Basketball Terms & Updated Slang Terms: The Language of the Court

basketball terms

Basketball, much like any sport, has a unique jargon that might sound foreign to the uninitiated. Whether you’re new to the game, brushing up your knowledge, or trying to keep up with the conversation during a game, understanding these terms can enhance your appreciation of the sport.

Learn the common basketball terms and their meanings, as well as the updated slang used in present-day basketball by pros and announcers. Plus gain a good understanding of advanced NBA statistics and some of the most popular offensive sets/plays in basketball history.

Standard Basketball Terms

  • Alley-Oop – A play in which one player throws the ball near the basket only to be jumped by another player who catches it in mid-air and scores in a single motion.
  • And-One – When a player is fouled while shooting and makes the shot. They are awarded the points from the shot and one free throw.
  • Beyond the Arc – Refers to shots made outside the three-point line.
  • Buzzer Beater – A shot taken just before the game or quarter buzzer sounds that counts if it goes in.
  • Crossover Dribble – A dribbling move where a player quickly switches the ball from one hand to the other to deceive a defender.
  • Fast Break – An offensive strategy in which a team tries to advance the ball and score as quickly as possible, often after a steal or a rebound.
  • Full-Court Press – A defensive tactic where defending players apply pressure all over the court, trying to stifle the opponents’ ability to pass and move the ball forward.
  • Iso or Isolation – An offensive play that clears one side of the court for a single player to create and take a shot one-on-one against his defender.
  • Jump Ball – A method used to begin or resume play in which the referee tosses the ball into the air between two opposing players, and they jump to tap it to a teammate.
  • Layup – A shot made close to the basket, often by driving in and using one hand to bounce the ball off the backboard and into the basket.
  • Man-to-Man Defense – A defensive strategy where each defender is responsible for guarding one opponent.
  • Pick and Roll – An offensive play in which a player sets a screen (the pick) for a teammate handling the ball and then slips behind the defender (the roll) to receive a pass.
  • Sixth Man – A player who is not a starter but is invaluable coming off the bench to make an impact.
  • Triple-Double – When a player achieves a double-digit number in three statistical categories, such as points, assists, and rebounds, in one game.
  • Zone Defense – A defensive strategy where each player is responsible for an area of the court and must guard any opponent who enters that area.
  • Traveling – A violation where a player moves one or both of their feet illegally. Most commonly, this occurs when a player takes more than two steps without dribbling the ball.
  • Triple Threat: A stance where an offensive player with the ball can either dribble, pass, or shoot, making them a “triple threat” to the defense.
  • Turnover – An error in which a team loses possession of the ball to the opposing team, often due to a steal, traveling, or stepping out of bounds.
  • Post Up – When a player positions themselves close to the basket, with their back to the defender, to receive the ball in a scoring position.
  • Rebound – When a player retrieves the ball after a missed field goal or free throw.
  • Shot Clock – A timer designed to increase the pace (and, indirectly, scoring) in a game. Teams must attempt a shot before the shot clock runs out.

Updated Basketball Slang Terms 2023

  • Fadeaway: A jump shot taken while leaning back, making it harder for defenders to block.
  • Step Back: A move where the player with the ball takes a quick step (or steps) backward to create separation from their defender before shooting.
  • Handles: A player’s ball-handling skills.
  • Posterize: When a player dunks the ball over a defending player in a way that’s deemed worthy of being put on a poster.
  • No-Look Pass: A pass made without directly looking at the receiving player.
  • Euro Step: The “Euro step” is a basketball move used primarily by players when driving to the basket. It’s a two-step, evasive maneuver designed to navigate around a defender without committing a traveling violation.
  • Spot Up: When a player positions themselves to catch a pass and shoot without dribbling.
  • Putback: When an offensive player immediately scores off a rebound without dribbling.
  • BBQ Chicken: Popularized by Shaquille O’Neal, this term refers to a player who is easily dominated in the post, indicating that the opponent is like “BBQ chicken” to them – easy to eat up.
  • Black Hole: A player who, when they get the ball, rarely passes it out, often leading to a shot.
  • 3 and D Player: A player primarily valued for their ability to shoot three-pointers and play solid defense.
  • Bank’s Open: A phrase used when a player makes a shot off the backboard, implying the “bank” is open for business.
  • Breaking Ankles: Refers to a dribble move that causes the defender to stumble or fall.
  • Bucket: Simply another term for a made basket or a score.
  • Dime: A particularly impressive or slick assist.
  • Get Buckets: A term referring to a player’s ability to consistently score.
  • Heat Check: After a player has made several shots in a row, they might take a more challenging shot to test (“check”) how “hot” they are.
  • Put Him on Skates: Similar to “Breaking Ankles,” this phrase suggests the offensive player’s move made the defender look as if they were slipping on ice.
  • Run It Back: A request to replay a game or a particular possession, often made informally during pick-up games.
  • Sick: Describes a particularly impressive play or move. “That dunk was sick!”
  • Wet: Referring to a shot that goes cleanly through the net, often used to describe a player’s smooth shooting stroke.
  • Gone Fishing: A term often used to indicate a team that has been eliminated from the playoffs. They’re no longer playing, so they might as well go fishing.
  • Dame Time: Referring to Damian Lillard’s clutch performances, especially late in games. Indicates it’s his time to shine.
  • Too Small: A taunt or declaration made, often by an offensive player, implying that the defender can’t guard them due to a size or skill mismatch.
  • Put Them to Sleep: Refers to a player using a series of moves, often dribbling, to lull a defender into a false sense of security, only to suddenly make an aggressive move to score or pass.
  • Teardrop: A type of shot where the player softly lofts the ball high into the air, causing it to drop (like a teardrop) into the basket, often used to shoot over taller defenders.
  • Cooking: When a player is performing exceptionally well, especially offensively, they’re said to be “cooking.”
  • Splash Brothers: Refers to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, known for their exceptional three-point shooting abilities.
  • Garbage Time: Refers to the time at the end of a game where the outcome is essentially decided, and starters are often benched in favor of reserves.
  • Elam Ending: A game-ending target score used in some basketball games, most notably The Basketball Tournament (TBT). It’s designed to eliminate late-game fouling by setting a fixed target score rather than playing to the clock.
  • From Deep: Refers to shots taken from well beyond the three-point line.
  • Corner 3s: Three-point shots taken from the corners of the court, which are technically a bit closer to the basket than the top of the arc.

10 Advanced Basketball Statistic Terms

  1. Plus/Minus (+/-): Represents the point differential when a player is on the court. For instance, if a player has a +5, it means their team outscored the opponents by 5 points while that player was on the court.
  2. Real Plus/Minus (RPM): An advanced version of plus/minus that tries to estimate a player’s impact on team performance after accounting for the quality of their teammates and opponents. RPM is designed to isolate an individual’s impact more accurately.
  3. Field Goal Percentage (FG%): Represents the percentage of field goals (shots) a player makes out of those attempted. It’s calculated as (Field Goals Made / Field Goals Attempted) x 100.
  4. True Shooting Percentage (TS%): A more encompassing measure of a player’s shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws. The formula for TS% is: Points / (2 x (Field Goal Attempts + 0.44 x Free Throw Attempts)).
  5. Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%): Adjusts for the fact that a three-point field goal is worth one point more than a two-point field goal. The formula is: (Field Goals Made + 0.5 * 3P Field Goals Made) / Field Goal Attempts.
  6. Player Efficiency Rating (PER): A per-minute rating that summarizes a player’s statistical accomplishments in a single number. Developed by John Hollinger, PER standardizes a player’s stats, accounting for pace, and then compares them to league averages.
  7. Usage Rate (USG%): Represents the percentage of team plays used by a player when they are on the floor. This helps indicate how involved a player is in the team’s offense.
  8. Win Shares (WS): An advanced statistic designed to determine the overall contribution of a player to a team’s wins. It’s a cumulative statistic, combining both offensive and defensive contributions.
  9. Box Plus/Minus (BPM): A box score-based metric for evaluating basketball players’ quality and contribution to the team. It is the combination of a player’s Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) and Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM).
  10. Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): A stat derived from Box Plus/Minus, representing the point value a player contributed over a replacement-level player, scaled per 100 team possessions.

Popular Offensive Set/Play Terms

7 Seconds Or Less

“7 Seconds or Less” refers to an offensive basketball philosophy that emphasizes extremely fast-paced play, aiming to get a good shot off within the first seven seconds of possessing the ball. This style of play is synonymous with former NBA coach Mike D’Antoni. Particularly during his tenure with the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s.

Key elements and reasons behind the “7 Seconds or Less” system:

  1. Rapid Pace: The idea is to push the ball up the court as quickly as possible after a defensive rebound, opponent’s score, or turnover.
  2. Spacing: Players spread out across the court, which creates driving lanes and open shots, particularly beyond the three-point line.
  3. Pick-and-Roll: This offensive play becomes a central element. With players setting screens to free up teammates for drives to the basket or open shots.
  4. Catch Defense Off Guard: By pushing the pace, the offense can often get high-quality shots before the opposing defense is set.
  5. Increased Possessions: A faster offensive pace naturally leads to more possessions for both teams during the game. For teams proficient in this style, it can lead to higher scoring games and can potentially tire out opponents.

During D’Antoni’s time with the Suns, players like Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire thrived in this system. Nash, with his exceptional ball-handling, passing, and decision-making skills, was the perfect point guard to lead this high-octane offense.

While not all teams can or choose to implement such an aggressive offensive pace. The influence of the “7 Seconds or Less” philosophy can be seen in the modern NBA. Where pace, space, and three-point shooting have become increasingly important.

Triangle Offense

The Triangle Offense, often simply referred to as “the Triangle,” is a basketball offensive strategy that places a strong emphasis on spacing, passing, and cutting. It’s known for its versatility, adaptability to personnel, and emphasis on reading the defense rather than relying on set plays. Here’s an overview:

Origin and Prominent Usage:
The Triangle Offense was popularized by Phil Jackson, the Hall of Fame NBA coach. But its roots trace back to Sam Barry, who coached at the University of Southern California. Also, Jackson’s assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Tex Winter, is often credited as the primary innovator and teacher of the Triangle in the NBA context. Under Jackson, the Bulls (with players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and later, Dennis Rodman) and the Lakers (with players like Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol) won a combined 11 NBA championships using the Triangle.

Basic Concepts:

  1. Formation: The name “Triangle” comes from the formation created by three players – a post player on the low block, a wing player in the corner, and a guard on the wing – forming a triangle on one side of the court. The other two players are on the weak side, with one on the wing and one at the top.
  2. Spacing: Proper spacing is vital. The idea is to space out the defense, creating opportunities for passes, cuts, and drives.
  3. Options: Rather than having predetermined plays, the Triangle provides players with a series of options that depend on how the defense reacts. Players read the defense and make decisions based on principles and sequences they’ve practiced.
  4. Versatility: The Triangle can adapt to different personnel. While the Bulls utilized Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s versatility, the Lakers exploited the dominant inside presence of Shaquille O’Neal.
  5. Ball Movement and Player Movement: The offense discourages excessive dribbling. Instead, it emphasizes sharp passes, V-cuts, backdoor cuts, and other off-the-ball movements.


  • Learning Curve: The Triangle is seen as complex, and players often face a steep learning curve when first introduced to it.
  • Modern NBA: With the current NBA’s emphasis on pick-and-roll and pace-and-space offenses, fewer teams run the Triangle as their primary system. However, elements of it are incorporated into various team strategies.

Overall, while the Triangle Offense might not dominate current NBA playbooks, its principles and the successes of the teams that utilized it ensure its place in basketball lore.

Princeton Offense

The Princeton Offense is a basketball strategy known for its precision, patience, and reliance on fundamentals. Developed and popularized at Princeton University under the guidance of coach Pete Carril in the late 20th century, this offense places a premium on passing, cutting, and high basketball IQ.

Key Components of the Princeton Offense:

  1. Spacing: Like many structured offenses, proper spacing is crucial in the Princeton system. This spacing facilitates ball movement and creates driving and cutting lanes.
  2. Passing: The offense emphasizes sharp, quick passes, often leading to a series of options based on how the defense reacts. It discourages excessive dribbling in favor of ball movement.
  3. Backdoor Cuts: One of the hallmarks of the Princeton offense is the backdoor cut, where a perimeter player, after passing the ball, fakes moving outward then sharply cuts to the basket behind their defender, looking for a return pass.
  4. High Post Action: The center often starts at the high post (the free-throw line or elbow area) and is involved in various plays from this position, whether as a passer, shooter, or screener.
  5. Constant Motion: All five players are continuously moving, setting screens, cutting, and repositioning to maintain the defense on its heels.
  6. Reading the Defense: Rather than relying strictly on preset plays, the Princeton offense offers a framework from which players can read the defense and react accordingly.
  7. Time Management: The Princeton Offense can also serve as a strategy to control the game’s tempo. By using most of the shot clock, teams can limit opponents’ possessions, making each defensive stand crucial.

Use in the NBA:

While the Princeton Offense was primarily a college system, several NBA teams have incorporated its principles. Coaches like Eddie Jordan with the Washington Wizards and Byron Scott with the New Jersey Nets implemented facets of the Princeton system with varying degrees of success.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

  • Strengths: The offense can be highly effective against teams that struggle with defensive communication or tend to be overly aggressive. The constant motion can wear down defenders, and the backdoor cuts can exploit defenders who overplay their man.
  • Weaknesses: One of the criticisms of the Princeton Offense, especially in the context of the modern, fast-paced NBA, is that it can be too slow and predictable. If not executed perfectly, it can lead to forced shots late in the shot clock. Additionally, it may not always capitalize on the unique talents of superstar players, as it emphasizes team play over individual brilliance.

In summary, the Princeton Offense is a timeless system that emphasizes basketball fundamentals. While not as popular in today’s fast-paced, three-point-centric game, its principles remain influential in shaping offensive strategies in various basketball levels.

HORNS Offense/Double High

The HORNS offense, sometimes referred to as “double high,” is a basketball offensive set that features two players (usually big men) at the elbows (junction of the free-throw line and the key) and two players in the corners, with the point guard up top with the ball. The formation resembles a “V” or the horns on a bull, hence the name.

While many teams in the NBA, including the Golden State Warriors, have utilized the HORNS set, it’s important to note that HORNS is not exclusive to the Warriors nor did they invent it. However, the Warriors, particularly under coach Steve Kerr, have run their variations out of the HORNS set, making the most out of their skilled roster.

Key Features of the HORNS Set:

  1. Versatility: The initial formation provides a multitude of options based on the skill set of the players. This versatility makes it difficult for defenses to predict the ensuing action.
  2. Pick and Roll/Pop: One common action out of HORNS involves the point guard choosing one of the big men to set a screen, leading to a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop scenario.
  3. Dribble Handoffs: The point guard can pass to one of the big men at the elbow, who can then execute a dribble handoff with a wing player.
  4. Cutting and Off-Ball Screens: Given the spacing, players can set off-ball screens to free up shooters or cutters, leading to open shots or layups.

Golden State Warriors and HORNS:

Given the Warriors’ roster with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and others, they have leveraged the HORNS set to exploit mismatches and take advantage of their players’ diverse skills:

  1. Three-Point Shooting: With elite shooters like Curry and Thompson, the Warriors can quickly transition from the HORNS set into a three-point shot, especially if defenders go under screens or get caught on off-ball screens.
  2. Draymond Green’s Versatility: Green’s ability to handle the ball, pass, and make decisions has been crucial. He can be positioned at the elbow in the HORNS set, becoming a focal point for initiating various plays, whether it’s finding Curry for a three or a cutter for an easy layup.
  3. Misdirection: The Warriors often use the HORNS set as a starting point, only to flow into another offensive action. This misdirection can catch the defense off guard, leading to open shots or driving lanes.

While the Golden State Warriors have become synonymous with a fast-paced, three-point shooting offense, their use of structured sets like HORNS (among others) has been a key aspect of their success, providing them with the flexibility to adjust based on their personnel and the defensive approach of their opponents.

Pick And Roll

The pick and roll (often abbreviated to P&R) is one of the most fundamental and frequently used offensive plays in basketball. It’s a two-player action that involves a screen (the “pick”) and a movement to the basket (the “roll”).

Basic Mechanics of the Pick and Roll:

  1. The Pick: One player, often a bigger player or post player, sets a screen on the ball handler’s defender. This player is the “screener.”
  2. The Roll: After setting the screen, the screener then moves (“rolls”) towards the basket, looking to receive a pass from the ball handler.

Variations and Options:

  1. Pick and Pop: Instead of rolling to the basket, the screener moves to an open spot on the floor, usually for a mid-range or three-point shot. This action is more common with big men who are good shooters.
  2. Pick and Slip: The screener fakes setting a screen but quickly “slips” to the basket or an open spot before actually setting the pick. This can catch the defense off guard, especially if they’re anticipating the screen.
  3. Pick and Fade: Similar to the pick and pop, but the screener moves to a spot farther away from the ball handler, usually on the same side of the court.
  4. Using the Screen: The ball handler can choose to use the screen, refuse the screen (going the opposite direction), or split the screen (going between the screener and the defender hedging or trapping).

Defensive Counters:

Defenses have developed various strategies to counter the pick and roll, including:

  1. Switching: The two defenders switch players after the screen is set.
  2. Hedging: The screener’s defender briefly helps out to stop the ball handler’s progress and then recovers to their original assignment.
  3. Trapping: Both defenders converge on the ball handler to try and force a turnover.
  4. Going Under: The ball handler’s defender goes under the screen, anticipating the ball handler won’t take or make a long-range shot.
  5. Ice or Down: The defense forces the ball handler away from the screen and towards the baseline or sideline.

Importance in Modern Basketball:

The pick and roll has become even more integral in today’s NBA and basketball globally. Because of the emphasis on spacing, ball movement, and the prevalence of players who can both shoot. The P&R creates mismatches, forces defensive rotations, and offers multiple scoring options. It’s especially deadly when executed by players who can read the defense and make quick decisions.

Many of the game’s legends and current stars have been masterful in the pick and roll. From John Stockton and Karl Malone in the past. To players like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Luka Dončić in the modern era.

UCLA High Post Offense

UCLA High Post Offense – Key Features:

  1. High Post Positioning: One of the most distinguishing features of Wooden’s offense was the positioning of the center or a big man at the high post, around the free-throw line. This positioning allowed the big man to become both a passer and a scoring threat.
  2. Versatile Movement: The offense was dynamic, with players constantly in motion. The movement included backdoor cuts, screens away from the ball, and on-ball screens.
  3. Guard Play: Guards played a crucial role. Because they had to decide to use the screens set by the big men. Or distribute the ball to the open man.
  4. Flexibility: The high post offense was adaptable. Depending on the defensive setup and the players on the floor, UCLA could adjust its approach, maintaining its core principles but tweaking specific actions.
  5. Teamwork: Emphasizing unselfishness, the offense relied on players to make the right reads and decisions. Rather than predetermining who would take the shot.
  6. Wing Entry and Cut: A common initiation of the offense was for a guard to pass to a wing player. And then make a strong cut towards the basket. Often using a screen set by the center at the high post.
  7. Backdoor Opportunities: The threat of perimeter shooting and the positioning of players often led to opportunities for backdoor cuts. Where a player on the wing or perimeter would fake moving outwards, only to quickly cut to the basket behind their defender.

John Wooden’s philosophy wasn’t just about the X’s and O’s of the game. While his high post offense was undoubtedly effective, his teachings on leadership, character, and personal excellence have left a lasting legacy in the sports world and beyond. His “Pyramid of Success” is often referenced as much as his on-court strategies, emphasizing the holistic approach he took to coaching and life.

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