Basketball junkies have their eyes set on the summer of 2020. That’s the next time we’ll get to see the highest level of international hoops, as teams from all over the world will descend on Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Still, basketball at the Olympics has been a bit boring in recent years — on both the men’s and women’s sides, the United States tends to dominate the proceedings.
That may be the case again in 2020. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the United States will be able to dominate in the newest Olympic basketball endeavor: 3×3. Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Chris Mullin sees, at the very least, a way for the playing field to be leveled, with 3×3 serving as a way to get “back to the purest, most fundamental form of basketball.”
“Skill level becomes a little more emphasized than just the size, strength, speed,” Mullin said. “There’s a way to combat that which happens a little bit in five-on-five. But in 3×3, taking those other two players out, eliminates weak side defenders. And it also emphasizes if you’re left open, you can’t shoot, you are going to be exposed. So it’s probably more of a well-rounded basketball player from a skill standpoint as opposed to just give me the tallest, longest guy that can jump the highest.”
Mullin is prominently involved in 3×3. The former St. John’s coach serves as an ambassador for the sport, and is part of Thursday’s announcement between USA Basketball and Red Bull. The two sides revealed a partnership, one that looks to “build an elite pathway for men’s and women’s players who have a goal of competing at the highest levels of 3×3 basketball.”
The uniqueness of 3×3 at the Olympic level is twofold. One is in the rules: It’s a game to 21 by 1s and 2s, but there’s a 10-minute clock with a 12-second shot clock, and if neither squad hits the 21-point mark by the time the game clock hits zero, the squad with the most points wins. The other is that countries don’t necessarily punch their tickets by winning qualification tournaments. Instead, a system exists that incentivizes playing in as many tournaments as possible, one in which points are accrued to increase your country’s standing internationally.
“We and all the national federations are going to get points based on 100 people from our country playing in this three on three ecosystems,” says Jim Tooley, the CEO of USA Basketball. “And so we don’t know if that is going to be 20 million points, 30 million points, but we are going to have to play in a lot of events to earn points so that we qualify.”
When scanning the international rankings for both men and women, the United States is not in its usual position at the very top. The men’s squad sits at in eighth, while the women are in 33rd. It is a tad antithetical to the basketball exceptionalism that exists stateside, but that’s where Red Bull comes in.