A jump shot is better than a layup, part 2

In Part I we traced basketball’s early history culminating in Hank Luisetti and Kenny Sailors’ historic appearances in New York’s Madison Square Garden where they challenged the orthodoxy of the day by shooting one-handed while airborne. In Part II, we’ll explore the evolution of shooting styles in greater detail and show how the modern jump shot transformed basketball in four key ways.

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A jump shot is better than a layup

When I launched my blog in 2014, I outlined ten immutable laws or principles that define the nature of basketball and govern its play. These laws are fundamental to understanding, coaching, and playing basketball. Once mastered they form a prism through which one can “see” the game, appreciate its simplicity, and master its subtleties. At the center of the ten is the all-important Fifth Law: A jump shot is better than a layup. For me it’s the cornerstone on which modern basketball theory rests and why I named my site better than a layup. Over the next few weeks, I’ll unpack this law in a series of three posts. Here’s Part I.

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Keep It Binary, Stupid

Basketball unfolds as a series of choices, one leading to the next. No matter how controlled or patterned a team attempts to be, the offensive scheme will inevitably break down requiring the attackers to improvise. 

Effective coaching exploits this reality by placing players in spots where their natural freelance abilities come to the fore and where the choices are binary – “either/or” situations where it is relatively easy for the offense to read the defense and act quickly.

Complicated offensive schemes that congest the floor, obscure the choices, and attempt to control too many variables reward the defense by creating uncertainty and indecisiveness. Too many moving parts complicate the reads, granting the defense time to react.

Conversely, offenses that create quick, binary decision-making are built around actions and maneuvers that shorten defensive reaction time. Effective offense reduces the number of choices by forcing defenders into “no-win” situations where a choice to respond in one way renders them vulnerable in another way. This makes it easier for offensive players to see or read the defense and seize the initiative quickly.

Basketball’s fourth law – Keep It Binary, Stupid – explores these principles.

Click here to read.

The New 3-Point Line is a Bust

When I finally tuned in there were less than ten minutes to play. 

9:35 to be exact. 

Kentucky’s Johnny Juzang had just knocked in a 3-pointer to increase the Wildcat’s meager lead to eight, 58-50. Twenty-four seconds later, Texas Tech missed a jumper, foreshadowing the utterly dreadful nine minutes of basketball that were about to unfold. 

Eventually, Kentucky pulled out a 76-74 victory in overtime but I never got that far. The final minutes of regulation play were enough for me. In all, 4 field goals, 10 turnovers, 10 fouls.

On average, over the course of nearly ten minutes of play, two top-20 teams, representing premier D-1 programs with access to the best recruits in the country, collectively generated one basket every two minutes and forty seconds of play. Yikes!

Ten seconds after a timeout at the 1:11 mark, the Wildcat’s Tyrese Maxey missed a quick jumper and was promptly criticized by ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes. “Not a good shot… you gotta run some offense.”

“Jimmy,” I shouted at the screen, “I’ve watched Kentucky ‘run offense’ for the last nine minutes and nothing good has happened.” 

When your offense produces one basket on seven shot attempts during the final quarter of play – that’s roughly a field goal attempt every 1 minute and 43 seconds – there’s not much benefit to “running some offense.” You might as well jack it up and hope that by increasing your attempts something eventually goes in. 

For their part, Texas Tech didn’t fare much better. During those final 9:35 they went 3 for 12 from the field, only catching Kentucky as regulation expired on the back of seven free throws. 

Look, I get it. 

Every team has an off night or stretches in a game when the wheels come off. And lots of time, the bad play becomes infectious, one team dragging its opponent into the mire. Last Saturday’s game between 15th ranked Kentucky and 18th ranked Texas Tech is neither indicative of their true prowess or representative of the state of college basketball this season… but it’s not far off, either.  

We began this season with coaches, commentators, and fans all asking the same question: how will college basketball’s new 3-point line affect the game? 

Will extending the line to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches curb the game’s growing emphasis on the 3-pointer, leading to greater variety in offensive style and strategy as the NCAA intends? Will shooting percentages at the longer distance remain sufficient to pull defenders even farther from the basket, opening the floor for more dribble drives and offensive maneuvers inside the arc? Will players who lack long-range proficiency rediscover the value of the post up and short range jumpers? 

With two-thirds of the season behind us we can reach some tentative conclusions.

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It’s All Relative

In the run-up to this season’s Final Four we were greeted by two interesting but unsurprising commentaries. Unsurprising because they merely confirmed what we already knew: that the number of 3-point attempts in college basketball continues to surge, and correspondingly, the number of dunks has followed suit. 

In his April 8th Sports Illustrated piece, citing data compiled by Ken Pomeroy, Andy Staples recounted the record number of treys attempted in the tournament. Back in 2014 and ‘15 the percent of three-point field goal attempts per tournament game hovered around 32% but rose to 35% in 2016, then cleared 38% last season. Through the first 64 games of this year’s tournament, Pomeroy found that the average percent of three-point attempts had grown to nearly 41%.

Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber chimed in with a nifty chart, illustrating the trend over a ten-year period.

And what does the dramatic uptick in three-point attempts have to do with the increasing number of dunks generated in this year’s tourney?

Josh Plano’s March 28, 2019 piece at FiveThirtyEight.com revealed that six of this year’s Sweet 16 entries had a dunk share, or percent of 2-point attempts, exceeding 10%. Four years ago, only one did. “This is less about a few dunk-crazed teams and more a reflection of the nationwide trend in college basketball,” reported Plano. On the eve of the Final Four, the season had produced 19,550 dunks, about 2,000 more than just five years ago.  

And the reasons?

“We’re seeing more dunks,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The New York Times, “because there are more spectacular athletes out there.” More significantly, though, Bilas cited the symbiotic relationship between 3-pointers and dunks. 

The rise of the three as a strategic weapon has created an either-or game: you shoot the three or drive to the rim for a high percentage layup or dunk. You avoid all other lower percentage 2-point attempts. Throw in the long-range accuracy of a Carson Edwards or Kyle Guy and the crazy athleticism of players like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, and you end up with lots of threes and dunks. 

Again, interesting but not really surprising. 

While the three-pointer has greatly influenced offensive schemes and strategy, I sometimes wonder if the media echo chamber has overly dramatized its importance, imbuing it with near magical qualities when its actual benefits are, in many ways, quite relative.

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