The BIG3 Youth Movement
By John Krolik, @krolikjohn June 20, 2022
When the BIG3 started, the minimum age limit was 30, and it was seen as a last stop for retired NBA players. In 2017, the BIG3’s inaugural season, Bleacher Report’s Bonsu Thompson’s article on the BIG3 had the headline Bad Knees and Big Dreams: Inside the NBA Last Chance League.
In 2022, as the BIG3 prepares to enter its fifth season, things have changed. No professional sports league is growing faster than the BIG3, and the rosters reflect that. When the league first started, people may have tuned in for the names. They ended up staying for the games. Fans watching the BIG3 for the first time in 2022 will likely have the same experience.
There was once a notion among fans that FIREBALL3 would have the feel of a pick-up game, or an All-Star game, or would just be a place where NBA legends came to be put out to stud.
That was quickly dispelled once the games actually started. This is an extremely competitive hoops league with a format you won’t find played at this level anywhere else on the planet. (FIBA 3×3 is a fantastic league, and the Aliens are hoping to find success this year with a trio of players who are veterans of that format, but there are fast differences between that league and FIREBALL3.)
To be clear, NBA veterans are still a major component of the BIG3. After all, the three players that have won the BIG3 MVP award (Rashard Lewis, Corey Maggette, and Joe Johnson, who has won the last two MVP awards) have a combined 47 years of NBA experience. The most intriguing BIG3 rookie this season, Michael Beasley, has 11 years of NBA experience under his belt. NBA veterans have been, and will continue to be, key parts of the BIG3.
However, the league has grown, gotten more talented, and thus gotten more competitive every year. To return to an earlier point, it’s not about your name, it’s about your game. A distinguished NBA career doesn’t guarantee success in the BIG3. In fact, it doesn’t even guarantee a roster spot. Everyone on a BIG3 roster has proven to their Coach and Captain that they have the energy, versatility, and skills to meet the unique demands of FIREBALL3. If you can’t meet the demands of the team on the front of your jersey, it doesn’t matter what the name on the back is.
The BIG3’s minimum age has gone from 30 to 22. You’ll see as many players who have grinded for years and years overseas and in the G-League as players coming straight to the BIG3 straight out of the NBA. In fact, the BIG3 has more than a few players who are members of the “four-continent club” – guys who have played professionally in the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. (There are also now guys entering the league from African professional leagues, and India might not be too far in the distance. We’re not holding our breath on getting players from pro leagues in Antarctica.) Once upon a time, a spot on a BIG3 roster may have been given based on past NBA exploits. Now, we can say with confidence that all 60 of the BIG3 roster spots have been earned.
What does having a league full of younger players mean? Let’s start with the obvious. As more and more younger players enter the league, we’re going to see more things on the court that a veteran’s body simply won’t allow them to do. That means a 2-on-1 situation that would have once ended with a bounce pass leading to a contested layup will become an alley-oop over the top. A drive that ends with a perimeter player trying to loft a runner over a big man turns into him flying past him and getting to the rim by hanging in the air and using what the kids call a “jelly layup.” A big man out of position who would have been able to recover and contest a shot in previous seasons might now find himself on a poster. Conversely, what would once have been a simple layup might end up getting sent into the third row by a big who gets off the ground higher and faster than the ones who have previously patrolled the lanes.
The coming youth movement won’t just change the way the game is played due to an increase in athleticism. Basketball evolves faster than any other sport, and it’s the younger players who reap the benefits of that evolution.
Before Steve Nash, the “wrong-footed” layup, where you scoop the ball right in without even gathering it with two hands, was rarely seen. Same with the “euro-step” and the step-back. Now every guard worth their salt has those moves in their proverbial bag. Even the Shammgod, once considered a purely flashy move to be done only in the rarest of circumstances, has been shown to be effective in the course of an average possession by players like Manu Ginobili and Chris Paul.
In fact, Many of the players who changed the game can be seen on a BIG3 sideline or court – George Gervin showed the world the power of the Finger Roll. Dr. J showed the benefits of playing above the rim. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knew how effective the pull-up three could be decades before the rest of the league caught up. Inaugural league MVP showed off the power of the “stretch four.” All of these things have been assimilated into the game and raised the ability of the players who came after the men who blazed the trail for them.
As players have gotten younger, the area they pose a danger to the defense from has gotten larger and larger. Larry Bird’s career-high for three-pointers made in a season was 90. Last season, 130 players made 91 or more shots from beyond the arc. “Curry range” didn’t really become a thing until the 2012-13 season, when Steph broke out and made a league-high 272 threes. Before then, pulling up from 30 feet with 15 seconds on the shot clock was a one-way ticket to the bench. 12-year olds who decided to model their game after Curry’s in 2012 would be just 22 now.
As more and more players who grew up shooting from way outside enter the league, the more the floor will stretch and strategies will evolve, especially since FIREBALL3 happens to be the league with a four-point shot.
The new generation is coming. In the 2022 Draft, five of the players taken were under 30. There’s the undersized but relentless big man Stacy Davis. The defensive agent of chaos Kuran Iverson. The skywalking Adam Drexler, who happens to be the son of League Commissioner Clyde Drexler. High-post genius TJ Cline, whose mother Nancy Lieberman will be coaching him this season. KJ McDaniels, whose athleticism and length allows his team to switch on defense the way other teams can’t. New Aliens Co-Captain Karlis Lasmanis, a 28-year old veteran of FIBA 3×3, will be a part of the league’s youth movement as well as its budding international movement.
And of course, there are already some young players making noise in the league. 2019 #1 overall pick Isaiah Austin stands at 7’1, has the skills of a wing, and is still only 28 years old, and could be a foundational player for Enemies for years to come. The 26-year old Isaiah Briscoe won the Championship with Trilogy last season and has taken credit on social media for being the one to start the youth movement in the BIG3. FIREBALL3 was already the most dynamic format of hoops being played. It’s hard not to get excited about what will happen as the league continues to get younger and younger players who have what it takes to compete in FIREBALL3.