To three or not to three? Chicago junior college teams grapple with rising basketball trend

Olive-Harvey College guard JaShawn Anderson defends Malcolm X College’s Dekwan Turner beyond the three-point line during Olive-Harvey’s 73-72 win on Feb. 1 in Chicago. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

By Andrew Polk
Medill Reports

From youth leagues to the NBA, the three-point shot is a game changer in basketball.

Stars such as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors have altered the game with their stunning shooting range and efficiency, making three-pointers seem like wide-open layups. The NBA has caught the three-point bug — all 30 teams are averaging over 30 three-point shot attempts per game for the first time in league history.

As the professionals continue to fire away from beyond the arc, the City Colleges of Chicago basketball teams are seeking a different approach during the 2021-22 season. CCC teams have averaged only 16.6 three-pointers per game this season, down from over 20 per game during the previous three seasons and the lowest average since 2016-17. The recent reduction in threes is part of a leaguewide effort to take higher quality, close-in shots and buck the nationwide trend of relying on three-point shots to win games.

One positive of the decrease in three-point shot attempts is proving to be an increase in shooting percentage. The six teams in Chicago’s junior college league are shooting at a 32.08% rate this season, the highest three-point percentage over the league’s last nine seasons.

Olive-Harvey College head coach Brandon Moore has seen the three-point wave sweep across the junior college circuit during his 16 seasons coaching in Chicago. During Moore’s playing days in the late-1990s, only a select few players on each roster attempted three-pointers. Now, nearly every player has the long-range shot in their arsenal.

“A three-pointer has become a very makeable shot for people,” Moore said. “I come from a time when the only people that could make threes could shoot threes. Now everybody shoots threes.”

Malcolm X College guard Brion Williams lines up a three-point shot against Olive-Harvey College on Feb. 1 in Chicago. Malcolm X attempted 13 three-pointers in the 40-minute contest, making five of them. (Andrew Polk/Medill)

During Moore’s first year as head coach in the 2015-16 season, Olive-Harvey jacked up over 23 three-pointers per game. This year, they average under 14 per contest. Quality and personnel are key factors in the team’s shift away from the three-point line.

“My goal is to take the best shot possible every possession, whether it’s a three or a dunk,” Moore said. “I haven’t had the shooters that I’ve had in the past lately. Instead of just shooting threes because that’s the norm, I’m going to play to the strengths of who I have.”

Similar sentiments were shared by Wilbur Wright College’s first-year coach Carlos Thomas, who took over a team that averaged 26.61 three-point shots per game over the last two seasons. This year, Wright attempts only 10.33 per game, the lowest of any Chicago junior college team since 2016-17.

“I’m more focused on the quality of the shot,” Thomas said. “I don’t have the high quality three-point shooters across the board that I would like to shoot a high volume of threes, so we need to play to our strength.”

Both coaches credit defenses across the league for this season’s decline in three-point attempts and the shift in offensive strategy. At Olive-Harvey, Moore teaches his players to defend with their heels on the three-point line, forcing shooters to take deeper shots. Thomas takes a more analytical approach at Wright to defend the perimeter.

“We try to identify who the best shooter is, based on the percentages,” Thomas said. “We want to get a hand up on every shot that player takes, and we don’t want that player to take wide-open shots.”

Even though the City Colleges of Chicago have found more success shooting fewer three-pointers this season, the deep shot is here to stay in basketball. Both Moore and Thomas expect junior college coaches to target more three-point shooters in upcoming recruiting cycles as the game continues to evolve.

“The evolution of the game is the three-point shot. The game is not as physical, and there’s not as much contact,” Moore said. “I think you’re going to see the three-point shot continue to grow even farther than it is right now.”

Andrew Polk is a sports reporter at Medill from San Mateo, Calif. You can follow him on Twitter at @apolk17.