3x3 basketball: How U.S. women are pushing to qualify for 2020 Games

Force 10, owner of the Seattle Storm, recently announced the formation of a 3x3 professional women's team that will compete in events and hopes to aid the United States in qualifying for the 2020 Olympics and future competitions. Force 10 became involved in 3x3 for similar reasons the group wanted to own the Storm: to help grow women's basketball and provide more opportunities for women in sports.

But this endeavor also will support USA Basketball, because the United States really needs more help to be globally competitive in 3x3 on the women's side. It's not for a lack of talent -- there's an abundance -- but the structure, qualifying process and schedule for 3x3 are challenging for the U.S. women.

Accumulating points in FIBA-sponsored events is the key. Force 10's squad of Cierra Burdick, Linnae Harper, Alexis Peterson and Megan Huff will get to work on that by playing in Red Bull circuit events beginning this weekend in Brooklyn, New York.

"As we started learning more about 3x3, we thought about how it was going to play out for women," Force 10/Storm CEO and general manager Alisha Valavanis said. "We realized that there was a more established 3x3 framework for men in this country. The global growth of 3x3 has been extraordinary, and it's another space for women to play."

Valavanis said Force 10 -- owned by Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau -- began researching the possibility of fielding a team about a year ago. They had to do a lot of homework on 3x3, getting familiar with its differences from 5-on-5 and understanding what sort of future the sport might have.

With 3x3 debuting as an Olympic sport next year, we take a deeper look as well.

The challenges of qualifying

While the U.S. women have dominated 5-on-5 basketball -- they'll be going for their seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal next summer in Tokyo -- the Americans are no guarantee to even qualify as one of the eight teams for the women's 3x3 tournament at the 2020 Summer Games. They didn't qualify as one of the 20 teams for last month's FIBA World Cup.

In fact, as of this week, the U.S. women are not even the top team in their zone, and nowhere close to the top in the world. As a federation, the U.S. is ranked No. 22 overall, behind No. 12 Uruguay and No. 20 Brazil in the America zone. Russia is ranked No. 1 overall with more than 9,919,926 points to the United States' 1,272,164.

Countries earn their way into events like the World Cup based on points standings. The points are accumulated by individuals playing in FIBA-sanctioned events. This system is FIBA's way of rewarding players who really commit to 3x3, as opposed to dabbling in it. A FIBA World Tour circuit for men has been in place for several years, and a FIBA Women's Series just started this year.

The individually earned points go in a general pool for each country's federation. FIBA counts the top 100 points-earners for each federation in determining the standings; the more teams you have and events you participate in, the stronger your top 100 will be.

Many 3x3 tournaments are in the summer, during the WNBA season. So there are fewer U.S. women who play 3x3 even part time, let alone full time. As Valavanis noted, 3x3 is more established on the men's side in the United States; G League players are available, as their schedule runs November-April. The U.S. men currently are ranked No. 8, and they won the 3x3 World Cup title this year; that's the event where the U.S. women didn't make the field.

Who competes for the United States?

USA Basketball has been represented mostly by college athletes at 3x3 women's competitions. Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard and UConn's Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa will play for the United States in the Pan Am Games later this month in Lima, Peru.

Williams, Princeton's Bella Alarie, Texas' Charli Collier and Oregon State's Aleah Goodman made up the 3x3 team that lost in the quarterfinals of an event in the aforementioned FIBA Women's Series in China in June. UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere and Ionescu are also on that USA Basketball six-player roster for the FIBA Women's Series, with four playing at each event the Americans enter.

They are all very good players, but they are young and often facing other countries that have more established teams of veterans who play together more frequently.

USA Basketball also is forming a pool of other college and post-collegiate athletes to compete in more 3x3 events. Carol Callan, USA Basketball's women's national team director, and Olympic gold medalist Kara Lawson, a 3x3 team consultant who's a Boston Celtics assistant coach, are part of the United States' 3x3 selection committee. And USA Basketball appreciates Force 10's team now participating, too, in the chase for 3x3 points for the United States.

"It's hard to qualify for 3x3, and it's hard to win those tournaments," Callan acknowledged. "We hope these teams, playing as much as they can, get the points necessary. And we're encouraging everybody to play. The more, the merrier."

The Olympics

The sport debuts in Tokyo with eight-team tournaments for men and women. Host nation Japan has automatic berths into both. As of Nov. 1, 2019, the top three federations in the points standings also will earn Olympic berths. A 20-team qualifying tournament will determine three more spots, and that is probably the U.S. women's best chance.

A "universality-qualifying tournament" -- FIBA's way of encouraging nations who are not near the top of the ladder in basketball to have a chance to compete in the Olympics -- accounts for the final berth. That six-team tournament is only for nations that haven't been represented by either their men's or women's 5-on-5 basketball teams in the past two Olympics.

One more caveat: No more than two nations from the same continent can qualify; it's also part of FIBA's effort to spread the wealth.

For all Olympic 3x3 rosters, two of the four players must be selected from the top 10 individual point-earners for each participating country. The other two roster spots go to players who have at least a FIBA-specified minimum amount of points.

The history

FIBA first tested 3x3 at an event in 2007. The first World Cup (for men and women) was in 2012. It was held biannually through 2016, and is now held annually.

The U.S. women (Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chiney Ogwumike, Bria Hartley and Ann Strother) won the World Cup in 2012 and again in 2014 (Burdick, Sara Hammond, Jewell Loyd and Tiffany Mitchell). The United States (Harper, Alexis Jennings, Chatrice White, Natalie Romeo) took bronze in 2016. All of those players except Strother, who finished at UConn in 2006, were still in college when they played in the 3x3 World Cup.

Once 3x3 was announced in 2017 as an Olympic sport, there was a greater commitment to it worldwide. Not coincidentally, the U.S. women haven't medaled at the World Cup since; they didn't qualify for it in 2017 or this year in the Netherlands, where the medalists were China, Hungary and France.

The U.S. women lost in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2018 with a team of Oregon players: Ionescu, Hebard, Erin Boley and Oti Gildon.

The basics

If you don't know the rules, here's a quick primer. The court is essentially half the size of a regular basketball court, and a team consists of three players on court and one substitute. Coaches can work with teams prior to competition, but there is no coaching during games.

Games are 10 minutes long, or are over as soon as one side reaches 21 points. If the teams are tied after 10 minutes, there's an overtime, with the first to score two points declared the winner. There's a 12-second shot clock. Shots inside the arc and free throws are both worth one point, and shots from beyond the arc are worth two points.

Teams begin offensive play from beyond the arc. If the defense steals the ball or rebounds a missed shot, that team must take the ball beyond the arc before starting its offense.

"I love the pace of 3x3, and the versatility it requires. ... And you have to be able to defend anything and everything." Cierra Burdick

Burdick played collegiately for Tennessee, Harper for Kentucky and Ohio State, Peterson for Syracuse, and Huff for Utah. Burdick, Peterson and Harper have all played in the WNBA, and Huff was drafted this year but waived in the New York Liberty's training camp.

This Force 10 team gives them all a different opportunity to play. Burdick -- part of that 2014 winning World Cup team -- speaks to the differences between 3x3 and 5-on-5.

"I love the pace of 3x3, and the versatility it requires," Burdick said. "You don't really have time to dwell on mistakes, because it's so fast. Everybody has to do a little bit of everything, and you're coaching yourselves. You have to be such a close-knit group and find solutions on your own, and do it quickly. You have to think your way through the game, and I enjoy that.

"And you have to be able to defend anything and everything. You can get exposed if you're not ready to defend. You know it's very limited help defense, so you've got to take pride in your one-on-one defense. It does challenge you to be a more efficient player offensively, but it also challenges you defensively."

The future

How much will 3x3 catch on over the next few years, especially after its Olympic appearance? That remains to be seen.

Callan said one of the biggest issues with 3x3 being fully embraced is that it won't get the very best players because of salaries offered in professional 5-on-5 leagues for men and women.

"So we're trying to figure that out," Callan said. "As to who we can count on to have a pretty good group to play 3x3, I think it's growing, and it will take off. The only thing that will hold it back is the compensation."

And again, that's where the Storm's team comes into the picture. With only 12 teams, the WNBA has fewer jobs than the NBA. There are players of WNBA caliber who simply get squeezed out by roster sizes. Might 3x3 become a viable job for them, while also giving the United States a needed boost to earn points? That's part of what the Force 10 venture is trying to find out.

"It's exciting to think down the road this might be something that could be part of the WNBA structure," Valavanis said. "We really have to focus now on this pilot program and glean everything we can about the process and the experience to evaluate the opportunities around it.

"We will be reporting back to the WNBA, and we'd love to talk about a bigger picture of how we could expand in the future."