:

Tatum, Towns and Siakam are All-Stars, a distinction that typically comes with a green light. Off-the-dribble 3s are not merely the domain of leading men, however — one of my favorite practitioners is the Utah Jazz‘s Joe Ingles, a point forward of sorts who hardly needs any space to get off his shot: 

In San Antonio, the 6-foot-10 Davis Bertans was almost exclusively a spot-up shooter. Now with the Washington Wizards, he is in constant motion, hunting 3s like he’s Ray Allen. Calling him a stretch 4 sells him short, especially because he occasionally does wild stuff off the bounce: 

Bertans has been something of a sensation, and other teams will experiment with letting their best shooters push the limits of what is considered a reasonable shot. I’ve argued that 3-and-D is going out of style, and while it is not as if every role player is about to be doing a Steph impression, perimeter players who want bigger roles are definitely working on it.

It’s not just pick-and-rolls, either 

To this point, the 3-point explosion has mostly been about better spacing. As The Athletic’s Seth Partnow has covered extensively, the endless carping about the death of the midrange game is a bunch of hooey — what has really died is the spot-up 2-pointer. If the old-school mourn long enough, though, they might eventually be (somewhat) right. 

In the age of Harden’s stepback, one-on-one players are creating the sorts of shots they always did, but from farther away. Those don’t need to go in quite as often to be a better value proposition. Zach LaVine might not like it, but he has been slightly more efficient on pull-ups this season despite making fewer of them, simply because he has replaced some of his long 2s with 3s. These tough shots would still be tough if they were a bit closer:

It makes sense that Tatum has studied Leonard because the reigning Finals MVP is a master craftsman. Everything that makes him a killer in the midrange — the handle, the patience, the body control, the strength, the high release — makes him a killer behind the 3-point line. This is true in both pick-and-roll and isolation:

No sensible person thinks that Leonard should turn down open midrange shots. His brand of bucket-getting is the perfect counter to defenses that are designed to prevent 3s and layups. It is not an accident, though, that Tatum has reduced his long 2s this season. Tatum does not happen to be one of the best midrange scorers ever, and he can make off-the-dribble 3s like these look smooth:

And then there is the 2018 draft-day duo, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, who both get plenty of attention for being advanced for their age but still might not be adequately appreciated when it comes to shot creation:

Seeing in a star player size up the defense, get to his sweet spot and swish a jumper will forever be one of the pure joys of basketball. Increasingly, the modern NBA asks: What if that sweet spot were behind the 3-point line? 

In terms of where the game is going, the pull-up 3s I watched but didn’t include here are just as telling as the ones I did — I am completely desensitized to long shots of moderate difficulty. To truly shock me, it now takes something as weird as Harden’s leaning, one-legged 3 from the preseason. In a few years, maybe that will be normal, too. 





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