We are in the midst of a basketball revolution. A time where the new taunts the old, where skill outscores size and speed generates opportunity. For the most part, basketball wears the same outfit it did decades ago, but to say there hasn’t been a wardrobe change would be ignoring the facts. Though the 3-point line has been present in the NBA since 1979, and in college since 1986, athletes are now discovering how much one shot can sway a game. Simple math proves two shots from behind the arc put an opponent down three possessions if they score the old fashion way. Perfecting this shot, while constructing a process that compliments the offense has become an attractive option for both professional and college programs.
The Charlotte 49er basketball team, headed by coach Mark Price, might be faced with an opportunity to take advantage of this system and unleash an explosive offense that showed flashes this year after going 14-19. Star center, Joseph Uchebo, standing at 6-foot-10, anchored the 49ers this season by reeling in rebounds and banging with the big boys in the paint. Unfortunately, Uchebo has crossed the finish line and will graduate at years’ end.
“We’re taking a big hit, losing big Jo cause he can be a 20 rebound kind of guy,” says freshman point guard Jon Davis. “We bought us some wings, both 6-foot-7, long and versatile to help us out a lot.” Hudson Price, son of Mark Price, is among one of the acquisitions as well as the transfer from Clemson, Austin Ajukwa, who will be eligible to play in his second semester of next year.
This leaves Price with a choice to make. Either recruit a capable big man or look to the bench. “We do have some big guys on our roster,” says Price. But he insists the ultimate goal is to feature the best players on the court. “There will definitely be times this year we’ll play with a smaller lineup and play a lot of small ball,” states Price, who will be heading into his second year at UNC Charlotte.
Basketball has taken a major turn toward
, the math behind what it takes to have the highest percentage of winning. “Teams have all caught on to the whole points-per-possession argument,” former coach of the New Jersey Nets, Lawrence Frank told the New York Times. The average amount of 3-point field goal attempts per game in the NBA is approximately 23.9. Just looking back to 2003, the same 30 basketball teams were only hoisting up 14.4 threes per contest, almost a 66 percent increase in attempts.
College basketball is also slowly catching up to the pros since adopting the arc seven years after the NBA. The top 10 3-point shooting teams of 2016 attempted almost four more 3-pointers, per game, then the top teams of 2001. This stat might not be shocking, but it is interesting to note that back in 2001, the top 10 3-point shooting teams included only one team who ranked in the top ten that year. In 2016, five of the top 10 3-point shooting teams were ranked top ten in the nation. That trend highlights the fact that the big college programs are, in fact, mirroring a fast paced, 3-point shooting scheme and proving it can make for winning basketball.
So what makes Charlotte a potential team to run a small lineup and be successful? Starting at the top, Price is a legend in the NBA and became just the second player, after Larry Bird, to join the 50-40-90 club. Those who shoot at least 40 percent from three-point range, 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the free throw line in a single season. Throughout a 12-year NBA tenure primarily spent with the Cavaliers, Price shot over 40 percent from 3-point range, a number still good enough to rank No. 30 all time. Its plain to see, then, that the man knows 3 pointers. He has channeled his style of play and implemented a system that allows players to feel loose on the court.
Because of Uchebo’s departure, and a roster that includes several freshmen, you might think Price was skittish about adopting a more open game and restrict his players’ agency on the court. Instead, Price chooses to trust their judgment. “I give our guys freedom to take shots,” says Price. “I think it lends itself to confidence. Believing that ‘hey,’ coach thinks I can make this shot and wants me to take it when I’m open.” This atmosphere generates chemistry on the floor and builds trust among players. It’s a similar blueprint proving successful for one of Price’s peers, Steve Kerr, another 3-point sharpshooter-turned-coach now guiding the Golden State Warriors.
You can already see the results. The 49ers sported the top 3-point percentage in Conference USA throughout the regular season, shooting .382 from beyond the arc, which is the highest percentage Charlotte has posted in almost two decades. Charlotte’s 3-point success contributed to an impressive 78.3 points per game, creating a foundation where the 49ers can run and gun, push the pace and continue outscoring opponents.
Mike D’Antoni and the Phoenix Suns started the small ball trend in the early 2000s before the 2014 Golden State Warriors inherited the system, eventually capturing an NBA championship. The system has since trickled down into collegiate locker rooms as well. Former Michigan State Big Ten player of the year, Draymond Green, stands at only 6-foot-7, yet plays anywhere from small forward to center where he can match up with opposing teams seven footers. Athletes listed at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 are usually marked as tweeners, meaning too small for a power forward but too tall for a small forward. That used to be a blemish; now, in today’s faster-paced game, it’s become an asset.
“The games always kinda evolving and teams I think, a lot, become copy cats of what’s being successful at the time and so right now the big buzz is the Golden State Warriors,” says Price.
Price says the 49ers aren’t aiming to copy some system in an effort to find secret success. But there are signs that small ball could work, if needed, in certain game situations with the roster. Freshman Andrien White, an athletic guard who wasn’t necessarily recruited on his 3-point shooting ability found his stroke behind the arc in the system Price has implemented, pouring in 67 3s’, good for second on the roster.
“Andrien was a pleasant surprise,” Price said, and conceded that the 6-foot-3 guard put in a lot of time over the offseason from beyond the arc. “His confidence grew as the season went along and he wound up being one of our top 3-point shooters.” No doubt, hard work and dedication pay dividends on the court but the right system needs to be in order as well, a system that gives players the confidence to play fast, take shots and trust each other.
It seems this metaphorical train of small ball is moving forward and gaining speed, welcoming those, who believe in the system enough, to be willing to jump from the safety of their roots. It’s clear the 49ers need to find a little more depth at the center position, either through offseason recruiting or other avenues. But basketball is a progressive sport, always changing, and Charlotte has the tools to adapt in this new climate and, better yet, be successful doing so.