The Game of Basketball (Rules Explained)

basketball rules

When James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, it was just a way to keep his gym class busy on a cold winter’s day. Little did he know that his humble indoor activity would evolve and explode to take over the world. Fast-paced and action-packed, basketball is more than a simple sport. It is a test of endurance, team spirit, and skill.

With its specific rules and terminology, basketball can be complicated for those who are playing or watching a game for the first time. To help sort out the confusion, we have put together this cheat sheet that explains basketball rules according to the NBA as simply as possible.

Basics Rules of a Basketball Game

Before we get into the rules, let’s go over the basics of the game one by one. Basketball is played on a rectangular hard floor court, with a basket at either end. It is divided by the mid-court line.

Two teams play against each other to take possession of a ball that must be dribbled or passed across the court. Each team has five players for a total of ten players on a court, and a game is divided into four 12-minute intervals known as quarters.

Points are scored when the ball is shot into the opposing team’s basket.  The basket height is 10 feet above the ground. Once a team gets the ball through the basketball hoop, the ball goes to the other team. If there is a tie, the game goes into an overtime period, with 5-minute periods added until the tie is broken. Sounds simple enough, right? Now let’s move on to scoring points.

Scoring Points

men playing basketball

The goal is to get the ball in the opponent’s basket, but all shots are not equal. Points awarded depend on how far a player throws the ball from the basket.

  • One point for free throws, which are awarded after certain fouls. More about that below.
  • Two points for a ball shot within the three-point line (aka three-point arc)
  • Three points for a ball shot on or outside the three-point line

For free throws and three-point shots, players shoot the ball with a standard shot and follow through or a jump shot, respectively. On the other hand, two-point shots allow for more creativity with various styles to get the ball in the basket, including lay-ups, tip-ins, and our favorite gravity-defying slam dunks.

Rules of Gameplay

We have gone over the basics and the points system. Now, we move on to gameplay. At the start of the game, two players from each team face off in the center of the court. The referee throws the ball in the air (a jump ball), and both players jump to grab it or pass it across to one of their teammates. This is called the tip-off. The ball is now in play. The team with the ball is the offensive team, and the other is the defensive team.

If an offensive player moves, they must dribble the ball. If they take a step and a half without dribbling and don’t make a shot or pass, it is called a traveling violation, and the ball is given to the defense. Other violations that result in loss of possession are listed below:

  • Double dribble violation: A player dribbles with both hands touching the ball or handles the ball in a dribble-stop-dribble motion.
  • Kickball violation: when a player intentionally uses their legs or feet to move the ball. If contact is made accidentally, it usually isn’t a kickball violation.
  • Out-of-bounds violation: When a player with the ball steps on or crosses the boundary of the basketball court
  • Goaltending violation: When a defensive player tries to interfere with a ball on its way down to the basket. Even touching the rim or net during this time counts as a goaltending violation.

If two opposing players get hold of the ball simultaneously and neither controls it, it is a held ball or jump ball. The referee comes in to put the ball back in play via a jump ball.

Teams can call timeouts throughout the game. This stops the game clock and allows teams to strategize, rest players, or make substitutions. In the NBA, each team has seven timeouts that can last up to 75 seconds. However, there are restrictions here. Each team can only use four timeouts max in the fourth quarter; of those, only two can be in the final three minutes.

Time Rules

stop watch

To keep the game moving and stay dynamic, several time rules must be followed, and if any are not, it results in a violation. These are listed below.

  • 3-Second Rule

A player cannot stand inside the paint area for more than three seconds if they are not actively guarding or while their team has the ball. The paint is the rectangular area between the free-throw line and the baseline behind the basket.

  • 5-Second Rule

A player only has 5 seconds to hold the ball once it is passed to them if they are being guarded. They must start dribbling, attempt a shot, or pass before the five seconds are up. If violated, the ball goes to the defense.

  • 8-Second Rule – 10 Second Rule at youth levels

Once the offense gets the ball, they have 8 seconds to get it across the mid-court line; otherwise, it is awarded to the defense. Also, once the offense crosses the midcourt line, they can’t take it back. If they do, it’s a backcourt violation, and the ball goes to the defense.

  • 24-Second Shot Clock Rule

The offense has 24 seconds to make a shot. The timer starts when the ball comes into their possession and ends when it touches the basket’s rim. If a timeout is called during this time, the shot clock is paused, not reset. The ball goes to the defense if this time limit is exceeded.

While the offense tries to get the ball closer to their opponent’s basket, the defense attempts to stop them by stealing the ball, blocking shots, intercepting passes, and grabbing rebounds (a ball that doesn’t go in the basket and bounces out).


basketball player about to free throw

Referees keep a close eye on all players to ensure they play fairly. The referee blows the whistle to stop gameplay whenever they spot illegal play. Fouls result in the opposing team getting possession of the ball, free throws, or both.

A free throw is an unopposed shot awarded to the team that suffered the foul. Despite being inside the three-point arc, a free throw only counts as a single point. These shots are taken from the free throw line, with no more than six other players lined up on the borders of the free throw line. Four players are from the defense, and two are from the offense. The rest of the players must stand behind the three-point line.

There are different kinds of fouls in basketball. These include:

  • Personal fouls: Any illegal physical contact, such as hitting, grabbing, kicking, tripping, or pushing during gameplay.
    • Both offensive and defensive players can commit this kind of foul.  They must be aware of their movement, arms, and legs as they play because even accidental contact is a personal foul.
    • If the offense commits a personal foul, it is an offensive foul, and if the defense commits a personal foul, it is a defensive foul.
  • Charging and Blocking Fouls: These are two of basketball’s most controversial and most contested fouls. Anytime there is forceful contact between opposing players, a referee must determine who is responsible.
    • Blocking is when a defensive player is not in a legal position when the offensive player moves toward them. This results in the dribbler being pushed backward.
    • Charging is when an offensive player collides with a defensive player who is in a legal position, where both feet are on the ground, and the player was not moving before the collision.
  • Shooting fouls: If a foul is committed while the offensive player attempts to make a shot, free throws are awarded as follows:
    • Three free throws are given for an attempted three-point shot
    • Two free throws are given for an attempted two-point shot
    • If the player makes the shot while being fouled, they get one free throw. This is known as an and-one
  • Flagrant fouls: This refers to any unnecessary violent physical contact, even if it is accidental. Players who commit such fouls can be removed from the game.
  • Technical fouls: Any non-physical unsportsmanlike conduct, such as inappropriate language, falls under the category of technical fouls. This can be committed by both players and coaches and includes any inappropriate behavior towards the other team or referee.


basketball team defense

The players on a basketball team work together to make shots and defend their basket. Each player has a specific role, as described below.

  • The centeris generally the tallest player positioned closer to the basket. They catch rebounds and block shots, making them a crucial part of a team’s defense.
  • The power forward is one of the physically prominent players fighting for rebounds and scoring within the three-point arc.
  • The small forward plays mostly outside the paint, defending and making shots. They are the most versatile players, weaving around the court as needed.
  • The point guard plays a key role in establishing the tempo and communication between the players. They have to be quick thinking, finding opportunities in real-time.
  • The shooting guard is focused on making three-point shots. They are skilled at handling the ball while getting around the defense.

Nothing But Net

Hopefully, all this information has given you a better understanding of the gameplay and rules of basketball. From the player positions to fouls and violations, you now have plenty of knowledge to enjoy your next game.

basketball hoop with white background
Article Name
Basketball Rules Explained
One of the most popular sports played and watched worldwide, basketball rules can seem complicated and confusing.