WHEN TRAE YOUNG buried a deep 3-pointer against the Los Angeles Lakers in mid-November, he didn't hold his follow-through or flash three fingers. No, the Atlanta Hawks rookie guard celebrated by pointing to the court, encouraging Lonzo Ball and the Staples Center crowd to gawk at his shooting range.
As he turned to retreat on defense, Young swept his fingers near the tail of the purple "L" of the Lakers' midcourt logo, more than 30 feet from the hoop. In Los Angeles, he was merely pointing to an anonymous spot on the floor. But if he had been in Atlanta's practice facility, he would've been pointing at something more tangible: the Hawks' "4-point line."
Over the past few years, the NBA has experienced an offensive explosion. And as coaches have sought to keep up with high-efficiency offenses that continue to get smarter and faster thanks to the boom in analytics, they have begun reimagining the court itself.
"I call it 'game-ify,'" Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown says. "We game-ify the gym." He knows that isn't a word (at least not in exactly the way he's using it), but Philadelphia's practice court has been "game-ified," morphology be damned.
Save for the addition of the 3-point line, the official dimensions and lines of an NBA court have hardly changed since 1951. But Brown, like other coaches, has added extra markings, carved out special zones and divvied up the playing surface of the Sixers' practice court -- in some cases down to the inch -- in hopes of teaching his players the best practices for spacing the floor and scoring.
In essence, coaches have created a visual language to communicate with their twenty-something players (the average age in the NBA is 26.5), many of whom grew up listening to audiobooks and looking at e-readers instead of thumbing through paperback novels. "We're constantly trying to educate players quicker and more directly," Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce says.
Much of the "game-ification" process has centered on the 3-point line, which has been a central driver in the NBA's offensive revolution. With the rise of analytics over the past decade, teams have scrutinized their shot location and encouraged players to take 3-pointers and layups while de-emphasizing contested midrange jump shots.
And with the NBA's ongoing emphasis to make players think efficiency and spacing, Brown installed one extra line on the Sixers' practice court in February 2017: a phantom gray 4-point line.
Since then, others have followed suit.
The Chicago Bulls taped a white 4-point line to the floor of the Advocate Center over the summer. Pierce, who was an assistant coach in Philadelphia prior to this season, brought the line south when he was hired to coach the Hawks this offseason. The Brooklyn Nets have also had one since the 2016-17 season.
"We are all thieves," Brown says, smiling slyly and noting that he, too, has stolen precious coaching goods. "It is a copycat league. I look at it as a compliment that other people value that."
To explain how the Hawks' 4-point line -- which is painted onto the floor 5 feet beyond the regular 3-point line -- helps his team, Pierce walks onto the court to physically demonstrate. The condensed version of Pierce's 36-minute explanation, which is punctuated by wild gesticulation, is this: "Spacing changes the whole game."
Atlanta targeted Young out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft lottery, with hopes of building an offense around his long-range shooting and passing skills. Because Young is willing and able to shoot off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point arc, defenders are forced to step out to defend him almost as soon as he crosses half court. Although he already had that range before he joined the Hawks, Young acknowledges that not everybody has the natural instinct to pull up from that deep, so it helps to have a visual reminder.
Hawks use '4-point line' to create space.
Hawks guard Trae Young has distinguished himself as one of the best long-range threats in the NBA. The Hawks use that range -- and an extra line on their practice court -- to create opportunities for their offense.
"I would always try to extend my range farther and farther because I wasn't getting much taller," says Young, who is listed at 6-foot-2. "The farther I shoot, people weren't expecting that."
Lloyd not only wants Young to shoot from the 4-point line but to make plays from there, too. Expanding the floor outward, in turn, creates space in the paint for big men such as second-year breakout John Collins. If a guard like Young can initiate a play from behind the 4-point line, defenses are forced to cover more ground and, eventually, make difficult choices and compromises.
"When Trae gets here, he has decisions to make," Pierce says from the 4-point line, before jogging to the basket to mimic a Young drive. "If someone is going to meet him at the rim, he is going to know to make those passes out." Pierce says one reason the Hawks valued Young so highly in the draft was his ability to make kickout passes to shooters with either hand on the run.
Although the rebuilding Hawks are off to a 6-23 start, Young's arrival has helped Pierce realize his vision of a perimeter-oriented offense. Atlanta is launching 35.4 3-pointers per game this season, fourth most in the league. That's up from last season, when the Hawks took 31 triples per game and ranked seventh. Atlanta's willingness to shoot from deep has in turn opened room for a nice pick-and-roll pairing between Young and Collins, who is averaging 18.5 points per game and ranks in the top 20 leaguewide in dunks.
THE 4-POINT LINE might be the most famous and easily recognizable game-ification marking, but there are others.
When Mike Budenholzer was named coach of the Milwaukee Bucks this offseason, he instructed the video coordinators to tape five blue squares on the team's practice courts. The 1.5-foot-by-1.5-foot boxes are arranged outside the 3-point arc: two in the corners, two at the angles and one at the top of the key.
Taping down the squares (with special court tape) took nearly an hour and a half and five people. The Bucks used video coordinator Schuyler Rimmer's size-16 shoes to make sure the squares had enough space for an NBA player's oversized feet.
The locations designate where the Bucks should be positioned to start possessions in their five-out offense. In past seasons, Milwaukee's offense suffered from stagnation and too much traffic in the paint. The squares, Budenholzer tells ESPN, are guidelines to help with offensive flow and floor spacing so All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo can slash freely to the basket.
The results have been promising: Antetokounmpo leads the league this season with 55 unassisted dunks -- more than double Utah's Rudy Gobert, who is second with 23 unassisted slams. The emphasis on spacing has also helped the Bucks tie for the league lead in 3-pointers made per game with 14.0, a drastic improvement from last season's 27th-ranked 8.8 3-pointers per game.
Bucks space floor with five-out set.
The Bucks revitalized their offense in the offseason and now lead the league in scoring. Check out how their "five-out" strategy creates spacing and opportunities.
"I am a pretty big believer in visuals," Budenholzer says. "Sometimes you have to find more creative ways to say we want to create spacing."
Meanwhile, there are now four game-ifying markings on the Sixers' practice court that don't appear on a regulation court. In addition to the 4-point line, there is a 12-foot arc extending out from the basket -- a tool used for offensive rebounding and transition defense. If a player is inside the arc during an offensive possession, he better be going for a rebound. If not, he should be getting back on defense. The Sixers also have a rectangular low-zone box that runs along the baseline and dictates preferred post-up positioning deeper toward the baseline, which in turn creates better spacing with perimeter shooters.
Several teams also have game-ifying markings to illustrate their preference for what they view as the most valuable shot in basketball: the corner 3. In Atlanta and Chicago, a line is painted from the sideline to the 3-point line on both sides of the court, creating a box deep in the corner that extends 8 feet out from the baseline. Philadelphia's corner 3 box is an opaque red to make it stand out. If a Hawks player hits a 3-pointer from inside the corner box during scrimmages, it's worth four points.
"That's our way of emphasizing a shot that is most coveted," Pierce says.
The corner 3 obsession started in San Antonio, where the Spurs finished top five in the league in corner 3s per game from 2001 to 2013. The shots are prized because the NBA 3-point line isn't a true arc but rather is 22 feet from the hoop in the corners and 23.75 feet above the break.
During his demonstration, Pierce moves six inches outside of his corner 3 box and continues. "I'll watch film and if a guy is here," Pierce says, "I'll say, 'Are you in the corner? No? Get to the corner.'" He tracks the locations so diligently because it's common for players to inadvertently creep out from the corner toward the top of the key, which can crunch the court for Young and Atlanta's big men.
"I think proper spacing from the corner has actually given us more rewards than the 4-point line," Pierce says.
BUDENHOLZER WOULDN'T BE surprised to see more markings taped, painted and carved onto to the hardwood as the game evolves and as analytics continues to change the way basketball is played. Visual aids, after all, have been used in basketball for decades. Phil Jackson even used the tip of the Bulls logo to signify where his famous triangle offense should start. Brown installed his first game-ify lines in 2013.
The analytics era has in many ways flattened the competitive advantage. Everyone seeks the same efficient looks in mostly the same ways, depending on personnel.
So how do coaches actually get their players to embrace the most efficient looks? Personal markings are the new frontier.
"It's easy to value numbers as a coach, it's hard to value them as a player," Pierce says. "The value of what you're emphasizing comes from visually displaying."
Game-ifying in practices can produce clear results in game. This season, the Hawks rank second -- behind the Houston Rockets -- in corner 3 attempts. In Chicago, reserve guard Antonio Blakeney has made 14 3s from the left corner, tied for the fourth most in the NBA, despite playing just 16.6 minutes per game.
Bulls find value in corner 3-pointer.
Bulls guard Antonio Blakeney is among the league leaders in corner 3-pointers this season. That is by design -- Chicago is one of numerous NBA teams that emphasize this shot selection.
Meanwhile, Budenholzer's squares have helped propel Milwaukee to the highest-scoring team and the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and 7-foot center Brook Lopez is earning attention for his deep 3-point shooting while making a career-high 2.5 triples per game.
The 76ers' transition defense appears to be benefiting from their 12-foot arc, as Philly is allowing 1.05 points per chance (fifth best in the NBA) on transition plays this season, according to Second Spectrum data. In addition, the low-post boxes have played a part in Joel Embiid recording 262 direct post-ups this season, the second most in the NBA behind LaMarcus Aldridge, according to Second Spectrum.
These tricks of the trade are helpful, but they're not a cure-all.
Atlanta is shooting more 3-pointers but making just 32.5 percent, tied for the second-worst percentage in the league. While Embiid posts up a lot, the results are mixed. Among 15 players with at least 100 direct posts, Embiid ranks sixth out of 21 players with an average of 0.97 points per post-up -- on par with his points per chance overall, per Second Spectrum. And despite an emphasis on corner 3s, the Sixers have attempted the fifth-fewest corner 3s after parting ways with four key shooters -- Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, Robert Covington and Dario Saric -- over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the Bulls and Hawks are mired in a battle for the bottom of the Eastern Conference despite their emphasis on game-ifying markings.
A great offense, of course, requires both a smart scheme and high-level players to execute it.
In the meantime, Pierce's faith has hardly been shaken. Even as Young has shot just 24.1 percent from 3-point range and 37.8 percent overall, Pierce has urged Young to continue shooting. The first-year coach believes he has the groundwork for his offense of the future with Young and Collins, and he trusts that the shots will fall eventually.
For all the colored court markings and diagrams, there's one other key to the Hawks' next generation: a green light.
"The messaging now is don't stop," Pierce says. "Shoot it more."