3x3 basketball: How different is it from the traditional version?

·5-min read

SINGAPORE — Basketball is one of the most popular sports, enjoyed by millions around the world. Whether it is a simple shootaround among friends, or it is a high-paced and high-stakes team competition, there are many formal and informal ways fans can enjoy the sport.

Traditionally, 5-on-5 basketball represents the standard for elite competition, with players not only pitting their skillsets against one another, but also their teamwork in executing tactics and movements to help their teammates get the best chance to score.

But since the 2000s, there has been a new format that is fast gaining acceptance as an elite competition - 3x3 basketball.

Drawing inspiration from urban street basketball, this format features three-player teams against one another in a half-court and one-backboard setup. With less emphasis on tactics and fast breaks, it all boils down to a battle of individual skills, making 3x3 basketball a stylish, quick-paced alternative to the traditional 5-on-5 version.

The format made its worldwide competitive debut during the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010, and in 2021, became a medal competition at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, solidifying its acceptance into mainstream sports.

With Singapore hosting the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup at the Marina Bay Sands Event Plaza this week, Yahoo News Singapore asks the Singapore national team players on how different is their approach to training and playing the 3x3 format, and the organisers on how different the setup is.

The Singapore men's and women's teams participating at the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup basketball tournament. (PHOTOS: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore)
The Singapore men's and women's teams participating at the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup basketball tournament. (PHOTOS: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore)

Training emphasises agility, strength and conditioning

With less emphasis on tactical work, training for competitive 3x3 basketball puts more focus on agility, strength and conditioning, and shooting drills.

And as there are no more positions such as guard, forward and centre in the 3x3 format, every player has to be able to shoot, rebound and pass at an elite level.

"The courts are smaller, so we need to train the players think quicker, play tougher and develop all types of skills," said Ho Yoke Mei, head coach of the national women's team.

"We also emphasise communication, which is important on the court especially on defence."

The 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore was the first 3x3 basketball was featured in a worldwide competition.
The 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore was the first 3x3 basketball was featured in a worldwide competition. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Singapore Sports Council / Action Images)

Games are more intense than 5-on-5 basketball

A common misconception of 3x3 basketball is that, because it is played on a half court, players do not have to run up and down the full court, and so do not need as much endurance to play in the new format.

Not so, as men's national player Mah Jun Hao says that, with all the basketball action condensed into the small half court, and the implementation of a 12-second shot clock instead of 24 seconds for traditional basketball - the intensity of the game goes up dramatically.

"In five-on-five, you can pass the ball, run more plays and there's time for you to catch your breath," the 19-year-old said. "In 3x3 basketball, it is non-stop action for 10 minutes, and so you have to make sure you're able to keep up with the intensity of the game."

Another major challenge in playing 3x3 basketball is in defence. With players preoccupied with guarding their counterparts, there is no help defence from teammates such as double- or triple-teaming.

"Once you lose your person, there is no one coming to help you," said national women's team player Pauline Ang. "That means you're on your own, and you have to brush up your one-on-one defensive skills to guard any opponent effectively."

Furthermore, as no coaches are allowed on the sidelines, communication among the players is vital to the team's success on the courts.

The 3x3 basketball men's final between Russia and Latvia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The 3x3 basketball men's final between Russia and Latvia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Reuters/Andrew Boyers)

More flexibility in organising tournaments

With smaller playing courts for 3x3 basketball and the short playing time, tournament organisers are able to fit in more games concurrently, lending a festival-like atmosphere to the proceedings.

"Given that the 3x3 play format is shorter, we have more flexibility to incorporate entertainment elements to add on to a positive spectator experience," said Marcus Tan, Sport Singapore's chief of sport development group and chairman of the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup organising committee.

"Organisers will also have to adapt to the shorter turnaround time between games and prep the court fast enough before the next match begins."

For smaller-built Asian players, 3x3 basketball places less emphasis on physicality and height, and more on agility, speed and skill, making it a good format for Asians to shine.

"A smaller squad size also reduces the need for a wide talent pool, thus closing the gaps between basketball nations," Tan said.

"3x3 has indeed seen growing popularity and success among Asian nations, with a wider range of Asian nations qualifying for FIBA 3x3 World Cups relative to five-on-five tournaments."

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