We're looking at deep three-pointers all wrong in college basketball. Here's why

Both Kansas coach Bill Self (right) and Villanova coach Jay Wright (left) benefited from their teams shooting deep threes last season. | Rich Sugg | rsugg@kcstar.com
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By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

I didn't mean to stumble onto a Jay Wright secret ... but that may have been what happened this week when I started to research a potential blog topic.

Recently, I've been fascinated by the work of analyst Will Schreefer, especially when it comes to the excellent (and free) shot-chart tool he's created for college basketball players.

And one thing, in particular, interested me: his breakout on the site of "NBA threes."

So I wondered how KU fared when it came to this aspect. I sent Schreefer a message, and he was nice enough to send back the data that he's compiled from available sources online.

The verdict? KU was a good "NBA three-point" shooting team last season. The Jayhawks made 38.9 percent of their long-range threes, which was well above the NCAA average of 34.5 percent for those shots.

Something else caught my attention, though, when Schreefer sent over the results by team.


NBA 3s madeNBA 3s att.Missing games
Villanova3278322
Michigan2496913
Marshall2406730
Wash. St.2316230
Utah2196080
Oregon2116052
Marquette2586042
UTSA2025931
Seton Hall2245892
Gonzaga2175853
Auburn2105852
Florida2185803
Kansas2255783

Before going further, let's get a couple of needed caveats out of the way.

1. The above leaderboard does not include all Division I schools. The site Schreefer uses has data from about 40 percent of games, which includes a heavy emphasis on the Power Five programs. You can see the number of missing games from the sample on the right of each school above.

2. The shot-chart data Schreefer uses appears to be entered by hand, so the length of shots is an estimation. This means it won't be perfect, but without camera tracking like MLB has, it's about the best we can do for now.

Having said all that ... the top teams above are intriguing to say the least.

Villanova — by far — leads the way. While this shouldn't be shocking (Villanova took a lot of threes last season, so it stands to reason that some of those were from distance), it is worth noting that Wright likely wasn't limiting his players to only attempts with toes right behind the line.

The Wildcats' national championship foe — Michigan — is second on the list, and that's even with three games missing from its data set.

And in third place? Marshall, which actually makes sense considering its coach. Dan D'Antoni — his younger brother Mike is the Houston Rockets' coach — became a darling of the basketball analytics community in 2016 following his postgame rant about the value of three-pointers.

If we trust the data to be mostly reliable, those three teams clearly put themselves ahead of others when it comes to shooting long threes.

And though I hadn't thought about it much until now, those squads could be gaining an edge by doing so.

The reason for that comes down to math. Kirk Goldsberry explored this a bit with Grantland in 2014 when he wrote a piece examining whether the NBA should move the three-point line back.

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While points per shot dramatically decrease as NBA players move away from the rim, the same couldn't be said for deeper threes. In general, those were still efficient attempts, especially when compared to two-point shots not close to the basket.

Another way to look at it: Schreefer had college teams making NBA threes 34.5 percent of the time last season, while Hoop-Math's data says the NCAA average for mid-range shots is 34.9 percent. Those numbers are basically the same, but the NBA three is worth an additional point.

There are other reasons to think that long threes could be beneficial to an offense. For one, the deeper shot often is more open, and adding a foot or two onto an attempt typically won't be a problem for a high-level shooter anyway (Svi Mykhailiuk's NBA Combine video is some evidence of that).

Svi for 3

Making defenders guard out to 25 feet also, in theory, should give an offense more space to operate. KU coach Bill Self often talks about the importance of getting the ball "flat" — or from corner to corner — to force a defense to guard 50 feet horizontally. It would follow logic, then, that getting a team to guard you further out vertically would cause additional defensive stress as well.

And this all makes me start to re-evaluate how I've viewed deep threes my entire life.

While watching basketball, it's only natural to gripe when a guy misses a long three, thinking there might have been a better attempt available later in the shot clock. Part of this belief, I think, comes from other sports, where closer is almost always better.

In football, getting past the goal line is worth six points, while getting close but not there is potentially worth three. In soccer, launching every shot from outside the box is obviously not the most efficient way to score.

Basketball is just different, though. Shooting from distance can be worth an additional point, as complicated as that can be to rationalize in our own minds.

NBA threes, based on the data above, appear to be decent shots in the college game. And a few teams appear to be taking advantage of that quirk.

Every team does not have the perfect personnel to play this way. KU lost nearly all of its three-point production from last season, so a spike in deep threes this season would be an unexpected development.

It still will be worth tracking many of the others above.

There are many ways to build a successful team, and it's not a requirement that a good program must fire away from deep.

When it comes to this type of shot selection, though, Wright has certainly deviated from his peers — building a program where NBA three-point shooting has become a profitable college approach.


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