Basketball: Understanding the Game

Positions in a game of Basketball

Although the rules do not specify any positions, they have evolved as part of the game of basketball. During the first five decades of basketball’s evolution, one guard, two forwards and two centers or two guards, two forwards, and one center were used. Since the 1980s however, more specific positions have evolved.

    Basketball Positions
  • Point Guard: Usually the fastest player on the team, the point guard organizes the team’s offense by controlling the ball and making sure that it gets to the right player at the right time.
  • Shooting Guard: Creates a high volume of shots on offense and guards the opponent’s best perimeter player on defense.
  • Small Forward: Primarily responsible for scoring points via cuts to the basket and dribble penetration. On defense, the small forward seeks rebounds and steals, but sometimes plays more actively.
  • Power Forward: Plays offensively, often with his/her back to the basket. On defense, the power forward plays under the basket (in a zone defense) or against the opposing power forward (in man-to-man defense).
  • Center: Uses height and size to score (on offense), to protect the basket closely (on defense) or to rebound.

The above descriptions are flexible. On some occasions, teams will choose to use a three-guard offense, replacing one of the forwards, or the center, with a third guard. The most commonly interchanged positions are point guard and shooting guard, especially if both players have good leadership and ball-handling skills.


Strategies have also evolved with the game. In the 1990s and early 2000s, teams often played with more “isolation.” Teams that had one superstar would let one player, usually the point guard or shooting guard, run most of the offense while the other four offensive players got out of his or her way. Nowadays, teams tend to play with more teamwork. The center position has evolved to become more of a taller small forward position. Since teams play with more teamwork, ball movement has evolved with the game, and more jump shots have been taken as a result. There are two main defensive strategies: zone defense and man-to-man defense. Zone defense involves players in defensive positions guarding whichever opponent is in their zone. In man-to-man defense, each defensive player guards a specific opponent and tries to prevent him/her from taking action. Defense has also evolved as a resonse to the evolution of the offense. “Zone Defense” has changed with many variations. There are defensive schemes called “2–3 zone”, “3–2 zone”, “box-and-1”, “2–1–2 zone” and many more. All of these variations were created to defend different options that an offense has. “Man-to-man defense” has been the most preferred of all the option. Offensive plays are more varied, normally involving planned passes and movement by players without the ball. A quick movement by an offensive player without the ball to gain an advantageous position is called a cut. A legal attempt by an offensive player to stop an opponent from guarding a teammate, by standing in the defender’s way such that the teammate cuts next to him, is called a screen or a pick. Those two plays combined is a pick and roll, in which a player sets a pick and then “rolls” away from the pick towards the basket. Screens and cuts are very important movements in offensive plays; they allow the quick passes and teamwork which can lead to a successful basket. Teams almost always have several offensive plays planned to ensure their movement is not predictable. On court, the point guard is usually responsible for identifying to his teammates which play will occur. Defensive and offensive structures, and positions, are more emphasized in the higher skilled teams in basketball.


The most common and recommended way of shooting the ball is as follows: The ball is first held with both hands with the guide hand on the side of the ball and the shooting hand under the ball. The ball rests in the shooting hand, in the manner of a waiter carrying a tray. The power of the shot comes from the legs, passing through to the elbow and wrist extensions of the shooting arm, finally continuing through the fingers. The ball is shot toward the target by extending the wrist in a half-arc until the fingers are pointing toward the floor. The ball rolls off the finger tips while the wrist completes a full downward flex motion. The shooting elbow is extended upward, starting its extension from approximately a 90º flex. The ball should be evenly placed between the index and middle fingers. The ball ideally has a reverse, even spin, called backspin. This deadens the shot upon impact with the rim and applies “touch” to the ball. The ideal trajectory of the shot is somewhat arguable, but generally coaches will prefer a proper arch. The ball should pass well above the hoop, depending on the length of the shot, and travel downward into the basket to create the best angle for success. A shot that has little arch is called an “arrow” and has less chance of going in. A shot with too much arch is sometimes called a “rainbow”. A rainbow is preferable to an arrow. A fluid shot involves a sequenced motion extending the knee, elbow, wrist and fingers. From behind, a shooter will have his/her arm fully extended while the wrist and fingers form a “gooseneck” position.


A pass is a method of moving the ball between players. Most passes are accompanied by a step forward to increase power, and are followed through with the hands to ensure accuracy. One of the most basic passes is the Chest Pass. The ball is passed directly from the passer’s chest to the receiver’s chest. This advantageous because it takes the least amount of time to complete, as the player tries to pass as straight as possible. Another type of pass is the Bounce Pass. In this pass, the ball bounces about two-thirds of the way from the passer. Like the chest pass, it is passed from the passer’s chest to the receiver’s chest, and it is passed as directly as possible. For example, there should be no downward motion of the ball between the bounce and the time the receiver catches it. In this way, it is completed in the least amount of time possible. It takes longer to complete than the chest pass, but it is more difficult for the opposing team to intercept. If the player is crowded or needs to pass the ball around a defender, this pass is often used. The Overhead Pass is used to pass the ball over a defender. The ball is passed from behind the passer’s head, over it and toward the chin of the receiver. This pass is also fairly direct and can cover more distance than a chest pass. A pass is not necessarily always between two players who are at a distance from each other. Sometimes, a clever cut by a teammate can mean that a pass is to a teammate in motion who is closer to the passer when he/she is passing the ball. The most important aspect of a good pass is that it is difficult for the defense to intercept. For this reason, large arc-shaped passes are almost always avoided and cross-court passes are extremely rare.


Dribbling is the act of bouncing the ball continuously. When a player dribbles, they push the ball down towards the ground, rather than patting it, because this ensures greater control. When dribbling past an opponent, the player should use the hand furthest from the opponent. It is important for a player to be able to dribble confidently with either hand, so the defender will not be able to get to the ball without getting past the dribbler. The dribble is also lowered when switching hands so movement is more frequent. This is because, when switching the hand that is dribbling, the ball travels in front of the player, making it easier to steal. To switch hands, a player can dribble between his/her legs or behind the back. Players should not have to watch the ball while they are dribbling. By pushing the ball they know where it is without having to see it. A player’s peripheral vision can also track the ball. By not having to focus on the ball, a player can look for teammates or scoring opportunities, as well as steer himself/herself away from danger.


A rebound is the act of successfully gaining possession of the basketball after a missed field goal or free throw. Rebounds in basketball are a major part in the game, as most possessions end after a missed shot. Rebounds are divided into two main categories: Offensive Rebounds, in which the ball is recovered by the offensive side and does not change possession, and Defensive Rebounds, in which the defending team gains possession of the loose ball. Most rebounds are defensive because the teams on defense tend to be in better positions (closer to the basket) to recover missed shots. Offensive rebounds provide another opportunity to score for the offensive team, either right away or by resetting the offense. Rebounds are credited to the first player that gains clear possession of the ball, or to a player that successfully deflects the ball into the basket for a score. There are many attributes characteristic of great rebounders. The most common are height and strength. Because height is important, most rebounds are made by centers and power forwards. Great rebounders must also have a keen sense of timing and have great leaping ability. It is also important that players position themselves in the best spot to get the rebound. This is done primarily by boxing out. Team rebounds are credited to a team that gains possession of the ball after any missed shot that is not cleared by a single player (i.e., deflected out of bounds after the shot, blocked out of bounds, etc.). A team rebound is never credited to any player, and is generally considered to be a formality. According to the rules of basketball, every missed shot must be rebounded whether a single player controls the ball or not.