A Guide to NBA Terminology: An Evergreen Glossary
Getting into the weeds of NBA lingo can be a bit confusing. There are pindowns, digs, the high post, the low post (and The Lowe Post podcast, which you should be listening to), hoops, backboards, horns sets, high screens, cuts, strong side, weak side, basketballs, 3 pointers, layups, jerseys etc.
It's all a bit nutty. And there's no shame here. Maybe you don't know what the low block is, and you're just too scared to ask. Maybe your significant other is in the crosshairs of your desire to impress. It doesn't matter. This is the haven. No one has to know why you're here. You're just here.
So, we've put together this guide. We'll update this on an ongoing basis with new terms.
The paint is the part of the court between the parallell lines below the hoop. It is in the shaded area below.
This is the part of the court where the parallel lane lines intersect with the free throw line. They are circled below.
Top of the Key
This area is where the half circle extending from the free throw line touches (high school) or come close to the three point line.
The wings are general areas or zones on the perimeter (3 point line) where the free throw line would be were it extended that far.
The corners are the narrow, in-bounds area where the 3 point line meets the baseline (out of bounds line below the rim).
In professional basketball, there is a 4' wide semi-circle below the basket where no defenders can legally take a charge.
This is the lowest area of the parallel lines that make up the paint.
NBA positions and player roles have changed drastically in the past 5 years. Traditionally, there are 5 distinct positions, but a positionless revolution is underway. Because of the ambiguity, we will define positions as roles in the traditional sense.
This player usually plays along the perimeter at the the top of the key, and is often referred to as the "one," "the main guard," or the "lead guard."
The point guard's job is to run the offense. This player generally has a high basketball IQ and is a smart, accurate passer. Coaches rely on the point guard to be the on-court coach, make good decisions, and execute the offense. This includes reading the defense, initiating plays, knowing how and when to engage teammates, and keep the ball safe.
Famous point guards include Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, and Russell Westbrook, John Stockton, and Steve Nash.
Playing alongside the point guard is the shooting guard. You'll hear this player referred to as the "two," "two guard," or "off guard."
This player's primary role is to score the ball. Traditionally, this is the team's best shooter. Often, this is the teams best scorer and go-to option. The shooting guard is depended upon to be a secondary ball handler.
Famous shooting guards include Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Klay Thompson, and Demar DeRozan
Hovering around the wings and corners is the slightly larger small forward or "three."
The small forward position is asked to do several tasks, meaning that these players are some of the most versatile players on the court. This position, depending on matchups and defensive alignments, is asked to play both inside and out. Because they are guarding a player who is just as skilled as they are, they are often superb defenders.
This position is often used to take advantage of mismatches by having this player speed by bigger players, or bully smaller guards.
Famous small forwards include Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kahwi Leonard, Julius Erving, and Larry Bird.
The smaller of the two interior players, the power forward is often called the "four."
Power forwards are usually the second tallest player on the court and use a combination of strength and skill down low. These players can score from the low block. Sometimes, these players are required to set screens for the ball handler, or for off ball players making cuts.
Famous power forwards include Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowtizki, Karl Malone, and Anthony Davis
The big men in the middle, as you guessed, are often referred to as the "five."
Centers the tallest players on the team, and as such, have a lot on their to-do list. The main task of a center is to protect the rim. Teams use their centers very differently, but usually you'll find them setting screens for ball handlers, running to the rim for alley-oops, lay-ins, or rebounds, or starting fast breaks by quickly giving the ball to the point guard.
Famous centers include Hakeem Olajuwon, Joel Embiid, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Shaq.
It's as simple as this: the weakside of the offense is the side without the ball. You would rightfully guess that the strongside is just the opposite: the side with the ball. Strongside and weakside can and usually does change several times throughout a possession, as it's solely dependent on where the ball is.
Similar to weakside/strongside, on-ball and off-ball are exact opposites. Players on-ball are the offensive player with the ball and the defender directly guarding him. Off-ball refers to the players not holding or guarding the ball–every other player on the court.
A screen takes place when one player stands in the way of another player's defender. This can happen off-ball and on-ball.
A pindown is a specific type of screen, and there are a few variations. In general, a pindown screen is a screen close to baseline area that frees an off-ball player to catch an open pass and have a good jump shot opportunity, usually in the wing area or on the perimeter. Single pindowns can be middle or wide pindowns, each referring to the screens location on the court.
Wide pindowns are pindown screens closer to the corner, where middle pindowns are closer to the paint.
Watch the top of this play, J.J Redick comes of a pindown from DeAndre Jordan for the open 3.
Or this from Dame to CJ.
Double Pindown or Double Staggered Pindown
This is the older, stronger brother of the single pindown, where two screeners work to peel defenders off the ball recipient. The Heat did this frequently with Ray Allen. Watch below as Allen runs his man through 2 set screens along the baseline. In both clips, Allen starts in the top corner.
Off the pindown, the ball handler has several options. The clips above show the ball handler spotting up for a shot off the pindown. Another option is called a curl, where the ball handler curls toward the hoop for a floater, or continues to the hoop for an inside shot.
Flares or fades require top-notch decision making by the pass recipient. By reading the defense, the recipient changes course from a traditional pindown and fade toward the perimeter. Watch Steph Curry and Ray Allen below. Also notice how unhelpful DeAndre Jordan is in the first clip.
A defense where each player is responsible for an area or "zone" of the court when defending.
Man defense is the opposite of zone defense. Instead of guarding an area, players guard on specific man.
Full Court Press
In a full court press, defenders guard their player for the full length of the court.
A backdoor cut is when a player runs "behind" the defense along the baseline to receive a pass.
Give and Go
In a give and go, the ball handler passes the ball to a teammate, immediately cuts to the basket and receives the pass back to him/her.
Pick and Roll
There are many variations, but in a pick and roll, one player screens the ball handler's defender, then runs to the rim while the ball handler uses the screen to also run to the hoop. The player with the ball can choose to keep it, pass it to the screener (who is now running or "rolling" to the rim"), or pass it to another player.
An alley-oop is when one player receives a pass while jumping above/toward the rim, then slams the ball home.
A defensive strategey where two defenders guard the ball handler.
Drive and Kick
Refers to the ball handler dribbling or driving toward the hoop, then passing the ball to an open teammate.
Hammer is the name of one of the most common NBA sets or formations for running plays. Made famous by the San Antonio Spurs, Hammer is characterized by a post player setting a "hammer" or backscreen for a shooter.
Horns is a half-court offense formation where two post players set screens for the ball handler, where one post player rolls to the hoop, and the other steps out for a shot. This formation has hundreds of plays and variations.
There are numerous ways to defend the pick and roll, but hedging and switching are probably the most basic of the lot. Hedging is a technique where the screener's defender jumps the screen into the path of the ball handler, then quickly returns to his man.
Switching on a pick a roll is likely the most popular defensive option in the modern NBA. Here, players simply switch who they are defending when guarding a pick and roll.
Isolation plays have the entire offense spreading out or moving to the opposite side of the ball handler so he can go 1v1 against his defender.
Perimeter Ball Handling
A crossover is a fundamental building block of most dribbles moves. A crossover is simply moving the ball from one hand to the other and changing the direction of the dribble. Done quickly, it is very difficult to defend. Crossovers can be between the legs and behind the back also. See below.
Also called a "hesi", a hesitation dribble is where the ball handler hesitates with the ball, hoping to take advantage of the defender's reactionary pause. Take a look.
An inside out dribble has the ball handler essentially faking a crossover, where body and ball fake one way, but goes the original direction.
A stepback is when the player with ball quickly steps back to get separation. Dame Lillard has a stellar stepback.
The Shammgod, invented by God Shammgod is where the ball handler starts a dribble and abruptly reaches with the opposite hand to receive the ball.
A jab step is a fake step in one direction to make the defender believe the ball handler is driving. By doing so, the ball handler can create separation from his defender and get a shot off.
Pump faking involves the ball handler faking a shot, causing the defender to become off-balance.
Splitting the Double Team
When the ballhandler sees a double team coming towards him, he an split the double team by quickly driving between the two oncoming defenders.
Around The Rim/Finishing
A euro step is a beautiful work of art where the ball handler, en route to the hoop, picks up his dribble, steps in one direction and then takes another step in the opposite direction.
A pro hop is a combination of a jump stop and a euro step. A player takes a jump in a different direction before going up for a shot.
A layup that rolls right off the tip of the fingers.
Also called a 'teardrop' or sometimes a 'runner', a floater is a light, high-arcing shot thrown as the ball handler is too far away for a layup, and moving too fast for a jumpshot, usually in or around the lane.
A reverse layup or dunk is when the driving player attacks one side of the rim and finishes on the opposite side of the rim.
Low Post Ball Handling
Up and Under
A ball fake designed to get the post defender to come off their feet, allowing the ball handler to go under them for an easy basket.
A drop step is an aggressive turn to the basket while posting up where the ball handler takes a large step towards the basket.
A hook shot is a post move where the offensive player uses the distance of his shoulders and arm extension to avoid being blocked by the defender.
Once posted up, the ballhandler can quickly spin around the low post defender.
Made famous by Hakeem 'The Dream' Olajuwan, the dream shake is a post move where the ball handler fakes going one way before quickly going the other way to finish.
Also known as a "fallaway jumper" or a "fadeaway", this shot allows the post player to create separation by falling away from the defender as he releases the ball.
When posting up, the offensive player can choose to 'face up' or turnaround so his back is no longer to the basket.
A pass thrown with two hands from the ballhandler's chest.
A pass that bounces before it is received.
A pass thrown like a baseball with one hand.
No Look Pass
A pass where the ball handler is not looking at the recipient.
A pass used to start a fast break immediately after a defensive rebound.