Basketball 101: A Beginner's Guide to the Game

Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the US - with fast-paced action, flashy showmanship and impressive displays of athleticism, the NBA garners billions in revenue from its country-wide fanbase.

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The rules of the game have constantly evolved over the years to protect players, advance the competitiveness and generally make it more interesting and exciting for the fans. Now, the list of rules may not be as long as the NFL's, but there's still plenty of vital information you should know before placing your first bet, watching your first game or competing for your first win on the court.

So, to help you out we're going to run through all the basics you'll ever need - from basic principles and court layout, to player positions and scoring structures.

The Basic Principles

Basketball is a team sport where players attempt to score the most points by shooting the ball into a hoop when playing offence, and stop the other team doing so when playing defence.

Each game starts with a jump-ball in the centre of the court. This is where two players will jump in an attempt to gain possession of the ball launched in the air by an official, who stands between the two players.

Each game ends after four quarters are played - which in the NBA are 12 minutes each.

Each possession comes with a shot clock. The shot clock determines the amount of time each team has to take a shot at the basket. If they fail to shoot and hit the rim, the opposition takes possession of the ball and the clock is reset.

There are 5 players on the court for each team at any given time.

Both teams have one basket to attack and one to defend, positioned at opposite ends of the court.

The Court

The dimensions of a basketball court varies from league to league, but the standard NBA size is 94 feet in length and 50 feet in width. The entire court is contained by a boundary line - if a player crosses this line while in possession of the ball, the opposition takes over with an inbound pass from that point on the sideline.

The mid-court line represents the halfway point and importantly corresponds to a few rules - most importantly, if you move past the mid-court line with the ball, it must not cross back into your own half unless the other team touches it.

The free throw line is set 15 feet away from the backboards in-line with the basket. This is where players will take a free shot awarded to them after a shooting foul, technical foul or multiple foul situation.

The key is often referred to as the 'free throw lane'. It is the strip that runs from the free throw line to the boundary behind the basket. It marks the area that the players must keep clear while the free throw shot is taken.

The three point arc signifies the point at which the value of a scored basket changes. If a player scores from inside the three point line, it is worth two points and if they score from outside the line, it is worth three points. The line sits 23 feet and 9 inches away from the basket at its furthest point.

Basketball court lines 1

(Credit: RookieRoad)


Let's lay out the scoring system more simply:

  • 3 Pointer: A basket scored from outside the 3-point line.

  • 2 Pointer: A basket scored from inside the 3-point line during open play.

  • 1 Pointer: A basket scored from the free throw line after a qualifying foul is called.

Player Positions

There are always five players on the court at once. The five players all have specific positions, but unlike some other sports, players can move between positions throughout the game. The five positions are:

  1. Point Guard: Arguably the most important position in basketball, point guards are like the quarterbacks of the basketball team. They tend to be fantastic at shooting and passing the ball, possessing great awareness and dribbling abilities. They will run the offence and have the ball in their hands most of the game.

  2. Shooting Guard: The name says it all. A shooting guard is mostly responsible for scoring points as the best shooter on the team, but will also be great dribblers of the ball.

  3. Power Forward: Similar to a centre, a power forward is a tall, physically dominant player, but tends to be more agile and better at shooting.

  4. Small Forward: Perhaps the most diverse player on the team, small forwards must be great shooters, dribblers and passers, while also being instrumental on defence by defending against both forwards and guards.

  5. Centre: Usually the tallest player on the team, the centre is vital to getting rebounds, blocking shots from the opposition and getting close to the basket for easy shots.

Basketball positions 1

(Credit: RookieRoad)


There are three different types of fouls that can be called in a basketball game:

  • Technical Fouls: Called for unsportsmanlike behaviour, such as shouting at the referee.

  • Personal Fouls: Called for overly-physical acts, such as pushing or grabbing other players.

  • Flagrant Fouls: Called for especially violent and physical fouls

In the NBA, when a player has committed 6 fouls in a single game, they are ejected and the opposition are awarded a free throw. College basketball follows the same rule, but the limit is 5 fouls.

Referees are responsible for calling fouls as they happen, and the crew chief makes the final decision.

Team fouls basketball

Other Important Rules


Travelling is when a player takes steps with the ball without dribbling. It can occur when they are either stationary or when they are moving and fail to dribble.

If a player is stationary, they are likely pivoting. Pivoting is a key part of possession in basketball, in which one foot remains planted while the other is allowed to move. Travelling occurs when the player moves their planted foot and does not dribble the ball.

However, a player is allowed to take two steps as they gain possession of the ball, before either stopping or releasing the ball to pass or shoot.

If travelling is called, the result is a turnover in possession to the opposing team.

Double Dribbling

A double dribble is when a player either stops dribbling and starts again, or simply dribbles the ball with two hands.

A dribble is considered to be stopped or completed, when the player either gathers the ball with two hands, or cradles or palms it with one hand.

The result of a double dribble is a turnover in possession to the opposition.