During his 47 years on this planet, Manute Bol was known for a lot of things: Being an outspoken advocate for human rights in his native South Sudan, blocking a ton of shots during his 10-year NBA career, and, of course, being stupid tall. But on March 3, 1993, the 7’7” center did something nobody expected—he knocked down six threes. In a single half.
Bol, who tragically passed away in 2010, attempted 12 shots from beyond the arc in just 24 minutes that evening, using an unorthodox catapult shooting method developed several years earlier under the direction of innovative head coach Don Nelson. At the time he was the only seven-footer ever to attempt double-digit threes in a single game, and it wasn’t until Raptors big man Andrea Bargnani took 10 in a February 2008 win over the Knicks that it happened again. Fast forward eight years, and it’s something that’s already happened twice through the first two months of the 2016-17 season, with Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns each doing so once.
Today, many of the league’s big men are being asked to extend their range out to the three-point line in order to space the floor, draw opposing shot-blockers out of the paint, and facilitate a more free-flowing offensive style of play. But when Don Nelson began experimenting with Bol beyond the arc three decades ago while coaching the Golden State Warriors, he did so for very different reasons. Primarily, Nelson wished to decrease the distance the gangly Bol had to cover to get back to his own rim on defense. Secondarily, it allowed Bol’s teammates, especially Chris Mullen and Mitch Richmond, to better operate offensively without him clogging up the lane. And finally, it served as a nice reward for a defensive-minded player who regularly went nights not attempting a single shot.
Many laughed at Nelson’s decision to unleash Bol in that way, calling it a gimmick and an embarrassment to the sport. Unfortunately, they may have been right. That season, Bol converted just 22.0 percent of his 91 three-point attempts. But the Warriors still went 43-39, earning their highest win total in seven years while Bol led the NBA in blocks at 4.3 per game in just 22.1 minutes. But whether or not Bol was a worthy pioneer of the seven-foot sharpshooter, the league has certainly moved in that direction since he made his first three in 1988.
This season, there are 12 seven-footers currently on pace to surpass Bol’s 91-attempt mark from 1988-89, with half (Lopez, Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Kaminsky, and Marc Gasol) having already reached it. One of the most noteworthy names of that dozen is Sixers center Joel Embiid, the 7’2”, 280-pound shoo-in for Rookie of the Year whose inspired play on the court is surpassed only by his prolific social media use off of it. Embiid, who’s made 25 of his 62 threes this season (40.3 percent), is one of four seven-footers shooting over 40 percent from long range this season.
of the 12 seven-footers on pace to eclipse 100 three-point attempts this season, half are rookies or sophomores.
Unlike the other seven-footers lighting it up from distance this season, Embiid honed his shooting craft more by necessity than by choice. While rehabbing from back-to-back season-ending foot surgeries, the 22-year-old center spent countless hours in the gym putting up thousands of jump shots from all over the court, including beyond the arc.
“During my time off, that was all I could do,” Embiid told Complex Sports earlier this month. “I’ve always said to myself that I want to be a complete player. And later in my career, I want to be able to play [small forward], have an inside-outside game.”
A premier shot-blocker, rebounder, and post scorer, Embiid probably won’t get much run at the three under Sixers head coach Brett Brown. But during his 12 years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Brown saw first-hand the success teams like the Mavericks had with Dirk Nowitzki and, to a lesser extent, the Thunder with Serge Ibaka and how they were able to stretch their big men beyond the arc. He wants to replicate that style of play with Embiid.
“Analytics comes in in a big way, like talk about the efficient shot…and I think that’s why we’re seeing it more, ” said Brown, whose experience working under Gregg Popovich and R. C. Buford taught him the value of melding traditional coaching principles with statistical analysis. “When you talk now about how it affects [teams] defensively, it does in major ways…. You’re noticing teams having to late switch onto Joel because of his ability to shoot threes. So it changes, because you’ve got a guard going out on a big, and then the small is out on the big on the perimeter. It’s bothersome, and I think we’re going to see it more, and more, and more.”
Brown remembers Don Nelson’s experimentation with Manute Bol in the late-'80s, but what stands out more vividly in his mind was Nelson’s eight seasons coaching the Mavericks from 1997 to 2005. Under Nelson’s direction, Dallas regularly finished near the top in the league in offensive rating and three-point conversion rate, and Dirk Nowitzki was largely to thank for that. During his years with Nelson, the German big man amassed almost four times as many made threes (758) than the rest of the league’s seven-footers combined, converting an impressive 37.5 percent of his attempts during that span.
It wasn’t until Italian big man Andrea Bargnani entered the league in 2006 that another player came close to approaching Nowitzki’s prolific output from beyond the arc. And while the 7’1” Bargnani fell well short of the sky-high expectations that made the first-overall pick by the Raptors a decade ago, his three-point shooting helped Toronto transform into a top-five offense once he hit his (short-lived) prime. But Bargnani’s deficiencies in basically every facet of the game outside of shooting made him a liability on the floor, and many began to believe Nowitzki was a once-in-a-generation exception to the rule rather than a model for teams to follow.
It’s only in the past couple years that the NBA community has began to accept the three-point shooting big man, and we have Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis to thank for that. Coming out of the Spanish ACB, the 7’3” center out of Latvia was critiqued by many analysts heading into the 2015 Draft as too weak to compete in the NBA. And even if he filled out his lanky frame, many doubted that a player his size could make a significant impact firing away from the perimeter. Fast-forward a year-and-a-half, and Porzingis is seen as a perennial All-Star and cornerstone player for New York.
And thanks in large part to Porzingis’ success, the number of centers being asked to stretch their games out beyond the arc this season has expanded tremendously. This year, 17 centers are attempting at least one three per game, while just 10 did so in 2015-16. And six of those 17 bigs are attempting more than four per game, a mark no center in the league, including Porzingis, reached last year. A big reason for this disparity has been the near-elimination of the “long two”—shots taken close to but not beyond the three-point line. This is a change that began to sweep through the league several years ago, but for whatever reason it’s only really hit the center position this past season. Just take a look below at the outside-the-paint shot charts of the 10 seven-footers who attempted the most threes last season compared to the ones who are doing so this season…
NBA fans should only expect this trend to continue to grow, because of the 12 seven-footers on pace to eclipse 100 attempts this season, half are rookies or sophomores. And looking ahead to future draft classes, the league should see the addition of several more convention-bending seven-footers, from Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen to current high school junior Bol Bol, the unsurprisingly massive and rangy son of the late Manute. The elder Bol’s six made threes on March 3, 1993 have yet to be surpassed by another seven-footer, but at this rate it won’t take long before he’s knocked off his perch.