The Science of The Three Pointer -

It can make or break you; with seconds left in a basketball game, a three-point shot from behind the arc can be your last hope at extending the game into overtime – or better yet, stealing a win from the other team. Let’s not forget the importance of the 'trey' during the game, however establishing a big lead is always easier when you nail a slate of 3s from downtown. Here’s a look at the science behind making the big three-ball.

Rim… rim… rim… rim… and in! Where were you on May 12, 2019?

Who among us Canadians will ever forget Kawhi Leonard’s magical last-second three-pointer to win Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals for the Toronto Raptors against the Philadelphia 76ers? In one long-range rainbow shot, after which Leonard himself went sprawling, the Raptors cemented one more step in their iconic season wherein they went onto win the NBA championship. Had Kawhi missed the shot, who knows what could have happened, as that game would have been sent into overtime. It’s therefore not hard to appreciate that the importance of the three-ball cannot be understated. When you think about it, a trey accounts for 50 percent more points than a two-ball, and if you happen to get fouled in the act of shooting you actually have a chance at a four-pointer. So now that we understand that this very important shot can be the difference between winning and losing, let’s take a look at how the job gets done. Although different levels of basketball use different distances for their three-point arcs, one thing is certain: making a 3 successfully takes strength, skill and brain power.


According to Dr. Gintaras Duda, professor of physics at Creighton University (Kansas), you have no hope of making a three-point shot if your release angle is lower than 33 degrees. This is known as shooting a “brick”, or a flat ball, which from behind the three-point arc cannot possibly enter over the rim and down into the net. In practical terms, the three-point line in the NBA is a distance of 22 feet from the basket in the corners, and 23.75 feet at the top of the key. Many successful NBA three-point shooters opt to use a release angle of 45 to 48 degrees to drain it from long range; such angles ensure that the weight of the ball will not cause it to drop below the threshold at which the ball can enter the basket.


You may have observed that pro basketball players tend to put a lot of backspin on the ball by flicking their fingers at the release point. What’s the reason for this action, as opposed to simply pushing the ball forward? In simple terms, backspin increases your chances of making a three-pointer. By law of physics, backspin will cause the ball to travel much slower, which in turn leads to a softer bounce or rebound if the shot first hits the backboard or part of the rim. Ultimately, the ball will be more receptive to falling in the drain and the three points will be yours. On the opposite extreme, a long shot with no spin at all – essentially a “knuckle ball” will have virtually no chance of falling in the basket after first contacting the board or rim.

13.76 FEET

This is the average apex (peak height) for All-Star, Ray Allen’s three-point shots, who just happens to be one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history. Bearing in mind that if you make 40 percent of trey attempts, you’re doing very well, you can see that strength plays a big part in launching the ball not only far, but also high over net level. A player like Allen relies consistently on his lower body muscles to propel the ball forcefully toward the rim. If you simply stood flat-footed and attempted to use your arms only, you’d usually fall short of the mark – and also experience wild inconsistency. By pressing into the floor and flexing at your knees, you develop full-body muscle memory, which will make your shots strong and consistent. Don’t be afraid to leave your feet either – after all the trey is the king of the jump shots!

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