Basketball Basics: Rules, Terms, and Tips for Beginners

Do you need to brush up on your basketball basics? If you’re just getting started in organized basketball, it’s a good idea to brush up on the basics. Even if you’ve played the game for a while, there still might be some things you need a refresher on.

I know that I played for a couple years without having any idea what was meant by some of the terms people threw around like “short corner” or “elbow.” Sure I’ve got two elbows and I know I’m not supposed to let the ref see me hit people with them, but what does coach mean when he says to set a screen at the elbow?

My lack of knowledge of basketball basics was my fault for not asking questions or going looking to try and figure out what was going on. I just kind of muddled along, but you don’t want to do the same thing. You’re here to gain some knowledge. So, let’s get started with some of the basic basketball rules.

A basic diagram of one half of a basketball court.
A basic diagram of one half of a basketball court.

Basketball Rules

This is a quick overview of the basketball rules.

Basketball is a team sport intended to be played between two teams of five players. The court is divided into to two halves with a goal on each end (see the diagram of one half of the court above). Each team defends one goal while trying to score on the opposite goal (which the opponent is defending). The game lasts different lengths of time depending on the level of play, but the game is always divided into halves with the teams switching goals at half time.

The game starts with a tip-off in the center circle on the half court line. Two players stand in the circle, and the referee tosses the ball into the air between them. The one who reaches the ball first tips it to a teammate and the game is under way.

If the offense takes possession of the ball behind the half court line, they have ten seconds to bring the ball across the half court line or they will lose possession of the ball to the defense. Once they have crossed the half court line, they cannot re-cross the line or they will lose possession.

The baselines and the sidelines are the boundaries of the court. The lines themselves and everything beyond them is out-of-bounds. If the ball or a player in possession of the ball touches out-of-bounds, the team of the last player to touch the ball will lose possession.

The offense may score by putting the ball through the goal which is an 18 inch hoop ten feet off the ground. If they succeed they get two points. Unless, they score from behind the three point arc, in which case they get three points. If a player is fouled, he may be awarded a certain number of free throws from the free throw line. Each free throw is worth one point.

If the shooter is fouled while making a shot, he is awarded one free throw. If he is fouled while missing a shot, he gets two free throws (unless he is shooting a three point shot, in which case he gets three shots). Foul shots may also be awarded on non-shooting fouls if the opponent has accumulated a certain number of fouls. These rules vary depending on the level of play.

Fouls are committed when a player commits any kind of illegal physical contact. This may involve hitting, slapping, pushing, or holding a player when trying to defend him or steal the ball from him. It may also involve an offensive player setting an illegal moving screen for a teammate or for pushing or running over a defender. Non shooting fouls are usually punished with a loss of possession unless the team has accumulated too many fouls in which case free throws may be awarded.

On offense, a player may not spend more than three seconds at a time in the lane. If he does, his team will lose possession. After a team scores or loses possession due to a violation like stepping out-of-bounds, the opponent may throw the ball to a teammate in play from out-of-bounds. When inbounding the ball, a player has five seconds to get the ball in or his team will lose possession.

Basketball Terms

Now that we have the basic basketball rules of the game down, let’s move on to some common basketball terminology. These are basic basketball terms that you might run into when discussing the game of basketball and how to play it. If they refer to the court or positions on the court you can refer to the diagram above to see where they are.

  • Baseline – This is the out-of-bounds line on each end of the court, behind each goal. All inbound plays after scores take place from behind the baseline.
  • Sideline – This is the out-of-bounds line on each side of the court.
  • Half-court – This is the line that divides the court in in half. The tip-off circle is on this line, and this line serves as boundary for the offense (after they cross it) the same as the sidelines and the baseline.
  • Three Point Arc – The line that forms an arc around the hoop with its base on the baseline.
  • Free Throw Line – Also known as the “foul line,” this is where free throws are taken from. It is fifteen feet from the basket.
  • Lane – Also known as the “paint,” this is the rectangle formed by drawing lines from the ends of the free throw line to the baseline.
  • Elbows – These are the areas at the top corners of the lane, at each end of the free throw line. This area can also be called the “high post.”
  • The Block – This area, also known as “the post,” is the area around the basket, especially on the edge of the lane.
  • The Short Corner – This is the area between the block and the three point arc.
  • The Corner – This is the area, near the baseline, between the sideline and just inside the three point arc.
  • The Wing – This is the area outside the three point arc just out from the elbow and above the corner.
  • The Point – The area above the free throw circle and beyond the three point line. It is sometimes referred to as the “top of the key.”
  • Center – The position played (usually) by the tallest player on the team. He plays mostly in the block, the lane, and the short corners.
  • Forwards – Also usually taller players, but they will often play more in the corners and on the wings.
  • Guards – These are often the shorter players on the team and they should have very good ball handling and shooting skills. They play mostly on the wings or at the point.

Check out this video for more on the five traditional basketball positions.

Basketball Tips to Get You Started

Now that you have a firm grasp on the basics of basketball, what should you do to start improving your skills? Well first off, you won’t magically get better without effort on your part. You need to put in the time and work on improving so that you can have an impact for your team, or just show up your friends. Here are three basketball tips to get you started.

  1. Work on your shot. If you can’t shoot, you won’t be able to help your team very much. Learn proper shooting form, learn some drills to help you improve, and practice until you have a good enough shot that you can at least score more often than not when you get open inside fifteen feet. Also, work on your free throws. It is often overlooked, but bad free throw shooters lose games.
  2. Work on your ball handling. Being able to shoot is great, but you need to be open to be able to shoot. How do you get open? Well, dribbling and passing are the best ways. Even if you are starting from nothing, learn some dribbling drills and put in some time on them every day and you will make huge strides. Also, work making crisp, quick, and on target passes every time.
  3. Work on your defense and rebounding. These less glamorous aspects of your game are easy to overlook, but you need to work on them as well. If you can’t keep the other team from scoring, or you give them repeated opportunities because you can’t get a rebound, you won’t see much playing time. This is as much about mindset as anything; you have to be willing to work hard to be good at these parts of the game. Work on your defensive form and learn to recognize offenses; and most importantly, you must learn how to box out!

Figure out the areas of your game that need improvement and get to work on fixing them. Nothing impresses a coach or helps you get a jump on your friends like work you put in on your own time.