Your guide to basketball at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics

Basketball - Rio de Janeiro Olympics 2016

US Women’s National Basketball Team players strike a pose after receiving their gold medals in Rio de Janeiro. 

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Basketball may have come from humble beginnings — legend has it the first match in 1891 used peach baskets for goals — but it’s come a long way and continues to evolve. Case in point: At next year’s 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, there will be two changes to the men’s and women’s typical Olympic basketball programming. 

First, instead of dividing the 12 participating teams up into two groups of six, as has been done in the past, they’ll be divided into three groups of four and compete in a round-robin format with only the top two teams from each group advancing. 

Second, for the first time ever, the summer Olympics will feature a three-on-three competition (or 3×3 as the Olympics is calling it), bringing the speed and excitement of street ball to the sporting world’s biggest stage. 

Dig into the details on each tournament below.

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5-on-5 basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics

Five-on-five basketball is what you’re used to watching on TV. It’s played on an indoor court that’s 28 meters long and 15 meters wide and teams accumulate points by shooting the ball into the opposing team’s basket. 

Score within regular play from within the three-point line and you’re awarded two points. Score from beyond the three-point line and you’re awarded three. Baskets made from the free-throw line following a foul are worth one point. 

Games are divided up into four 10-minute quarters for 40 total minutes of play. The team with the higher score at the end of the game is declared the winner. 

Competition format

men's five-on-five basektball

Only 12 men’s teams will qualify for the 2020 Olympics. 

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For the five-on-five tournament, the 12 participating teams (12 each for the men and the women) will be divided up into three groups (A, B and C) of four players. During this group phase, each team plays every other team in its group, for a total of three games. 

The top two teams from each group, as well as the two best third-placed teams, move onto the final phase. In order to determine the pairings for the next round — and avoid the same teams playing each other again — a random drawing will take place with the top four teams in one pot and the rest in a second pot. 

The final result is a knockout-style bracket format, in which teams must win to move on. In the end, in order to earn a gold medal, a team will have had to play six games, instead of eight as in past Olympic tournaments. 

Men’s Olympic qualification

As host country, Japan is given automatic entry. The remaining 11 teams will have to qualify at select tournaments, starting with the International Basketball Federation (more commonly known by the French acronym FIBA) World Cup, which runs Aug. 31-Sept. 15.

At this tournament, the top two teams from the Americas, the top two teams from Europe, and the top teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania will qualify for Tokyo. The 16 next-best teams, plus two selected teams per region, will then be invited to play in one of four FIBA qualifying tournaments in 2020. The winning team from each of those tournaments will qualify for Tokyo.

The US men’s national team — which has featured NBA standouts like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kevin Durant — have won 15 of the 18 Olympic Games in which they’ve participated, including handily beating Serbia 96-66 at Rio in 2016. But you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on Serbia, Spain and Australia leading up to Tokyo.

Women’s Olympic qualification

US women's national basketball taem

Marta Xargay of Spain goes to the basket against Brittney Griner of the US during the Women’s Gold Medal Game at Rio 2016.

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Two of the 12 available Olympic spots have already been filled. As the host nation, Japan was given an automatic berth. The US has also already qualified by winning the 2018 FIBA World Cup. 

Competition for the remaining 10 spots kicks off this November with the first round of qualifying tournaments. The top 16 teams from these tournaments will advance to play in four mini tournaments in February 2020. The top two teams from each of those tournaments will qualify for Tokyo.

The US women — led by WNBA starts Sue Bird, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart —  are heavy favorites heading into the Tokyo Games, having won the last six Olympic gold medals and the past two world championships (now called the World Cup). But European contenders like Spain, Serbia and France, as well as Australia — which medaled in five of the last six Olympic Games — will be looking to pull off an upset. 

Three-on-three basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics

For years, three-on-three basketball has been a popular format worldwide, but 2020 will be the first time it makes an appearance at the Olympics. The rules are similar to the standard five-on-five game, with a few notable differences. 

First, teams are composed of four players: three on-court athletes and one substitute. Second, they play on half a court using only one basket. Shots made from behind the typical three-point line are worth only two points; all other shots are worth one. The first team to 21 points or the team with the most points at the end of 10 minutes of play wins. 

Fewer players on a smaller court playing for less time means the players have to be extremely versatile, able to guard and score against a variety of different types and sizes of players. The result is an intense, fast-paced and exciting game.

Competition format

For the men’s and women’s three-on-three tournament, eight teams are placed into a single pool and play all the other teams over the course of four days. The top two teams advance straight to the semifinals. Teams that finish third through sixth go on to the quarterfinals. 

3-on-3 basketball

The Triplets take on the 3 Headed Monsters during BIG3 in Milwaukee.

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Two knockout games are played in the quarterfinals. The two winning teams will meet the top two teams from the pool play in the semifinals. After two semifinal matches, the winning teams will play each other for the gold medal. Losing teams will face off for the bronze.

Olympic qualification

As host country, Japan is only given one automatic spot — total, not per gender. Four additional teams (per gender) will earn a berth through their world ranking on Nov. 1, which takes into consideration performance as well as how often they play in FIBA-approved tournaments. 

Three more teams (per gender) will qualify for Tokyo through the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (date and location TBD). And the last remaining team will be selected at a 2020 FIBA Universality-driven Olympic Qualifying Tournament (date and location TBD).

The US men’s and women’s squads will take a slightly different path to qualification, however. Because three-on-three tournaments tend to be held at times and in locations that make it hard for top US players to attend, USA Basketball has teamed up with RedBull to launch a series of qualifying tournaments in 23 cities across the country. Everyone and anyone was encouraged to apply — not just pros. The tournaments kicked off on June 22 in Detroit and will wrap up at nationals in March 2020. 

overhead shot of a 3-on-3 basketball game

In three-on-three basketball, shots taken from beyond the traditional three-point line are only worth two points.

Daniel McCullough/Unsplash

Through this tournament, USA Basketball hopes to set their rosters for their men’s and women’s three-on-three team either by choosing one team (per gender) that’s used to playing together or assembling a composite team. According to FIBA rules, two of the four players (per gender) must be ranked in the top 10 in America in the FIBA rankings; the other two must be in the top 100.

In other words, players cannot qualify without competing in FIBA-approved three-on-three events, which means if NBA and WNBA players want to take part, they’d likely have to do it during their 2019 offseason. 

So far, the top-ranked men’s teams are Serbia, Russia and China, while Russia, China and France lead the way for the women. But with lots of three-on-three basketball left to play, those rankings can quickly change. Whether the US men and women will field globally competitive teams remains to be seen, but you can follow the action at