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In basketball, the right tech can improve your shot

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Between the final weekend of March Madness and the start of the NBA playoffs later this month, it’s an exciting time for basketball fans. Especially for those fans who love hearing the swish sound from a three-point shot. It’s always been the most valuable way to score, while holding the most risk since it requires the most distance away from the hoop.

But according to Basketball Reference, players are taking their chances. So far this NBA season, teams are attempting more three-point shots than ever before; 31.9 attempts are the average per game for this season, more than double the number 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the number of successful shots hasn’t increased nearly that much. But is this a trend? Or the new norm when it comes to shooting hoops?  

Certain NBA players, like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, have become known for making three-point shots. In an interview with Marketplace, Curry spoke about his method for the shot. “I don’t try to think about it too much on the court, I just do what I do,” he said. “I haven’t done the advanced analytics on it, but it does make sense.”

That conversation happened back in 2016, and since then a researcher has done the advanced analytics of three-pointers. Dr. Rachel Marty Pyke is a data scientist with the basketball analytics company Noah Basketball, and a former NCAA athlete herself. Her research explores how players can improve their chances of sinking that three-pointer.

She spoke to Molly Wood about it, and why she thinks three-pointer attempts are a trend that’s going to “stay the court” — for a while. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Molly Wood: What have you come to understand about making three-point shots?

Rachel Marty Pyke: So, we’ve looked at three-pointers in a new, high resolution way, where we can look at how the ball is actually going through the air, so we can understand why players miss. The company I work with is called Noah Basketball and they’ve put this sensor above the basket that’s tracking who’s taking the shot with facial recognition, where the shot is taken from, whether the shot makes it or misses. And then how the shot either makes it or misses. And we can use that to train algorithms to better predict who would be a good shooter in the long run than we could simply with shooting percentage. Which is a really cool advancement, and gives tremendous power to general managers and coaches as they’re selecting players for their roster.

Wood: Which is interesting because, you know, I’m sure that every Golden State Warriors fan would want to tell you that Steph Curry is a magical genius, right? Or that Klay Thompson has a skill that can never be replicated, but what you’re saying is it’s like golf, right? It’s something you can practice. You could really work toward this?

Marty Pyke: You can definitely practice. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but there’s a quantitative goal to get to, for sure.

Wood: Do you feel like managers and coaches will look at this research and say, “we want to invest this time and money into getting players to be better at three-pointers because we get more points out of it”?

Marty Pyke:  Yeah, we’ve seen this tremendous shift over the last decade, or two decades, where players are going from shooting a lot of mid-range shots to shooting many more three-pointers and short twos. Simply because we just have a higher return on points per possession. And no NBA general manager or coach is going to give up those precious points. Everyone’s trying to get that edge.

Wood: What does it mean for fans? On the one hand, people love high-scoring games. But on the other hand, you know, it’s controversial that there are too many attempted and failed three-pointers, and that can ruin the game. What’s your view on that? And whether this trend, you know, will make fans more likely to tune in, and thereby make money for those teams, too?

Marty Pyke: I think there’s an economic benefit for it. Shooting more three pointers speeds up the game, which, as we become a more and more attention-deficit culture, that is a benefit for the NBA. But also, it opens up the lane, so we get more interesting one-on-one game with the open space in the middle of a key. And so, I think all around for players and for fans, it’s really a benefit to the game.

Wood: What made you want to study the three-pointer in this way? Is there an appetite, now, for, you know, kids who are going into college, and they’re trying to become specialists?

Marty Pyke: Yeah, I mean, everyone’s picking up on this trend and they want to be the best three-point shooter. As a collegiate player myself, I loved shooting the three. But I think what really brought about this research was the availability of the tech to measure shots in high resolution. And so, we’ve seen this trend of moving to more and more three-pointers but we’ve never really been able to understand what makes a good three-point shooter, beyond just shooting percentage. And now we can understand why players miss, and we can predict how they will improve. And this merging of artificial intelligence and basketball is a really powerful thing, and really promising for the future of the sport.

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