Out of all the possible types of role players in the NBA, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, the “3 and D” player. We’ll go over what a 3 and D player is and dive deeper into what makes a great 3 and D player, what makes them so sought-after, and who the NBA’s best have been in recent years.
Most NBA players never become superstars or even stars for their teams. Most of them can hope to play out their careers as starters on decent teams at best. You can usually count on the stars to get their numbers, so it’s usually the role players (players with a specific skill/duty) who swing the outcomes of close games.
What is a 3 and D player?
As the name suggests, 3 and D players are specialist players who bring two things to their teams, long-range three-point shooting (3) and defense (D). As skilled shooters, they stretch the opposition’s defense, and as versatile defenders, they can switch between defending smaller guards and big men.
You can probably see how important both of these things are in the modern NBA game.
While there are certainly some players who are so good on offense that coaches are willing to tolerate them being defensive liabilities, 3-and-D players are anything but. They are versatile defenders who can guard multiple positions and fit into a switch-heavy system that is almost necessary for a successful NBA defense.
Modern NBA offenses like to take advantage of mismatches through isolations and create open shots through pick and roll and drive and kick plays. All of these things require great spacing to be truly effective, and they require shooters with enough gravity for their man to stay with them instead of helping on the ball.
The league’s average three-point percentage hovers around 35%, including all kinds of bad shots. 3-and-D guys rely on others to create looks for them, and most of those looks are catch-and-shoot threes.
These are some of the best long-range looks you can get, so the bar is higher than usual. The elite catch-and-shoot snipers hit about 40% of their threes, so any decent 3-and-D specialist will need to get close to that number, at least from the corners.
As simple as defending and hitting some shots may sound, there aren’t that many effective 3-and-D players in the NBA and the demand outweighs the supply. That’s why such players are always hot commodities in free agency and great trade assets that no team will refuse. Despite being highly sought after, 3 and D player salaries are significantly lower than the salaries of NBA superstars, usually under $10 million.
What makes a great 3 and D player?
We know the basic requirements for a 3 and D player, so let’s see what a perfect one would look like.
Start with the first item on any scout’s checklist – size. Big men are eliminated by default as they usually lack the agility needed to switch to smaller guards in the pick-and-roll. That leaves perimeter players, ideally a wing, around 6’7” to 6’9”. That’s enough height to get a shot over defenders and cause some disruption to the defense while remaining nimble enough to switch to both guards and bigs.
Some 3- and D-specialists are tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player, so the ideal one would have to be a regular candidate for All-Defensive teams. At the very least, he will need to be able to guard multiple positions one on one AND be able to defend the pick and roll.
Granted, teams like to defend the pick in various ways. Some hedge, some ice, and some switch everything, so a player’s fit on a particular team will depend on the system they run.
Finally, there is the ability to play offense. 3 and D specialists should be able to hit both open and contested shots at an above-average rate, with anything close to 40% from 3 being genuinely elite level. That skill alone will earn them their keep on offense, but there is always value in the ability to attack the shutdown.
Turnovers should be kept to a minimum if you’re a 3-and-D specialist, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most of them since they’re usually not ball handlers.
In general, you need a team-first player who isn’t afraid to put their body on the line, push, and put the outcome of the game above their numbers. Even in this age of analytics, such intangibles are highly valued.
Notable 3 and D Players in the NBA
Compared to most of the other specializations in the NBA, the 3-and-D role is a fairly fresh concept. Some of the notable guys who helped establish the concept of 3 and D players are Danny Green and Robert Covington.
Green’s defense and shooting ability made him one of the key players on the San Antonio Spurs teams of the early 2010s. He even set a record for most three-pointers in the Finals in 2013, and his contribution was obvious to anyone despite his ranking position below that of the team’s big three and rising superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Robert Covington has changed several teams over the past few years, but his role has been clear in each of them. Some stats even had him as the league’s most effective specialist for several years in a row, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 now, so some younger guys are bound to pass him.
One such player is Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns, and he fits our prototype almost perfectly.
Standing at 6’6”, he’s a bit shorter than you’d ideally like, but he more than makes up for it in the sheer effort. You’ll see him guard the opposition’s best player regularly, contesting every shot he can and deflecting more than his fair share of balls.
His 42.5% from three last year on 4.4 attempts per game feels surreal and makes him someone you, positively, cannot afford to leave open or help. That kind of gravity is hard to find for a role player.
Add to the mix averaging less than a turnover per game and you have a player that opens up a whole range of possibilities for your team. His Phoenix Suns currently sit atop the Western Conference, and Bridges is a big part of their ascent to the ranks of the NBA’s elite.
Ultimately, we cannot forget Klay Thompson. As a superstar, some might argue that he isn’t a true 3-and-D player, but the role he fills and the way he allows Stephy Curry to play so offensively is an undeniable fit.