What Is the Paint in Basketball? The Definitive Guide


Two outdoor basketball games going on at night under lights.

If you play basketball long enough, there are things you will inevitably hear. Some of these things include “and one!”, “Keep shooting!” and “go hard in the paint!”

But what exactly is the paint in basketball?

The paint is the rectangular area under the basket that stretches from the baseline to the free-throw line, which is connected by two lane lines. Each lane line has hash marks to show players where to stand during free throws. The paint is often a different color than the rest of the court.

The paint is central to many basketball rules and is a huge part of how the game operates. Your favorite team might even run its offense through the paint. If you would like to learn more about the paint and why it’s so important, continue reading below!

The 3-Second Rule, Fouls, and Violations

Mens college basketball players warm up before a game.

The paint is home to several rules that govern player positioning. There are three rules/violations to watch for in the paint: the three-second rule, lane violations, and fouls in the restricted zone.

The three-second rule (also called “3-in-the-key”) prevents players from staying in the paint for extended periods of time. The rule allows players to have both feet in the paint for up to three seconds.

The three-second count resets whenever the player moves both feet out of the paint. In all basketball leagues, offensive players are subject to the three-second rule. The penalty for violating this rule is a loss of possession.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), there is also a defensive three-second rule. The penalty for defensive 3-in-the-key is a free throw for the offensive team, who keeps possession after the free throw.

Basketball leagues introduced the three-second rule in 1936. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) did this in response to the overwhelming play of Kentucky Wildcats center Leroy Edwards.

According to a letter from his college head coach, Edwards was “deadly” under the basket and teams resorted to violent fouls and clogging the paint in an attempt to stop Edwards.

Edwards played just one college season, winning the National Player of the Year award, and outscoring eight of the 21 opponents that Kentucky faced.

The lane violation rule also applies during free throws, as part of the benefit of shooting a free throw is the ability to take an unguarded shot for a chance at one point.

Entering the paint before the ball leaves the shooter’s hands results in a lane violation. When an offensive player commits a lane violation, they negate the free throw, and it may not be re-shot.

This means that your made free throw can be nullified if your teammate steps in the lane too early. When a defender commits a lane violation, the shooting team may re-attempt the free throw, if missed, or decline the penalty, if the shooter makes their free throw.

Last but not least, the restricted zone is a semicircle under the goal. This area is important because it protects offensive players driving to the basket.

A restricted zone violation occurs when a defensive player attempts to draw a charging foul while standing in the semicircle. This violation results in a personal foul on the defensive player – even if they’re standing with their feet planted to take a charge.

Dimensions of the Paint in Basketball

The paint is a rectangle that stretches from the baseline, underneath the basket, to the free-throw line. Universally, the free-throw line is 15’ from the backboard and 18’ 10” from the baseline. 

For college and high school competitions, the paint is 12’ wide, matching the length of the free-throw line. Under the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules, the paint is 16’ wide, extending 2’ past the free-throw line on both sides. 

The free throw circle is 12’ in diameter. The restricted zone arc is 4’ in diameter and is located under the basket.

In 1951, the paint was widened from 6’ to 12’ in an attempt to limit George Mikan’s dominance. In turn, Mikan had to stay further from the basket to avoid three-second violations.

In 1964, the NBA elected to widen its lane again, this time to 16’, due to Wilt Chamberlain’s dominance (Chamberlain was just two years removed from averaging 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game). 

The NBA introduced the restricted arc in 1997.

FIBA was the last governing body to make changes to the lane. Until 2010, international basketball courts had a trapezoidal painted area – with the paint widening as you approach the baseline. FIBA courts now have the same painted area as the NBA.

The final important aspect of the painted area is the hash marks along each lane line. These marks are set 3’ apart from one another and players stand beside them during free throw attempts.

Usually, the defensive team’s best players stand on the hash marks closest to the goal, with offensive players standing on the marks next-closest to the goal.

The mark closest to the goal is called the “low block.” It takes this name because, on many courts, this mark is painted in the shape of a small rectangle. The low block is the closest a player can stand to the goal during a free throw.

What Is the Post in Basketball?

The post is a section of the paint where players can “post up.” Posting up occurs when an offensive player positions himself with his back to the basket, with his defender behind him.

Posting up involves players using their bodies as barriers to their defenders, thus creating space to catch passes. The post is split up into two parts: low post and high post. 

The low post is a portion of the paint near the low block. This area is close enough for a player to take a close-range shot – usually a hook, up-and-under, or dunk attempt.

The high post is the general area between the highest hash mark and the free-throw line. The high post is a useful spot for setting screens, taking jump shots, or passing/handing off the ball to an open teammate.

When you hear the term “post player,” it’s usually in reference to a center or power forward. The post is advantageous for bigger players. In the low post, a tall player can use their size to get as close to the rim as possible when they shoot.

In the high post, taller players can either shoot over shorter defenders or scour the court for good passing opportunities. 

Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon are among the most skilled post players in basketball history. Both McHale and Olajuwon used a variety of shoulder fakes, head fakes, spins, and pivot moves to create shots in the post.

While frontcourt players are more likely to use the post, guards who are big or athletic enough are effective in the post as well. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant could post up outside of the paint and take turnaround, fadeaway jump shots.

They were so explosive that during these shots they could create enough space in the air to get a good look at the goal. In today’s game, Russell Westbrook is a guard who likes to post up.

Westbrook is one of the most athletic players in basketball history, so he can use similar moves to Jordan and Bryant to create shots from the post.

What Is the Key in Basketball?

While used interchangeably with the “paint” or “lane,” the key differs slightly from the other terms. The key is the area that includes the painted rectangle and a circle around the free-throw line. 

Now you might be wondering – where did the name “key” come from? Originally, the distance between the lane lines (the lines that connect the baseline to the free-throw line) was shorter than the free throw circle’s diameter.

With the paint being narrower than the circle, the ensuing shape matched that of a key

In 1951, new rules widened the lane from 6’ to 12’. This matched the width of the circle. While the “key” is no longer shaped like a key, the name has stuck. If you watch basketball on TV, you’ll hear coaches and broadcasters routinely use the term “key.” 

What Is a Free Throw?

A free throw, also known as a foul shot, is an unguarded shot awarded to an offensive player after a foul. Free throws are taken from the foul line, which is parallel to the baseline and located at the end of the paint.

On a standard basketball court, the foul line is 18′ 10″ from the baseline and 15′ from the backboard.

During a trip to the free-throw line, a player can take one, two, or three free throws. The number of free-throw attempts depends on the foul:

  • 1 Free Throw: Awarded on a shooting foul during a field goal attempt that the shooter makes. The offense may also receive one free throw if the opposing team commits a defensive non-shooting foul while in the single bonus. In the NBA, a defensive three-second violation also results in one free throw for the offense.
  • 2 Free Throws: Awarded on a shooting foul during a two-point field goal attempt that the shooter misses. The offense may also receive two free throws if the opposing team commits a technical foul, flagrant foul, or a defensive non-shooting foul while in the double-bonus.
  • 3 Free Throws: Awarded on a shooting foul during a three-point field goal attempt that the shooter misses.

The free-throw line covers the diameter of the free-throw circle and is for jump balls to determine possession after a held ball situation.

Importance of Owning the Paint

The paint is vital in basketball. Teams create gameplans around it, players master moves in it, and basketball rules govern what happens in it.

Even with the three-point shot rising in popularity and low post scorers becoming less common, the paint will always be important in basketball.

Your team must own the paint to win rebounding battles and prevent open layups. If you can consistently win the paint, you’ll consistently win games.

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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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