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The Pioneer of the 3-Point Shot

Stu Jackson on how Rick Pitino brought Providence to the Final Four three decades ago

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Teams are shooting more 3-pointers than ever. Seven of the top-10 teams in 3-point attempts came just last year, and that stat will surely change once this campaign is over. As former NBA executive Stu Jackson explained on the latest Ringer NBA Show, the shift to playing beyond the arc began 30 years ago with Rick Pitino and Providence College.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Chris Vernon: I was watching a Houston game. They were shooting like, whatever it is, 40-plus 3s a game. And then you watch Golden State and they shoot this ridiculous amount of 3s. This has all happened recently [with] the way the NBA is going, and that shot [is] becoming so much more important than it used to be. And a front-office exec said to me, “You know who never gets credit for this is Pitino. He was so far ahead of his time regarding the 3-point shot.” Now, going back, I look, you were on the staff at the Providence team that Pitino took to the Final Four [in 1987] and it’s crazy, right? We’re talking almost 30 years ago.

Stu Jackson: That fact about Rick Pitino is something that I talk about to anyone that will listen as much as I can say it. Because you’re correct. He really was the pioneer of the utilization of the 3-point shot. And I can tell you, I can remember like it was yesterday, Rick liked to have a lot of meetings with his staff, and I was on his staff at the time, and I remember the day he brought us into the sauna at Alumni Hall at Providence College, because he liked to meet in the sauna. I remember to this day, he sat down [with] a magnetic board and with a Sharpie and showed us the math. He said, listen, with this team, if we take X amount of 3-point shots and shoot 33 percent, it’s better than taking X amount of [2-point] shots and shooting 40 percent. We were all sort of scratching our heads, but he was right.

That decision to play the way that he wanted to play, which was a full-court-pressing style of play, really aggressive, getting out after you, trying to turn you over. When we came down offensively, we played basketball inside and out, but we were looking for the 3-point shot. And we took an abundance of them and made an abundance of them. It was a primary reason that allowed that Providence College team to eventually go on to the Final Four, with a team that was talented, but not as talented as most teams that we played, led by the likes of Billy Donovan, Delray Brooks, Darryl Wright, Carlton Screen, Pop Lewis — [and] all of these guys were prolific 3-point shooters. And that was their mission and their objective, was to take as many as they could, in lieu of taking a 2-point shoot. To this day, that guy, Rick Pitino, is the pioneer of the early analytic style of play of taking 3.

Vernon: Did you guys get criticized? I mean, you will find some analysts [today] that … sneer toward it. Did you face that same level of criticism when you guys were shooting all those 3s playing in the Big East?

Jackson: Not at all. Because again, we were on the forefront, the pioneers of playing that way. It was something that was new. Fans feel the 3-point shot is just an exciting shot. So we had a collegiate team that was playing an exciting style of play, taking 3-point shots that fans love, making them, [and] winning some games. We faced no criticism. We were like the innovators, the new kids on the block.

Today, I think some teams take criticism in the NBA primarily because we’re getting close to that pressure point where everyone takes them. Everyone participates in what I call the analytic style of play. And we’re getting to the pressure point where we’re beginning to maybe take too many. And the game is getting a little bit more homogenous, for lack of a better term, because everybody is doing the same thing. But the Providence Friars, we were something new. It was innovative, it was exciting and fun to watch. So we took no criticism.