The Developmental Benefits of 3 on 3 Basketball Drills

The Developmental Benefits of
3 on 3 Basketball Drills

When we think of basketball, we think of 5 players on offense and 5 on defense. 10 players populate the court at all times, so of course we should play 5 on 5 in practice at all times as well, right?


But lots of coaches find that practicing with 5 on 5 is not the most effective number to develop players. While the obvious benefit of having the same number of players on the court as in a game cannot be replicated with other numbers, coaches find that 3 on 3 can help players improve at a faster rate than 5 on 5. All levels of coaching should implement 3 on 3 into their practices, whether it is kids, youth, college, or even national level programs.

Although it can be played full court, especially in drills like 3-on-3 continuous and 3-on-2 weave, this type of basketball is usually played and practiced in the half court. The rules are the same as regular basketball, except that defensive players need to "check" the ball when they get a defensive rebound or turnover. This means they need to dribble or pass the ball past the 3 point line before they are allowed to score. Another common rule for half court 3 on 3 basketball is that the player needs to

So why is 3 on 3 so good for your youth basketball program? There are numerous benefits to having less players on the court in practice, so let’s go through some of them.

Benefits of 3 on 3 basketball for player development

More Shots and Time with the Ball

This is the biggest and most obvious benefit of practicing with competitive 3 on 3 drills. There are two less people on offense, which means that the remaining 3 players all get to dribble, pass, and shoot the basketball more than usual.

As a coach, this can greatly accelerate the development of your players. As long as they have the fundamentals down, one of the most important things that young players need to excel later is an abundance of competitive game play.

They can take all of the shots in the world in practice and work on their dribbling for hours, but if they never transfer those skills into competition, then this is all nearly useless.

The Developmental Benefits of 3 on 3 Basketball Drills


In 3 on 3, each player gets way more shots. They are also forced to shoot and make plays more often. If a player is a bit weaker than some of their teammates, they tend to hide on the court, unwilling to try things that could potentially embarrass them. The problem is that these same things are what make them better players in the long run. If half of your team lives in fear of making mistakes, then it will never get to the level you want it to be at. Mistakes in the moment lead to greater success down the road. With less players relying on them, weaker players will begin to make the proper mistakes that build them up.

When comparing 3 on 3 to 5 on 5, there is almost no way to hide on offense. You need to be an essential part of the offense to score, since you are now ⅓ of the offense on your team. This means more shots, more passes, and more drives for your players to develop their skills. Overall, you will have the ball in your hands much more often than you would in 5 on 5, and that is the best way to improve as a player. Growing through 3 on 3 basketball can help your team win more games, and more importantly, can help your players gain confidence in themselves as players.

More Spacing


With 4 fewer players on the court, there is a lot more room to play. For the offense, this is a good thing. For you as a coach, this is a great thing. Spacing is often a tough thing to teach to younger players, so the extra room here is a huge benefit.

It allows your players to really spread out and get used to the advantages to having a lot of space between them and their fellow offensive players. 3 on 3 creates a lot more cutting opportunities, as there are fewer players on the court to get in your way.

Cutting is an essential part of basketball. Being able to cut properly creates openings for both yourself and your teammates to get good looks at the basket. It is a great way to get the defense to shift, and 3 on 3 is no exception. By cutting hard in 3 on 3, you usually force the other off ball defender to come over and help so that you do not get a wide open layup.

This leaves the other offense player open. The defense then has to shift more to try and recover, giving the offense a massive advantage while trying to score the basketball.

All of this spacing and cutting transfers over to 5 on 5 basketball naturally.

Players Cannot Hide on Defense

Defense is one half of a basketball game. For young basketball players, there are two types of defender. The first type is a lot more rare. These players love playing defense. They like the feeling that their efforts matter, and defense is the one place where consistent effort gives consistent results. So they put pride in their defense, and it shows.

The second type of player is not quite as keen about defense. Especially at a young age, this is a lot more common. These players have not figured out that their defensive effort plays a role in their offensive output, and therefore defense is just a break from the fun part of basketball, the offense.

The Developmental Benefits of 3 on 3 Basketball Drills


This second type of player wants to put a minimal effort in on defense. In a game and in practice, this usually means hiding as much as possible, only doing the bare minimum required to not get embarrassed too badly. In 5 on 5, this isn’t very difficult to do. Picture James Harden when he first joined the Rockets. That's what type of hiding on defense I'm talking about.

In 3 on 3, players need to own up to their defense. With more spacing for the offense and less defensive help, it is much easier to get beat to the basket. If players put in a minimum effort on that side of the court, there is no way they will win 3 on 3 drills. On top of that, their teammates will quickly notice their lack of defensive effort and call them out for it. Nobody likes losing because someone on their team is not trying.

This is also a way to build up player leadership on the team. You will quickly realize which players on the team actually care about winning and which ones just want to look good on the basketball court in 3 on 3. The players who are getting on their teammates for not trying on defense are the kids you want to look at for captaining your team.

Works on On and Off-Ball Screening

Along with cutting, screening is the other thing that really opens an offense up. Watch an NBA game and what do you see every time down the court on offense? Screens and cuts.

Screens can be both off-ball and on-ball. On-ball screens usually look like a ‘pick and roll’, where the screener sets a screen before rolling down the key towards the hoop, or a ‘pick and pop’, where the screener pops out to the three point line after the screen is used by the ball handler instead of rolling towards the rim. This opens the floor up for the pick and popper shooting three pointers from the top of the arc, something that is a very important skill for screeners in school basketball.

Off-ball screens are when a player sets a screen on the defender of a teammate without the ball. It helps shift the defense and get offensive players open in better places. Both of these types of screens are essential for a good offense.

Once again, 3 on 3 gives more reps of both using and setting the screen for offensive players. It also gives defenders more practice at defending screens. Instead of 2 out of 5 players being involved in each screen, 2 out of 3 players are involved.

3 on 3 is incredibly useful for developing youth basketball players. It gives them more repetitions of everything that is important in basketball. For coaches, using 3 on 3 to build up to 5 on 5 is a great idea. Start with 3 on 3 to get everyone more involved in the play while maintaining spacing, then move onto 4 on 4 or 5 on 5 once the understanding is there.

3 on 3 is incredibly useful for developing youth basketball players. It gives them more repetitions of everything that is important in basketball. For coaches, using 3 on 3 to build up to 5 on 5 is a great idea. Start with 3 on 3 to get everyone more involved in the play while maintaining spacing, then move onto 4 on 4 or 5 on 5 once the understanding is there.

Ways to implement 3 on 3 in Practice


Any kid who has played 3 on 3 basketball will tell you that it can sometimes feel like a different sport. That means that coaching your team in 3 on 3 will sometimes feel like a different sport as well. To help your youth team improve, no matter if that is a school team or a national program, you need to use a variety of drills and games with the 3 on 3 format.

Before going through some different types of 3 on 3 drills and games, there should be a few general rules for all of these drills and competitions:

  1. Play fast. This is just a general rule for anytime you are on a basketball court. 3 on 3 should be played at a high speed. Basketball is not a slow sport, so if we go through the motions at half the pace as we will play, then there will not be a lot of transfer of skill and ability from the practice court to the game. Look at the best levels of basketball around you, both college and professional basketball is trending towards faster and faster play. Gone are the days of a plodding pace and 20 second possessions. So go with what the professionals are doing and push your players to play as fast as they can while under control. No matter if there are set plays or your players are free styling, speed is essential.
  2. Spread out. One of the best things about 3 on 3 is that there are less players on the court, but the court remains the same size! Make sure your players spread out and give each other lots of space. The only time two offensive players should be near each other is when they are doing a dribble hand-off, setting a screen for each other, or are at the basket, trying to get their hands on offense rebounds. Make an effort while coaching to spread your players out on the court. One way to do this, especially with younger kids and less experienced players, is to place makers - such as small 'X's made of tape - on the court for where they should be if not cutting or screening.
  3. Move. A big part of 3 on 3 is moving without the ball. Offensive players should have the advantage with all of the spacing on the court, but they will find it difficult to score if they just stand and watch the ball. As the coach, make sure your players know the basic concepts of screening both on the ball and off of the ball, and how to cut to get open.
  4. No Fear. Arguably the biggest benefit of playing with less players on each team is that there is more of everything to go around. The kids get to play more, they get to shoot more, they get to pass and use their hands more, they get to dribble and create more, and they (hopefully) score more while doing so. As a coach, this is great for growing their confidence and allowing them to play with less rules. A school team will probably have players who get the majority of minutes and shots, and this is great for them but not as great for the other players on the team. By implementing and coaching 3 on 3 at this level, you give those players who are not as far along the opportunity to touch the ball more in competition and games, better preparing them for the actual events. Your job in these drills as the coach is to empower your entire team to play fearlessly, as there are lots of opportunities to go around.

So with those rules in mind, let's look at some different drills:

3 on 3 Pass and Move - Half Court

This is the simplest way to get your players used to 3 on 3 games. Using the aforementioned markers for spacing, have 3 players work on passing the ball and either cutting or screening away in a half court setting. It is a great, simple drill for kids and youth players, as everyone gets lots of opportunity to cut and pass. While coaching, make sure the team cuts with speed and direction.


Another small skill to focus on in this drill is to get players to put their hands where they want to receive a pass. Players receiving the pass should raise their outside (further from the hoop) hand as a target, and the passer should throw the basketball there. This keeps the pass safe in the event of an aggressive defender.

This drill is a great start for any kids or youth basketball program.

3 on 3 No Dribble - Half Court

This is the next step in using 3 on 3 principles. The offense needs to score, and the defense needs to stop them, just like normal basketball. The twist on the rules is that the offense cannot dribble the basketball, and they score one point for each successful, un-tipped pass that they make. This means the defense needs to play very aggressively.

If they sit back, then the rules favor the offense.


If the defense plays aggressively, then the rules become their ally. The offense needs to cut hard and set screens to get open. Any shot inside of the key that goes in is worth 10 points, and any shot outside of the key is worth 2 points. This is to force the kids on offense to get open going towards the hoop and not just throw up shots from deep in desperation.

The game is played to 50, and any tipped pass, stolen pass, or defensive rebound results in a the offense and defense switching.

3 on 3 Live - Half Court

You guessed it: this is just like normal basketball in the half-court. All of the same rules and concepts from '3 on 3 no dribble' apply, but now you can dribble. There are a few different types of live half court, and with both of them the principles of spacing, cutting, screening, and team play should be emphasized.


Regular 3 on 3 is fairly simple. This is probably easier to run with younger kids or programs that have youth with less of a basketball background. To start a possession, check the ball by passing it to the defense and letting them pass it back to you. Now the play is live. Change of possession occurs when there is a defensive rebound or a turnover and the ball is checked past the 3-point line.

After each basket the play is stopped until the ball is checked to the defense. This is great as a coach of younger kids as it gives you time to reset the offensive and defensive players, and allows you to draw up simple basketball plays for the offensive team. This version is more structured, but has the downside of less continuity.


FIBA Rules

Most of the same rules apply for FIBA 3 on 3. The big difference is that there is no stop in play after a made basket. When a shot is made, the defensive team grabs the ball and checks it past the 3-point line as quickly as possible. As soon ass the ball goes past the arc, it is live. This version is better for higher level teams, such as older youth school teams, college teams, and national programs.

FIBA rules half court is faster paced, has more continuity, forces players to react faster, and is a better cardiovascular workout. The downside is that, as a coach, you do not have as much control. There are not as many breaks in action, so it is harder for you to reset your players and to draw up plays.

3 on 3 Continuous

3 on 3 continuous works on fast break play with the added spacing and touches of the lower number of players on the court.

Split your program into two even teams (both in number of players and in skill level). Each team then splits evenly into lines, out of bounds on the sideline and in line with the free throw line of the basket they will play defense at.

Play games up to a certain score. 7, going up by 1 point per basket, usually works well. One team starts on offense with 3 players under their own hoop. The same number of players start at the other hoop on defense. The offense attacks the other other hoop, shooting in under 7 seconds (the timer is not essential but helps make the fast break aspect more organic).


You can either play 1 shot or live offensive rebounds. Either works. After the defense gets a stop, the offensive players need to sprint back on defense. Whichever defensive player gets the rebound outlets to one the player at the front of the line closest to them for their team. The other two defenders go to the back of their lines. The player on that team at the front of the other line then sprints the floor. These 3 are now on offense, and the same thing happens back and forth until 1 team gets to 7 points.

As with all other basketball, there are a few things to focus on here, especially with younger kids. Make sure the ball is thrown to players who are ahead of the ball handler. Also, make sure there is proper spacing, players are cutting towards the hoop, and the game is being played at a fast pace.

3 on 3 is widely regarded at every level as a great way to improve your players. The lack of players means every player on the team gets more opportunity to improve their skills than in 5 on 5. All of these drills teach the fundamentals of 3 on 3, which can then be carried on to 5 on 5. They are also fun and competitive.

While implementing 3 on 3 into your practices, make sure you focus on what makes it such a great learning tool for every school and youth team. Empower your players to play aggressively and without fear. Throughout the entire practice, coach spacing and push the team to cut hard and set screens to get others open.

Having less players on the court will both expose individual player weaknesses and build them up at the same time. Use it to figure out how to strengthen your team.

So start mixing these drills into your practice and watch them take your team go to the next level and start excelling in games!

Nov 05, 2019 Coach Chris

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