What Is a Reach-In Foul in Basketball?


A defender commits a reach-in foul during a college basketball game.

One of the reasons that basketball is so engaging is the pace of the sport. But if you’re new to basketball, learning all of the plays and the fouls can be pretty tricky. You might watch a game and see the ref call a foul, cross their arms, and cite a reach-in foul…

But what is a reach-in foul in basketball?

A reach-in foul is when a defensive player physically impedes an offensive player’s space by reaching in to try and steal the ball. The foul is called when the defensive player makes illegal contact with the offensive player when reaching for the ball, like an arm grab or poke.

But with basketball being a contact-heavy sport, reach-in fouls can be pretty hard to call. So, let’s go over the rules and what happens when one is called.

Reach-In Foul Rule

Essentially, a reach-in foul is when you enter someone’s space to try and get the ball from them and you make illegal physical contact with the other player while reaching for the ball. There are a few exceptions to this rule though!

A player might accidentally make contact with the ball-handler, but if that contact doesn’t affect the ball-handler’s balance or speed, a reach-in foul is typically not called. There is also an exception when it comes to defensive positioning. For example, if the ball handler is facing away from the basket, a defensive player can use their forearm on the ball-handlers back to find their defensive positioning.

Reach-In Foul Penalty

The penalty for a reach-in foul can vary depending on the league. Sometimes it’s as simple as the offending player getting a personal foul, and other times, if the fouling player’s team has committed enough combined fouls it can result in up to three free throws. Once a reach-in foul gets called, the team that’s been fouled on will typically be given the ball out of bounds.

Reach-In Foul Signal

Basketball is one of the fastest sports we have and half the time, if you’re in a stadium setting you can’t hear the ref dealing out fouls or get a clear explanation about what happened. One thing you can do is look for ref signals.

When it comes to a reach-in foul, the hand signal looks like this: both arms down straight and crossed over to make a big X. The bottom arm will have a palm facing the ground open/flat, and the arm crossed over the top of the forearm will be curled into a fist.

Simply put, the forearms will make an X, one palm open, the other palm in a fist.

How Often Are Reach-In Fouls Called?

Now that you know the basics of a reach-in foul, you’re probably thinking that these must happen all the time, and you’re correct! While there isn’t a great measurement tool for tracking reach-in fouls specifically, they are considered to be one of the top 10 most commonly called basketball fouls. Since they aren’t specifically tracked, we’ll use the 2021-2022 NCAA BB Team Rankings as our metric by looking at team personal fouls and blocks.

Based on the current combined personal foul stats listed on the 2021-2022 NCAA BB Team lists, teams average about 17 personal fouls a game and a combined average of roughly 24% per possession.

Reach-In Foul Examples

One thing to note is that there aren’t really reach-in fouls in the NBA, there are blocks and holds. So, for examples of reach-in fouls, you’ll need to pull from other leagues.

A reach-in can be hard to call based on the positioning of the referee in relation to the defensive and offensive players. You could just be trying to run past the ball-handler, but to a ref standing on the other side of the court, it can look a lot like you’re making contact when you’re actually just reaching to the spot you’re running toward.

Now, let’s say you’re guarding someone and they have the ball. You think you have a good opportunity to swipe the ball from them gain possession, so you reach for the ball to try and make the steal but in the process, you accidentally slap the ball-handlers forearm.

The whistle is blown, the ref calls a foul, and signals to the scorekeeper that it was a reach-in, lowering and crossing their arms, one palm open, the other in a fist.

Another common example of a reach-in foul is when an offensive player with the ball and crosses over a defensive player who tries to steal the ball. When the defensive player on defense goes to steal the ball and makes contact with the ball carrier, that’s when the foul takes place.

For example, let’s say you go to steal the ball while the ball handler is waiting on their team to move at the three-point line.

In those moments as the ball handler is preparing to pass, they stop moving, and you try to make the steal but don’t anticipate the stop, resulting in you running into the offensive player as they go to make their pass. The whistle blows for a reach-in foul. It just goes to show that it only takes a couple of seconds for fouls to really start stacking up if you aren’t careful.

Different Types of Basketball Fouls

A college basketball player gets fouled as he goes up for a dunk.

There are a variety of fouls that can be called in basketball. To start, when a foul is called, a player has made an action that has gained them an unfair advantage or an action that has imposed an unfair disadvantage on the opposing players. Up there with the reach-in foul, as some of the other most commonly called basketball fouls are:

  • Technical Fouls: Similar to a personal foul, a technical foul can look like a lot of different things. A technical is a penalty awarded for unsportsmanlike behavior or violation made by players both on the court and on the bench.
    • A great example of one of the more obscure technical fouls that have been called in the NBA, happened during a game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies where the Blazers’ Rasheed Wallace was given a technical foul and suspended for seven games for simply staring at a referee.
  • Flagrant Foul: A flagrant foul, sometimes referred to as an Intentional Foul, is when a player commits unnecessary and excessive contact against their opponent. Whether its purposeful or accidental, a flagrant foul will also be called when the excessive or unnecessary contact is violent or could injure someone.
  • Over the Back Foul: These fouls are interesting because in reality, there’s is actually no over the back foul. For example, there often is contact when players go after rebounds because they’re reaching over the backs of their opponents to try and grab the ball. Over the Back fouls aren’t actually fouls, but are a common complaint by coaches, players, and spectators. If a ref calls an over the back foul, it’s most likely because there was illegal contact as a player went over the back of their opponent, resulting in a personal foul. This illegal contact can look like pushing, holding, and checking an opponent to get the ball.
  • Team Fouls*: Depending on age and league, there’s a designated number of personal fouls that players can commit per designated amount of time (the NBA goes per quarter whereas high schools and the NCAA go per half) before “going into the bonus”, where the opposing team is awarded free throws when fouled.
  • Non-Shooting Foul: Coincidentally, a great example of a non-shooting foul is a reach-in foul! A non-shooting foul is any foul committed when a player isn’t in the act of shooting the ball. In basketball, teams are allotted a certain number of shooting and non-shooting fouls before free throws are awarded to the opposing teams.
  • Unintentional Foul: An unintentional foul is just another way to say, it was a foul that happened by accident. What’s important to know is that unlike other fouls, an unintentional or an accidental foul can be called on both defensive and offensive players.
  • Personal Fouls: As you may have come to realize during this article, personal fouls come in a variety of forms as they involve illegal contact with an opponent. Common examples of personal fouls are: holding, pushing, hands, hand-checking, blocking, and charging.

*Numbers can change slightly depending on the league you’re watching or playing in.

What Is a Steal in Basketball?

The goal of any reach-in is to steal the ball away, right? And the foul is only called when a defending player makes physical contact with the offensive player when going for the ball. But if the action works out, you have a very legal turn-over or a steal.

A steal can happen when the defending team catches the opposing team’s pass or even the dribble of the opposing player. Stealing is described as being a legal turnover caused by a defending player’s positive, aggressive action.

Steals are incredibly important in basketball because any turnovers that you can force help your team out over the course of a game. To put it simply, the more turnovers you collect, the more often you’re putting the ball in your team’s hands, and upping your likelihood of racking up points.

When it comes to stealing the ball, there are three options:

  1. Swipe the ball from the offensive player as they’re dribbling;
  2. Catch the ball mid-pass;
  3. Hit the ball away from the opposing team toward someone on your own team.

I recommend being very careful with that last option though, as you may accidentally hit the ball out of bounds, giving the ball right back to your opponents.

One way you can avoid getting that oh-so-common reach-in foul is to practice stealing the ball, whether that’s with a friend or in practice. Try stealing from each other, while making it increasingly difficult to take the ball away from the dribbler. Making a great steal is all about working on your timing and your reflexes, so find ways to incorporate speed and quickness into your practice.

Another way to steal the ball is to keep a close eye on players who show you what they’re about to do based on their body language. Whether it’s sloppiness or even just the way a player positions their body, some players are more obvious about what play they’re going to make.

For example, if you look at the direction a player turns, you’ll see their shoulders turn and their arms go with them. You know they’ve got a teammate to the right and that they’re probably loading up to pass, offering you a great opportunity to snatch the ball out of the air and make the steal.

While there’s a lot of room for fake passes, you’ll learn with some practice the ways opposing players direct their chests and shoulders, and how they engage their arms and/or hips, when they’re about to perform certain actions.

At the end of the day, one of the most important things to remember when you go to steal the ball is to be aggressive and be careful about making illegal physical contact. Reach-In fouls may be common, but with some practice are completely, and even easily avoidable.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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