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A Guide to Basketball Positions

For those looking to understand basketball, whether it's for watching or playing, this guide covers all the different positions and their role in the game.

A basketball team is usually made up of twelve players, with five players on the court at any one time. And with unlimited substitutions allowed, things can seem a little confusing if you’re new to the game.

The five players in a basketball game have the following assigned positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and centre. And each position plays a vital role in the game. Traditionally, players who filled these basketball positions would usually stick to their role. But because basketball is such a fast-paced sport, nowadays, players tend to play two or more positions at one time so they can be flexible and be ready for any given situation.

So whether you just want to watch a game and understand a little more of what’s going on, or perhaps you fancy having a go at playing basketball yourself, let’s go through the five basic positions, and the important roles they play.

1. Point Guard

The point guard is considered the playmaker, and seen to be the leader on the court. They run the offense and are usually the team’s best dribbler and passer. The point guard needs to have good court vision to create open shots for the receivers, as well as drive the ball down the court and initiate offensive plays. They defend their opponents point guard and try to steal the ball.

Torso of two boys playing football, dribbling and defending.

Point Guard key skills:

Passing, dribbling, outside shooting, free-throw shooting, defense, leadership, communication.

Basketball drills for Point Guards: These drills can improve your game by enhancing your handling of the ball. You can do them by yourself. All you really need is a basketball.

Ball pounds: Start off with a simple ball pound for 30 seconds, then switch hands and do another 30 seconds. You should be using your fingertips, and keeping your back straight. Pound the ball as hard as you can, keeping the ball below your waist. This will improve your speed, strength, and confidence with the ball.

Figure eights: Dribble the ball quickly at ankle level (using your fingertips and keeping your back straight). Dribble around your legs in a figure of eight, and try to look up as much as possible. How many full eights can you do in two minutes? This drill will help strengthen your hands, and build confidence.

Pocket dribbles: This is when you dribble and pull the ball back to your hip. It’s a great protective dribble if a defender is reaching, and it will allow you to create angles and open looks. Stand facing a bench (an object about knee height). Pocket dribble and reach your other hand out to touch the bench. Get into a rhythm of two bounces and then pull, keeping your back straight and chest up.

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Famous Point Guards:

1. Magic Johnson - “No one was more dynamic, or magical, with the ball in the open court than Earvin Johnson.” - Rob Peterson, ESPN

2. Stephen Curry - "He is the most impactful offensive player in terms of what he does to the defense—maybe ever." - Steve Kerr, Warriors head coach

3. Oscar Robertson
- “He had fluid, quickness, and just understood the game. No flair, he just got the job done every night." - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former NBA player

4. Jerry West - “As relentlessly competitive and prolific as Jordan; there's a reason West's silhouette is the NBA's logo." - Rob Peterson, ESPN

5. Chris Paul - “The classic definition of a point guard, orchestrating offense and shooting when necessary" - J.A. Adande, ESPN

2. Shooting Guard

As the name suggests, the shooting guard is usually the team’s best shooter. Often the shortest player, they are able to make shots from a long way out (also known as a three-pointer). The point guard will usually be the team’s top scorer. They will also need to be good at dribbling fast, and much like the point guard, have good passing and handling skills. They will also be responsible for driving the ball down the court and setting up offensive plays.

Shooting Guard key skills:

Shooting, defense, ball handling, dribbling, passing, speed, moving without the ball.

Basketball drills for Shooting Guards:

Here are some more handling drills which you can do at home to improve your game.

Dribble jabs: Plant your right foot on the ground and while bouncing the ball with your right hand, quickly jab out to the side with your left foot (away from your body) and back in. Keeping your chest up the whole time, do 30 reps in each direction.

Body wraps: Keeping your knees bent, your hips and your shoulders moving with you, and your chest up, cross over the ball in front of you (around your legs). And then cross it behind you (almost like you’re creating a circle with the ball). Do this for one minute, increasing your speed as you get the hang of it. Then change direction.

Double between resets: This is one of the best basketball dribbling drills. Start with your right hand and dribble the ball between one leg for 30 seconds. Then do a little jump to reset your body and dribble the ball between the other leg. Switch sides, beginning with your left hand, for another thirty seconds.

Boy dribbling basketball in indoor court

Famous Shooting Guards:

1. Michael Jordan - “The best combination of brains, guile, athleticism and competitiveness in NBA history. He could do everything, and no one's done it better at any position.” - Rob Peterson,

2. Kobe Bryant - “The greatest maker of tough shots in NBA history.” - Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider

3. Dwyane Wade - “Wade is responsible for one of the best individual Finals performances of all time.” - Adam Reisinger,

4. Clyde Drexler - “A tremendous pure athlete, Drexler had to develop the skill part of his game at the NBA level and did so with great success.” - Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider

5. Allen Iverson - “Among the handful of most iconic signature moves in basketball history, Gervin's finger roll has to rank up there.” - Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider

3. Small Forward

The small forward is often the shorter of the two forwards on the team, but plays the most versatile role of the five main basketball positions. They roam all over the court, playing on the inside as well as the outside, similar to a shooting guard. Small forwards are usually the second or third best shooters, and can score both close and long shots.

Small Forward key skills:

Dribbling, versatile scorers, defense, speed, passing, strength, accuracy.

Basketball drills for Small Forwards:
To be a versatile small forward, you need to work on all different aspects of your game in practice. These drills will help you improve multiple skills at the same time.

Chair drill: Arrange two chairs on a court; one inside the elbow (where the free-throw line meets the lane line) and the other outside the three-point line. Place basketballs on both chairs. Start on the block and come up the lane line. Go around the first chair, grab the ball, and shoot a jumper. Turn and go to the second chair. Grab the ball and rip it through. Sweep, dribble once and attempt a layup.

Line drill: This drill helps teach shooting in a simulated game situation (without a ball). Players should be positioned in four lines in the baseline formation. Players execute a quick stop in the shooting position after jumping from the foot closest to the basket. Later, the drill can be done using a ball and an underhand spin pass or a dribble.

Set to go: This drill improves the fluidity of your jump shot. Look towards the basket and stand with slightly bent knees. Extend your legs and shoot simultaneously, in one fluid motion. Shoot 10 shots, each from different spots and distances.

Close up of man wearing basketball vest and arm.

Famous Small Forwards:

1. LeBron James - “The best combination of size, speed and strength in NBA history.” - Rob Peterson,

2. Larry Bird - “He had the full array of skills and was the NBA's top 3-point threat in his day.” - J.A. Adande,

3. Kevin Durant - “Absolutely impossible to guard. A near 7-footer with unlimited range, a 2-guard's handle, and finishing ability.” - Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine

4. Elgin Baylor - “The forerunner of every high-flying small forward in NBA history.” - Rob Peterson,

5. Scottie Pippen - “Smothering defender with big scoring and playmaking ability.” - Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine

4. Power Forward

Power forwards are usually the second tallest in the team, and the closest to the centre in terms of physical attributes and playing style, but with more speed. They’re often the most versatile player on the court, being able to shoot from a range of distances, and can take longer shots than centres. A physical position that requires a large amount of strength to guard bigger players close to the basket, power forwards are often known for their ability to win the ball as well as blocking shots.

Power Forward key skills:

Tall, strong, aggressive, rebounding, defense, shot blocking, power.

Basketball drills for Power Forwards:

As a power forward, you need to be able to play in the post. But you’ll also need to play on the perimeter. Practicing these drills can help you become a more versatile player while also improving your conditioning.

Quick shot drill: This drill will allow you to familiarise yourself with the post area so you can release the ball quickly when shooting. Stand in the post area with your back to the basket. Catch a pass from a teammate and take one dribble before spinning and shooting. Catch 10 passes and take five shots spinning to the left, and five to the right.

Explosive jump drill: You’ll need two basketballs and a chair. Set up the chair with a ball at the end of the free-throw line on the side you start on. Hold the other ball with both hands, and jump using both feet. Tap the ball off the backboard three times, and on the fourth jump, power to the rim and finish with a layup. Turn, run up the lane and grab the second ball off the chair. Explode with one dribble and finish with a layup.

Conditioning drill: A good power forward needs to have the ability to command extra speed at the correct moment, even when fatigue is an issue. Start by running from the baseline to the free-throw line and back. Then, run from the baseline to mid-court and back. Then from the baseline to the far free-throw line. And finally, from the baseline to the opposing baseline and back. When returning on the final leg, a teammate will pass you the ball at mid-court and you must drive the ball for a layup or dunk.

Two men playing basketball in outdoor court

Famous Power Forwards:

1. Tim Duncan - “Duncan embodies everything basketball should be about.” - Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider

2. Karl Malone - “He is the only player in NBA history to be named First-Team All-NBA in 11 consecutive seasons.” - Micah Adams, Stats & Info

3. Dirk Nowitzki - “All he's done is revolutionize the power forward position as Europe's greatest-ever import and the sweetest-shooting big man we've ever seen.” - Marc Stein,

4. Charles Barkley - “Nobody was better at grabbing rebounds and going coast-to-coast.” - Micah Adams, Stats & Info

5. Kevin Garnett - “One of the most versatile and intense players ever.” - Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Insider

5. Centre

The centre (also known as the five or big man), is usually the tallest and strongest player on the team, playing near the basket. This is a position that needs a good overall game. On the offensive play, the centre tries to score on close shots and rebound, whereas on the defense, the centre tries to block their opponents shots and rebound their misses. To play as a centre in basketball you need good passing, handling, and shot accuracy, as well as the ability to react to rebounds. A centre is seen by many as the final line of defense.

Centre key skills:

Physical, tough, rebounding, defense, shooting, shot blocking, running the floor.

Basketball drills for Centres:
If you're the center on your basketball team, you have a unique skill set to work on. You need to be physical and tough. And as you’re close to the basket, you’ll be counted on for high-percentage shots. Your rebounding skills will also be crucial, and you’ll need to play strong defense. These drills can help.

Tip drill: Jump and dribble the ball continually. Work your right hand, your left hand, and then alternate hands. You can choose to work either by number of repetitions (10 tips each hand) or by time (tip for 30 seconds).

Mikan drill: Named after George Mikan, NBA Hall-of-Famer and one of the best bigs to ever play the game, this drill is essential for developing rhythm, timing for rebounding, and scoring in the paint. As well as improving layup skills and increasing stamina. From under the basket, make a layup with the right hand, rebound the ball under the net with the left hand and make a layup with the left hand. Rebound with the right hand and layup with the right hand. Repeat, alternating hands.

Basketball plyo push-ups: This exercise will help develop quicker, more explosive hands and a powerful upper body. Get into a push-up position and straddle a basketball with both hands. Lower yourself down halfway to the ground. Explode off the floor and catch and stabilise yourself on your basketball. Hold, then land softly on the floor. Complete 10 reps.

Woman guarding man shooting basketball

Famous Centres:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - “More MVPs than anyone. More career points than anyone. More career Win Shares than anyone.” - Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Info

2. Wilt Chamberlain - “Statistically, the most dominant individual in the history of American sports.” - Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine

3. Bill Russell - “A defensive genius who epitomized the words leader, team, and champion.” - Broussard

4. Shaquille O'Neal - “Surprisingly nimble and athletic, he is the biggest, most powerful force the game has ever known.” - Broussard

5. Hakeem Olajuwon - “A groundbreaker in terms of bringing footwork and agility to post play.” - Marc Stein,

Each position on a basketball team has its own skill set and physical attributes, and by understanding the different roles, you can better predict what players are going to do next. Though basketball has evolved over the years, and while there are five traditional positions, sometimes a player will play in a hybrid role. These players often combine the skills needed to play two separate positions, with the ability to dribble, shoot, and defend.

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