Anyone who watches basketball regularly understands how often the rules change. While the rules are designed to ensure the game is always evolving in the right direction, the rules also make the game difficult to follow at times — especially for those that have been watching or playing the sport for years.
So, what are the rules of basketball?
Basketball involves two teams of five players trying to put the ball through their opponent’s hoop as many times as possible. During games, each team works to limit the number of times the opponent scores without fouling. The team with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
Of course, that’s about as simple as a definition as you’ll get when it comes to basketball. It’s a well-thought-out sport with a variety of rules, regulations, variations, and requirements.
With that being said, let’s take a deep look at the various rules of basketball everyone should know, whether you’re playing, coaching, refereeing, or watching.
The Basic Rules of Basketball
When playing basketball, the team with the ball in their possession is referred to as the offense, while the team lining up opposite them is referred to as the defense.
Rules are going to vary whether you’re on offense or defense, so it’s important to understand your role and responsibility on both ends of the court.
Whether you’re on offense or defense, each team is only allowed five players on the court at one time. Each player has certain responsibilities when on the court, which we explain further below.
In an NBA game, there are four quarters of play and each quarter is 12 minutes long. In college, they play two 20-minute halves and international basketball plays four 10-minute quarters.
If the game is tied at the end of regulation, the game goes into a five-minute overtime period. These five-minute periods continue (with breaks in-between) until a winner is decided.
The clock only stops when the ref blows his whistle, which indicates a foul, timeout, violation, replay, or other specified reason. Referees either come in crews of two or three and are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the game.
When on offense, the player with the ball has to continue their dribble for as long as they’re moving with the ball in their hands. Once the offensive player stops their dribble, they can’t move their pivot foot and must either pass or shoot the ball.
They can, however, move their opposite foot to gain positioning. When bringing the ball up the floor, the offense has 8 seconds to get the ball across half-court. Once they cross half-court, the ball can’t go into the backcourt unless the defense touches it first.
The offense has 24 seconds to shoot the ball before the shot clock runs out. If they don’t make a basket or hit the rim in those 24 seconds or the ball goes out of bounds, the ball goes to the defense and the roles switch.
If the ball hits the rim and doesn’t go in, the offense can rebound the ball and get another 14 seconds to make a basket.
A basket is rewarded with either one, two, or three points — depending on where you are on the court and the situation. When the offense makes a basket, the possession arrow is switched and the defense now becomes the offense.
They must inbound the ball from the baseline within five seconds.
As for the defense, they have one main rule and it’s to not foul the offense. That’s not to say the offense can’t foul the defense — because they can — but the defense has plenty more rules to follow.
We’ll get into all the specific fouls and violations that occur in the game, but the goal for the defense is to prevent the offense from scoring — period.
The defense is allowed to steal the ball and block shots, but they must do it properly. Failure to do so won’t only put yourself at risk of fouling out (six fouls), but also put your team at risk of going in the bonus (five fouls).
Basketball Court Dimensions at Each Level
The size of the basketball court, as well as all of the lines that come with it, vary depending on what level of basketball you’re playing.
For example, an NBA and college-sized court are 94′-by-50′, international courts are 92′-by-49′ and high school courts are 84′-by-50′.
In the NBA, there’s a foul line (which is where foul shots are taken) that’s located 15′ from the backboard and 18’10” from the baseline. There’s also a half-court line at 47′ with a center-circle that’s used for tip-offs.
The top of the three-point arc is located 23’9’’ from the basket. There are also two points along the arc, 14′ from the baseline, where the arc becomes parallel with the out of bounds line — three feet from the line.
It’s important to understand these dimensions when playing basketball because they’ll determine how many points your shots are worth.
The Scoring System in Basketball
Teams can score in a variety of ways, but it must happen on offense. The only way to score on defense is by getting fouled by the offense while in the bonus or having the offense receive a technical foul. At that point, however, you’re referred to as the offense.
Points are either worth one, two, or three points. Two-point shots are the most common because they can happen anywhere inside the three-point line. If a shot is taken behind the three-point line and goes in, it counts as three points.
If a player’s foot is on the line when they shoot the ball, it counts as two points.
There are a variety of ways to score a two-pointer in basketball. The easiest shots come from the paint area and include layups, dunks, hook shots, and floaters.
You’re generally expected to make these shots when taking them, though the defense makes it difficult from time to time.
When taking a jump shot, some variations help you create space when shooting. These include the fadeaway, turnaround, or leaning jump shot.
Layup variations include the finger roll and overarm layup, while dunk variations include the tomahawk, windmill, 360, alley-oop, standing dunk, and much more.
The only time a shot is worth one point is during a foul shot. These are awarded to anyone who is fouled in a shooting motion, to a team when their opponent receives a technical foul, or when a team is fouled while in the bonus.
Players that are fouled are given one free throw when a technical is called, two free throws any other time a foul is called and a basket isn’t made, and three free throws during a three-point shot.
If the player that was fouled makes their shot — whether it’s a two-point shot or three-point shot — the basket counts and the player is awarded an extra shot.
This might create some confusion when a two-point shot becomes a three-point play with a made free throw. On the stat sheet, three-point plays won’t count as three-pointers.
Players and Positions in Basketball
There are five main positions in basketball, though the players are often categorized into different roles or responsibilities when on the court. The five positions are the point guard (PG), shooting guard (SG), small forward (SF), power forward (PF), and center (C).
In traditional basketball, the point guard was usually the smallest player on the court and the center was generally the tallest. While that’s still true in many situations, players today come in all different sizes and we see some point guards as tall as some centers.
The point guard is usually the play-caller and the player bringing the ball up the court when on offense. When on defense, they either guard the point guard in man-to-man defense or the top of the key in a zone defense.
They’re largely known for their dribbling skills and passing, but they should also know how to drive to the basket, shoot, and create their opportunities.
The shooting guard, much like their name suggests, is primarily in the game to shoot. They’re generally found along the three-point line and on the wings.
On defense, they either guard the shooting guard or guard the top of the key with the point guard in a 2-3 zone defense.
The small forward is usually the most dynamic, versatile, and aggressive player on the court. They combine size, speed, skill, intelligence, and leadership.
They’re asked to do everything and be everywhere. In today’s game, a lot of the small forwards are starting to act more like point guards — especially since players, in general, are getting bigger.
The power forward is usually bigger than the small forward and is one of the two big men on the floor. Where the small forward spends a lot of time on the wings, the power forward is usually found in the paint area.
They’re asked to rebound and post up but should have a shooting element to their game as well. The more lethal they are from the three-point line, the better they can space the floor out for their teammates.
The center is generally the biggest player on the floor and is primarily asked to defend the basket on defense, rebound the ball in any situation, and control the paint area.
Most centers today are above 7′ tall and are skilled any many areas of the game.
In addition to the five positions in basketball, there are a variety of roles that determine a player’s responsibility when on the court. For example, the sixth man is often the first player off the bench and is supposed to provide fast points and a hot shooting touch.
The rest of the bench plays a major role in the outcome of the game as well, giving the starters and sixth man a chance to rest when needed.
Basketball Fouls Explained
One of the most difficult aspects to understand when playing the game of basketball is the various fouls and violations involved.
Let’s first take a look at the different fouls players need to avoid if they want to keep themselves out of foul trouble, keep their teams out of foul trouble, and keep their opponents off the free-throw line.
Fouls are usually broken down into a variety of categories, including personal, team, technical, shooting, and flagrant fouls. Let’s take a closer look at each type of foul and some examples that fall into each category:
- Personal Foul – a foul given to a specific player. Each player is allowed five fouls in a game, with the sixth one resulting in the player being thrown out.
- Team Foul – a foul given to a team on defense. Each team is allowed five team fouls in a quarter before their opponent enters the bonus.
- Shooting Foul – a foul called on a player during the act of shooting. Shooting fouls result in one, two, or three shots at the free-throw line.
- Technical Foul – a foul that’s generally categorized as unsportsmanlike conduct. It can include delay of game, too many players on the court, bad behavior, or trying to use a timeout when you’re out of them.
- Flagrant Foul – fouls that are deemed both unnecessary, excessive, or intentional. They are broken up into Flagrant One and Flagrant Two fouls, depending on the severity.
Fouls are either going to happen on offense or defense. When they happen on offense, the player receives a personal foul. When they happen on defense, the player receives a personal foul and the team receives a team foul.
Shooting fouls only happen on offense, while flagrant and technical fouls can happen on either side of the ball.
Some of the most common offensive fouls include charging, illegal screens, holding, elbowing, and over the back. Some of the most common defensive fouls include hand checks, reaching in, blocking, tripping, and pushing.
In addition to fouling out, players are also subject to fines and suspensions when their play is deemed unnecessary, excessive, or intentional. For example, two technical fouls in a game results in an ejection.
Every technical foul is subject to a fine and multiple technicals are subject to a suspension.
Violations in Basketball
If you thought trying to maneuver all the different rules and fouls was a lot, it doesn’t even begin to describe all the different violations a team commits every game. These violations don’t result in a personal foul, team foul, or free throws, but they do result in a change of possession.
Some of the most common violations in basketball include: traveling, palming the ball, double-dribble, holding the ball, backcourt violation, kicking the ball, free-throw violation, 3-second violation, 5-second violation, 8-second violation, 24-second shot clock violation and goaltending.
Limiting the number of violations is key to limiting turnovers and the number of opportunities you let slip by throughout the game.
A majority of violations occur on offense, but some of them happen on defense so it’s best to stay alert at all times.
The 13 Original Rules of Basketball
Believe it or not, basketball is a sport that was invented way back in 1891. It was a much simpler game back then and much different from the game played now, but the fundamentals were the same and it paved the way for one of the greatest sports to make its way into public life.
The game was created by James Naismith, a physical education teacher in Massachusetts. When he invented the game, 13 original rules acted as the basis of what we all know today.
Let’s take a quick look at those original rules and how the game has evolved in the past 130 years.
- Players can throw the ball with either one or two hands and the ball can travel in any direction.
- Players can ‘bat’ the ball in any direction with their hand, but they aren’t allowed to use their fist to punch the ball away.
- When a player catches a ball, they must stop and can’t move until they pass the ball (there was no such thing as a dribble back then). Players would be allowed a few steps to gather their position if running at a fast pace before catching the ball.
- Players can’t use their arms or body to hold the ball and are only allowed to hold the ball in-between their hands.
- Players weren’t allowed to trip, kick, push, hold, shoulder, or strike another player in any way. The first occurrence is a foul and the second disqualifies the player until a basket is made. In the event the foul was intentional, the player would be ejected from the game without substitution.
- Players are given a foul for violating any of the rules 3-5.
- A team that receives three fouls against them in a row must give up a goal to the opposing team.
- Goals are awarded when a team throws or bats the ball into the basket without the defense stopping you. The defense isn’t allowed to disturb the goal in any way.
- If a ball travels out of bounds, the nearest player must throw it into play and has five seconds to do this before a foul is called.
- The referees are given the power to disqualify anyone that deserves it but are also tasked with keeping track of the number of fouls on a team.
- Referees are also asked to keep track of the ball and determine when it is in-bounds, out-of-bounds, when a goal is scored, and which team should have the ball at any given time.
- Teams should play two halves that are each 15 minutes long. There will be a five-minute rest in-between halves.
- The winner of the game is the team with the most points. In the case of a tie, the captains of each team must agree to continue playing until the next goal is scored.
The 13 original rules of basketball, invented by James Naismith, are very similar to the rules we go by now. Of course, the rules today are much more specific and robust.
Either way, the game today would be nothing if it weren’t for the framework of the 13 original rules.
The Unwritten Rules of Basketball
Among all the rules in basketball that are maintained by the league and referees each game, there is an extra set of ‘unwritten rules’ of basketball that players follow.
For the most part, these rules have to do with showing respect for the other team.
At the end of the day, basketball players need to be professionals when on the court to represent themselves and their team well. With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the unwritten rules in basketball:
- If the clock is winding down and your team is up big, don’t continue to run up the score. Hold the ball and let the clock hit 0:00, much like a quarterback does when taking a knee in football.
- If a player attempts to shoot the ball after the play is over or when the whistle is blown, don’t let it go in. Most players stop the ball before it hits the rim.
- Although players are supposed to stand still and out of the paint area before a free throw shooter shoots the ball, it only makes a difference if it’s excessive.
- If a player is terrible at free throws, don’t feel bad if you have to foul them to stop them from getting an easy basket.
- It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you should always do whatever possible to break up a fight when one starts.
- Don’t flop to try and sell a foul or call on someone else. Play the game and play the ball.
- If you’re hot and you’ve made a few shots in a row, shoot it no matter what. Feed the hot hand always.
- When the superstar on your team calls for the ball, it’s because they see something you’re not seeing. Give them the ball.
- Always be the first guy in the gym and the last one to leave. Make it a competition with your other teammates.
- Always be there for your teammates — on and off the court. Support them, high-five them, strategize with them, and build chemistry with them. It’s not just advice, it’s a rule.
If you can follow these unwritten rules in basketball, you’ll show other basketball players that you mean business when on the court. You’re not there to cheat, you’re not there to hurt anyone, and you’re not there to disrespect anyone.
You’re just there to play basketball and have fun.
Do Rules Differ in Other Leagues?
A majority of the rules we discussed above are the general rules that the NBA follows, as well as the other leagues but there are some differences.
For example, International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and NBA players are given a 24-second shot clock, but college players are given 35 seconds (male) or 30 seconds (female).
Jump balls also differ between leagues. In the NBA, the original jump ball determines who starts with the ball, while the loser starts with the ball in the second and third quarters. In FIBA, the possession arrow automatically alternates each jump ball scenario.
In addition to that, FIBA and college players foul out after five fouls, while NBA players foul out after six. In the NBA, you’re given six regular timeouts and one extra short timeout per half.
FIBA teams get two timeouts in the first half, three in the second half, and can’t use more than two in the final two minutes of play. In college, each team gets four 30-second timeouts and one long timeout of 60 seconds each half.