The NBA 3-Point Line: Distance & History

3-point line distance

  • NBA 3-Point Line distance: 23 feet 9 inches (7.24 m)
  • College (NCAA): 20 feet 9 inches (6.32 m)
  • High School/Middle School: 19 feet 9 inches (6.02 m)
  • WNBA: 22 feet 2 inches (6.75 m)
  • Europe (FIBA): 22 feet 2 inches (6.75 m)

When was the 3-point line invented/introduced?

Basketball is continuously changing for the better. The best proof for this is modern basketball where the 3-point shot became the primary offensive weapon. The NBA introduced the three-point line in the 79/80 season, but it originally came from the concurrent ABA league who added the three-point shot in 1967.

At the time, the 3-pointer would make the crowd jump to their feet, going crazy. It was like a poster dunk or a winning shot today. And you wouldn’t believe it, but most of the players and coaches in the NBA were against introducing the 3-point shot to the NBA. They thought of it as a circus shot. You’ll understand why in a moment.

The players and coaches hated the idea in the beginning

The thing was that the coaches back then were not very fond of this new rule and they used it just when their team was losing big, and the 2-point plays were just not enough.

Before the three-point line, the tactics and plays were utterly different, and most of the action was going on around a hoop, in the key (the paint).

So the two things had to change:

  • Team’s tactics and strategy
  • Players’ mindset, drills, and training

At first, only the rules have changed, but later it became clear that the 3-point line is going to bring many changes, directly or indirectly.

For example, in January of 1990, the New York Knicks player Trent Tucker scored a winning three-point shot after he caught the inbound pass 0.1 seconds before the end of the regular time.

It was clear that something was wrong. It was impossible to shot the ball within 0,1 seconds, and in the fall of 1990, the league introduced a new Trent Tucker Rule that said that it needs to be at least 0.3 seconds on the shot clock to attempt a shot.

The first shooters from the distance

But even after so many negative comments about the new rule, the three-point shot was introduced in the NBA in the season 1979/1980. The first player ever who hit the three-pointer was Chris Ford from Boston Celtics in October of 1979. He also had the second best 3-point shot percentage at the end of that season.

The best 3-pt shooters in the NBA at that time were the ones who already played with this rule in the ABA league, so they previously practiced it and could easily score. But even they had only around three attempts per game. The man who needs no introduction, the multiple MVP of the league and one of the best 3-pt shooter ever, Larry Bird, in his best seasons was also making around 3 three-point shots per game.

For the comparison, the best shooter in the NBA right now, Stephen Curry, has almost ten attempts per game in the 2017/2018 season.
But it’s easy to understand why. The game was just different. It was focused on centers and getting the ball into the paint. And the shooting was mostly going on around the free throw line distance.

To understand how important the three-point shot has become, let’s look at more numbers of the former MVP of the league, Steph Curry. In his record season 2015/2016, he made 402 treys – the all-time season best. If that’s not impressive enough, you should look at some numbers from 30 years ago, when this rule was still fresh. From the season 1979/1980 until the season 1985/1986, Golden State Warriors made less 3-point shots than Steph in his record season! We’re talking about a total of over 570 games.

How did the three-point shot become so popular?

The NBA worked on making the three-point shot more popular. One of the key things they did was introducing the 3-point contest in The All-Star Weekend.

But the league was still struggling with accepting the 3-pt shot as the part of the game. So in the 1994/1995 season, the NBA decided to move the distance from 23 feet 9 inches to 22 feet 1 ¾ inch.

The reasons were less and fewer points, the defense that was on a verge to fight, and the players just had a hard time getting to the hoop. This change, although the time will show that it was a mistake, affected the players’ mindset. They started shooting more treys because they wanted to fix their percentages and scoring, even the centers, so the number of attempts increased to almost 17 attempts per game (before that it was around 10). It was an exceptional improvement, and the green light for the league to change the distance again.

After three years and two seasons, in the 1996/1997 season, the three-point distance was back to original 23 feet 9 inches. The reason for this was that the players with time became more skilled and physically capable of guarding their man and stealing the possible returning pass for the 3-pointer. In short, the basketball court became too small.

But this new/old distance didn’t frighten anyone. It was the beginning of the new era, and the number of 3-pt shots grew with every season.

The best shooters ever (for now)

As the popularity of the 3-pt shot grew, there were more and more players that relied mostly on treys. We’re talking about the names like Reggie Miller, Glen Rice, Steve Kerr, John Starks… They all had their style of game, but their primary weapon was a three-pointer.

In the 1995 Playoffs, Reggie Miller silenced the Madison Square Garden crowd with 8 points in just 9 seconds with 2 three-pointers. We remember John Paxon who made a 3-pointer to win a third consecutive title for the Bulls, but we also remember John Starks who missed 11 shots from a distance in the seventh game of 1994 finals after he made more than 200 treys in the same season. Ray Allen will soon become the best 3-pt shooter of all time (at least until Curry showed up) with 2973 threes made. Insane.

Stephen Curry, by the way, today holds the record for most threes made in a game (13). Also, he holds the record for most threes made in a single season (402, and even the second and the third place – 324, 286), and for most three-pointers attempted in a season. He is tied on the first place with Michael Adams for most seasons leading the league in threes (5).

Mentioning Curry, we’re slowly getting to a new period when the threes will become the main offensive weapon of most NBA teams. In the last five years, the average number of made three-pointers is over 22, with no signs of slowing down. It’s –interesting- that the percentages are also growing, while the 2-point shot percentage is constant (around 48 percent). Right now, the average 3-pt shot percentage is about 36 percent, which makes it clear why the number of attempts is constantly increasing.

The 4-point shot

And now we can go back to the story about the four-point shot that is advocated by the very top of the NBA. It would also be necessary to expand the basketball court, set new lines, introduce new tactics both in defense and in the offense. First of all, the public must be convinced of the efficacy of this (possible) decision. Nearly 40 years ago, the three-point line won. Will the four-point line become a reality, it remains to be seen.

One of the best shooters ever and a Boston Celtics legend, Larry Bird, said that it would be good to think about setting up a four-point line, and the NBA board has commented it as a good idea. This, as well as the idea of a three-point line nearly 40 years ago, has produced very negative comments by most experts.

Even some of the former quality shooters, such as the current coach of the Golden State Warriors Steve Kerr or legend of Indiana Pacers Reggie Miller, said they should not even think about it because there will be a lot of bad shots that will spoil the game itself. It is clear that for this kind of change the NBA league, and the world, are still not ready. Who is right is hard to say. Still, it is interesting that even for the introduction of the three-point line there was great fear as well as the rejection of the same, and now it has become the favorite shot of most players.

Wrapping up

What to expect in the future? As we can see, more and more shots beyond the 3-point line are a reality. Modern centers have also begun to show the tendency to shoot from a distance, which suggests that this trend is stable or going up. In the beginning, it was only a circus shot to get the crowd going. The coaches hated it, and players rarely used it. With time, it has become the most powerful weapon in basketball.

If the introduction of the shot clock was the most significant rule that was changed in the NBA, introducing the three-point shot was probably the second most important. If the shot clock limited the teams that were keeping the possession of the ball to keep the score, so the 3-pt line with time helped shorter players to show all their skills in the league that was ruled by centers.