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Nothing But Net: Basketball Guide for Beginners

basketball with blurred basketball court

It’s game time! Basketball season is here. The most popular sport to play in the U.S., basketball will be all over TVs in the late fall, winter, and early spring. Basketball basics are fairly easy to pick up, but new fans might need some help getting into the game. That’s where our guide to basketball essentials comes in. Follow along to make learning basketball a slam dunk!

Where Was Basketball Invented?

Springfield, Massachusetts, is home to basketball’s Hall of Fame, which recognizes the game’s most important figures. And it’s there for good reason—Springfield is the birthplace of basketball. Dating back to 1891, a man named James Naismith came up with the idea to give students at Springfield College an indoor activity during winter. Two peach baskets acted as goals, and there were only 13 original rules. It would be decades before basketball became what we now know and love! 

How Long is a Basketball Game?

group of young kids playing basketball

When basketball was invented in 1891, games were pretty short—just two 15-minute halves. Today, game times and structures vary depending on the league:

The National Basketball Association (NBA)

Men’s pro basketball is played in four 12-minute quarters, with a halftime intermission between the second and third quarters. In-game, players must shoot based on a shot clock that runs for 24 seconds each time a team gets the ball.

If players don’t score within that limit, the ball is automatically given to the other team. If a game is tied at the end of the fourth quarter, overtime periods lasting five minutes take place until there is a winner, which is standard across all leagues.

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) & Europe

Instead of 12-minute quarters, these leagues play games that only last 40 minutes, with four 10-minute quarters and a 24-second shot clock.

College Basketball

Instead of quarters, men’s college basketball is played in two halves. Each half lasts 20 minutes, and the shot clock runs for 30 seconds instead of 24. For decades, women’s college ball also played in this format, but in 2015, it switched to match the WNBA and Europe.

Interested in a new, trendy sport? Take a closer look at pickleball!

Where Do You Play Basketball?

Basketball is played on a rectangular floor, usually 50 feet wide and 84-94 feet long, depending on the level of play. Raised baskets sit on opposite ends of the court, attached to large rectangles called backboards. Each team has their own basket to try and shoot and score into.

The court is divided into multiple sections by drawn lines:

  • The key. A rectangular area on each end of the court that begins right underneath the baskets.
  • The free throw line. A line drawn towards the end of the key, away from the basket, where players can take shots after violations (fouls).
  • The three-point line. An arc drawn on each end of the court after the end of the key, where players can take shots from a longer distance for extra points.
  • The center court line. Drawn straight down the middle of the court. Once a team gets the ball, they can only cross this line once unless the other team touches the ball again first.  

How Do You Play Basketball?

To play basketball in most leagues, two teams put five players each on a court at a time, with a basketball hoop designated to each team on opposite ends of the court. To start the game, the ball is tossed into the air at center court by a referee, and one player from each team tries to tip it over to their teammates. 

Teams then bounce (“dribble”) the ball up and down the court throughout the game on offense, trying to shoot and score a basket by putting the ball through the hoop. Or, they can be on defense, trying to stop the other from scoring by blocking shots from going into the basket or stealing the ball away from the other team. When teams shoot, and the ball doesn’t go in, either team can rebound the basketball by grabbing the missed shot out of the air. Whichever team has the most points at the end is the winner.  


Basketball is a game of ball movement where players try to score as many points as possible. If someone passes the ball to a teammate and they immediately score a basket, they get credit for what’s called an assist for the pass in the game’s statistics. If a player scores the ball themselves, there’s no assist. 

All shots are worth one, two, or three points, depending on the type:

  • Layups. Two-point shots taken near the rim as a player moves toward it.
  • Jump shots. When players stop and shoot the ball away from the basket for two points. 
  • Three-point baskets. Three-pointers are scored by shooting the basketball from behind the arc outlined on each end of the court. 
  • Two-point baskets. From inside the three-point arc, made shots are worth two points. 
  • Free throws. Worth one point each, players get to shoot free throws when the other team commits a foul. Fouls are violations of basketball rules, usually involving unnecessary contact by the team on defense to the team on offense. Fouls pause the game to let the player who was fouled stand behind the free-throw line to take a shot that can’t be defended. Players can shoot one, two, or three free throws depending on the situation they’re fouled in. 

basketball shot to hoop

The Players

There are five positions in basketball. Unlike in football, players play both offense and defense, and any position can generally do the same things: shoot, score, dribble, pass, and defend, with slight differences across the five on the court. Here’s who’s who:

Point Guard

The point guard usually controls the offense and is the best passer on the team. On defense, they play away from the basket, defending the other team’s perimeter players, who play from the three-point line down.

Shooting Guard

Like their name suggests, on offense, shooting guards are the best shooters on the team. On defense, their role is similar to the point guard.

Small Forward

Small forwards can play from everywhere on the court and even be a team’s point guard, known as a point forward. On defense, they can defend smaller or bigger players depending on their team’s needs.

Power Forward

Power forwards usually play near the basket on offense and defense. They defend taller players and tend to be good rebounders.


The center is the tallest player on the team. They play near the basket and are the team’s best shot blocker and rebounder.

Thinking about enjoying the next big game with a tailgate or watch party? Check out our breakdown of tailgating essentials!

Soup Up Your Sports Knowledge

Now you know the basketball basics, but it might not be the only fall sport on your mind. If you also have questions about football, we’ve got answers. Check out our guide on football rules for beginners to learn how the game works and make watching worthwhile.