What Is the Meaning of ISO in Basketball?

iso basketball

From buzzer beater and ankle breaker to double dribble and alley-oop, there are many formal and informal terms that the average basketball enthusiast might not know the meaning of.

One of the terms that we often hear from commentary as soon as the clock starts to wind down in the fourth quarter of a basketball game is the term ‘ISO.’ You hear that term, and you wonder, “What is ISO, exactly?”

In this post, we cover everything you need to know about ISO in basketball, from what the term stands for to some of the most notable ISO basketball players in the history of the NBA, so stick around!

What Does ISO Mean in Basketball?

In the context of basketball, the term ‘ISO’ stands for ‘isolation play.’ An ISO play is when two players—an offensive player and a defensive player from the opposing team—are isolated in a one-on-one matchup.

ISO plays usually take place near the end of a quarter, and they’re quite reliant on dribbling and ball-handling skills. 

There are lots of videos that you can find on YouTube of basketball players ISO-ing back and forth (see video at the bottom of the page). Some players even like to talk trash to their opponents to psyche them out and gain a competitive edge.

It’s worth noting that ISO basketball wasn’t all that popular before the mid-2000s. It wasn’t until streetball started to boom that ISO plays became popular in the NBA.

In fact, lots of old-school coaches aren’t too fond of ISO plays, as they put the entire focus of the team’s offense on a single player. Nevertheless, ISO plays are still quite popular and are called for every so often.

How Does an ISO Play Work?

Here’s a brief breakdown of how ISO plays take place:

  1. ISO is typically attempted by the best offensive player on the team after a signal from the coach.
  2. The offensive player then signals to his teammates to clear out to create space for the play.
  3. The defenders of the opposing team will also clear out, apart from one defender.
  4. The ball handler will try to score on the remaining defender via a quick jump shot or by driving to the hoop.

Note that a true ISO play doesn’t involve the offensive player’s teammates trying to set screens for him. It also doesn’t involve the defense of the opposing team trying to double-team the ball handler.

How to Set up an ISO Play in Basketball

There are a few factors that you need to consider before running an ISO play in basketball, from deciding on a signal for ISO plays to choosing the right offensive and defensive player.  

Let’s break down each of these factors.

  • ISO Play Signaling ­– In preparation for potential ISO plays, the team should develop some sort of signal that they can use to announce the play. The signal can be verbal, or it can be a hand signal.
  • Offensive Player – Choosing the right offensive player is key to running an ISO play. In most cases, the player with the best ball-handling and dribbling skills is the one assigned the role of running ISO plays.
  • Defensive Player – The offensive player must know how to choose the right defender for the ISO play, which ideally should be the weaker defender. Differences in height, size, speed, and the number of fouls play notable roles here.
  • Ball Position – Before attempting an ISO play, the offensive player needs to consider the position of the ball. Ideally, the ISO play should start from the position where the offensive player is most comfortable.

Advantages of Running an ISO Play in Basketball

Some of the advantages of running ISO plays include the following:

  • It allows you to get the ball in the main scorer’s hands.
  • It allows you to attack weak defenders and capitalize on mismatches.
  • It’s very effective in short-clock situations.
  • It can lead to many wide-open layouts and jump shorts.

Disadvantages of Running an ISO Play in Basketball

Some of the disadvantages of running ISO plays include the following:

  • It isn’t the most effective strategy against zone defense.
  • It can leave the team feeling uninvolved as it focuses on one or two players.
  • It can be too predictable if you’re known for running them.

Who Are the Best ISO Players in NBA History?

There are five players that have solidified their status as the best ISO players in the history of the NBA, namely:

1. James Harden

With 321 points, James Harden is considered the best ISO player of all time. This probably comes as no surprise considering Harden’s ability to storm through defense lines like a rocket.

2. Lebron James

Thanks to his remarkable vision, dribbling skills, and overall basketball IQ, LeBron James has managed to secure the second spot with 111 points. His ability to score from anywhere on the field makes him a scary opponent in ISO situations.

3. Damian Lillard

Boasting excellent strength, body control, and vertical explosiveness, Damian Lillard has made it to the list of the best ISO players of all time with 110 points.

4. Russel Westbrook

With 99 points, Russel Westbrook is another formidable ISO basketball player. He’s one of the best players in the NBA when it comes to controlling the game. He’s also remarkably fast.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Despite being a newcomer, Giannis Antetokounmpo has secured a spot on the list of the best ISO players in the NBA with 99 points, thanks to his versatile play style and outstanding ball-handling skills.

In Summary

An ISO play in basketball is when an offensive player and a defensive player from the opposing team are isolated in a mano-a-mano matchup, with the offensive player trying to score by driving to the hoop or with a quick jump shot.

When implemented strategically, an ISO play can turn the tide of a basketball game within a matter of seconds, especially if a player on the team has a “hot hand.