3-on-3 basketball is likely coming to the Olympics, and it's far more than just a gimmick

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Belgium and Russia compete in the 3×3 Basketball European Championships in Azerbaijan in 2015. (Getty)
Belgium and Russia compete in the 3×3 Basketball European Championships in Azerbaijan in 2015. (Getty)

The International Olympic Committee executive board will meet next week to vote on the inclusion of more than 60 potential new events in the 2020 Games. An “expected favorite” among the 60-plus possibilities, according to the Associated Press? Street basketball.

The 2020 Summer Olympics will include a full 5-on-5 basketball competition as usual, but 3-on-3 hoops appears set to make its Olympic debut. It could be confirmed next Friday as one of several competitions that will be added to the Olympic program.

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And while this might seem like an IOC gimmick, in reality, the truncated version of basketball is anything but.

Three-a-side basketball is actually an internationally recognized game that is overseen by FIBA, the same international basketball governing body that organizes the hoops version of the World Cup and other international competitions. Officially known as 3×3 basketball, it has its own world cup that tips off in Nantes, France, on June 17 of this year.

The rules are pretty similar to the ones you’d play by at your local park on a Saturday afternoon. Scoring goes by 1s and 2s rather than by 2s and 3s. Teams play to 21, or until 10 minutes have elapsed. And the playing court features only one basket, meaning teams must take the ball back behind the 3-point arc after an opponent miss.

But there are some differences between pick-up ball and the official version of the game. There’s a 12-second shot clock. There are free throws — one for a shooting foul inside the arc, two for a shooting foul behind the arc. And after a made basket, there’s no make-it-take-it rule; play doesn’t stop; it’s continuous, with the team that conceded the basket either passing or dribbling the ball back to the 3-point arc and immediately initiating its own offensive possession.

Below is a short version of the rules. The full rulebook can be found here.


FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann made it clear that the 3-on-3 version of the game is significantly different from the 5-on-5 version. “It’s a different skill set,” he said. “It’s really a 10-minute sprint, no coach, so you need to take the right decisions.”

Here’s video from the gold medal match at the 2016 World Championships for a look at how the game is played:

There are a lot of unanswered questions with regards to 3×3 basketball’s place on the Olympic program. Chief among them: Who would the athletes be? Would NBA players that aren’t on 5-on-5 Olympic rosters be eligible for the 3-on-3 competition? Would they even want to play 3-on-3?

Most countries already have players that are familiar with 3×3 hoops. For example, the U.S. will compete at the 3×3 world cup later this month with a four-man team of Zahir Carrington, Damon Huffman, Dan Mavraides and Craig Moore. All four played college ball — at Lehigh, Brown, Princeton and Northwestern, respectively — but none ever played a minute in the NBA. That four-man squad qualified for the world cup by winning the USA Basketball Men’s 3×3 National Tournament in April.

But surely the skill set required for 3-on-3 basketball isn’t too distinct from the one required for 5-on-5 basketball. NBA players — or, for that matter, D-Leaguers or Euroleague stars — would surely dominate any team set to compete at this month’s world cup. So will USA Basketball call in ringers from the NBA for the Olympics in 2020? Or will it stick with players like the four going to the world cup?

Whoever the players are, it’s tough to argue with more hoops at the Olympics. And heck, the 10 minutes of non-stop action might be an intriguing alternative to the stop-start slogs that many NBA games have become.


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