Five minutes into the WNBA’s annual All-Star Game, 6-foot-6 Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones casually dribbled across midcourt, took two dribbles toward the left-wing, squared up inside of a circle designated as a 4-point shot, bent her knees slightly, and released a shot from a distance that rolled around the rim before dropping through the net. She was awarded four points and while it wasn’t seen as momentous as Sylvia Fowles’s breakaway dunk, it was symbolic.
For their most recent All-Star Game, the WNBA instituted two circles at each end of the court, 28 feet from the rim. But it shows the 4-point shot is matriculating its way up the ladder, much like the midseason tournament has moved from the G League to the WNBA and hopefully next into the NBA’s bloodstream.
The 4-point bucket has crept its way into the national hoops discourse as more than just a novelty idea over the past decade. It’s only a matter of time until it gravitates from the All-Star Game experiment to the WNBA and NBA mainstay. After all, the 3-point line first gained prominence in the revolutionary ABA’s petri dish and The Las Vegas Aces are a test run for the NBA expanding into Sin City sometime this decade. The WNBA also pioneered the midseason tournament when the NBA was too chicken to tinker with their regular season first.
The NBA is afraid of changes. It introduced a new synthetic basketball in 2006 that almost flayed the skin off of its guards’ hands. If you think we’re seeing alien shooters now, just wait until the Steph Curry disciples can splash from 30 feet for extra points.
The fear of instituting a 4-point arc is that shooters will start hunting those shots and games will revert to a symphony of long-distance clanks making rhyme music interrupted by the occasional make.
NBA front offices and coaching mathletes who understand the calculus of offense know this won’t be the case, understand its usefulness in tight games, and how it could open up the floor for more drives into the paint. However, it will further separate the competent 3-point shooters from the true marksman. It’s a delicate balance. So where would a 4-point shot be placed to minimize logo shot chucking from bad shooters?
Two years ago, Hunter Zhang of the Northwestern Sports Analytics Group gathered data from the 2017-2019 NBA seasons to determine the expected shot value for 2-pointers and 3-pointers over that period.
Utilizing the Points Per Shot metric, which measures the efficiency of a player’s shot and (Total Points of Player)/(Field Goal Attempts of Player) to measure the expected shot value of different types of shots, Zhang’s study found that the expected shot value for 2-pointers, including mid-range shots, dunks, and points in the paint, is 0.9834. Every 3-pointer’s expected shot value was 1.0566.
Zhang thought the 4-pointer should be at a distance where its expected value was below that of the average 3-point shot to discourage an overreliance on the 4-pointer. From 29 feet, Zhang’s methodology found that the expected value of four-pointers was 0.9229 which equates to a little below the expected value of a triple and the expected value of a 2-pointer. However, it’s also an extra point. From 30 feet away, the expected value of shots decreased to 0.693.
Hat type to Northwestern Sports Analytics Group:
For the purposes of an All-Star Game, the two circles worked, but in a competitive regular-season game format, defenders could only defend those two conspicuous spots on the floor. A hypothetical 4-point line would have to be an arc approximately 30 feet away from the bucket. Jones’ shot should still have been worth 3-points. Certain shooters like Curry, Damian Lillard and Trae Young would become more effective, but overall, 4-pointers would actually be a high-stakes gamble for offenses.
The 3-point era has unlocked the floor and introduced new brands of basketball, similar to how the Wright Brothers flying opened the possibility to find new worlds. For two decades, shooters have been gravitating even further from the basket. Curry and the Warriors launched the NBA towards the next frontier in the form of a 4-point line, especially one from 30 feet away. This week, NASA released images of the deepest view into space yet, courtesy of the Webb Space Telescope. The WNBA gave us a peek into the future of the NBA.
Both leagues should get ready to lead basketball’s next evolution.