Basketball positions have evolved over time, but some of the core features of each role have remained a constant.
The sport of basketball is more than just running around and putting the ball through a hoop. It is a symphony, an intricate orchestra where each musician brings different instruments and contributes their best. The team’s success lies in how well each individual plays their role.
Traditionally, players in these positions would adhere to their roles and focus on what their specific position entails. For instance, if you’re a big guy, you are rarely allowed to bring the ball up the court or shoot a three.
However, basketball has evolved so much since then, and every player is now needed to play two or more roles at the same time. Modern basketball requires flexibility, a skill that enables one to do what is necessary for a particular situation.
This article will go through and explain all of the conventional basketball positions. Plus, this also includes a comprehensive rundown of hybrid positions that are developed as basketball evolves in its complexity.
Traditional Basketball Positions Explained
A team may use any five-player combination at any given time. A coach may even use multiple players from the same position simultaneously! However, for balance and strategy, a team fields the five traditional basketball positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center.
Point Guard (aka the “1”)
The point guard is viewed as the extension of the coach on the court. They are responsible for bringing the ball up, directing plays, and putting their teammates in the correct positions. This is why a point guard is called a “floor general.”
Since his primary responsibility is calling out plays, he must have excellent passing skills. A point guard is also the best ball handler on the team. However, to keep the defense honest, he may also have to initiate offensive plays using penetration or even have to attempt a shot himself. Traditionally, point guards do not look for their shots as often, but some teams today rely on their floor generals to carry the scoring load.
Defensively, point guards are often the first point-of-attack defenders. They make sure to get seconds off the clock by pressuring their counterparts and even forcing turnovers.
Playing point guard demands the following abilities and characteristics:
- Passing and unselfishness
- Communication skills
- Leadership skills
- Mentally and physically tough
- High basketball IQ
In the NBA, the oft-considered best point guards of all time include:
1.) Magic Johnson
2.) John Stockton
3.) Isiah Thomas
4.) Oscar Robertson
5.) Bob Cousy
6.) Jason Kidd
7.) Steve Nash
Shooting Guard (aka the “2”)
The primary responsibility of a shooting guard is to score the basketball. Therefore, shooting guards are excellent outside shooters and above-average finishers. They must also be able to move well off the ball and are adept at navigating through screens to get open.
When it comes to their ball-handling capabilities, shooting guards may not be as good as point guards, but it is a necessary skill. For instance, if the point guard is pressured, a shooting guard must be able to bring the ball up in a pinch. Or if somebody closes out to him hard, he should be able to put the ball on the floor, take a pullup jumper, or finish a layup.
On the defensive side, he may be matched up against opposing scorers as well. He should make things difficult for them and even help the big guys get rebounds. Size-wise, it’s ideal for a shooting guard to be bigger than point guards. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Clyde Drexler are at least 6-foot-6, which helps them immensely on offense and defense.
Playing shooting guard demands the following abilities and characteristics:
- Excellent outside shooting
- Can score without dribbling
- Expert on getting open
- Master at reading spaces
Here are the names often mentioned when talking about the best shooting guards in the NBA:
1.) Michael Jordan
2.) Kobe Bryant
3.) Dwyane Wade
4.) Clyde Drexler
5.) Reggie Miller
6.) Ray Allen
7.) Steph Curry
Small Forward (aka the “3”)
More often than not, small forwards are the most versatile players on the team. Ideal small forwards can play shooting guard in a pinch and may slide over to the other forward spot if needed.
That is why a small forward must be tall enough to play on the inside and agile enough to play on the outside. Small forwards are typically the team’s second or third-best shooters and should be a jack-of-all-trades. He must be able to score, dish, get rebounds, and be a defensive stopper. If you think about it, a small forward combines all five basketball positions into one.
Playing small forward demands the following abilities and characteristics:
- Must be in tremendous physical shape
- Should be adaptable
- Quick enough to handle opposing guards and strong enough to defend the post
- Outstanding finishers
- Can fill the necessary gaps of the team offensively and defensively
When discussing the top small forwards of all time in the NBA, the following names are frequently mentioned:
1.) LeBron James
2.) Larry Bird
3.) Scottie Pippen
4.) Julius Erving
5.) Grant Hill
6.) Elgin Baylor
7.) Kevin Durant
See Basketball Terms and Definitions.
Power Forward (aka the “4”)
Power forwards provide a physical presence on the basketball court. They are usually the second-tallest on the team and play close to the basket. A power forward is an excellent rebounder and has the ability to hit mid-range jumpers when open. He also sets good physical screens and is a capable pick-and-roll partner and finisher.
Defensively, a power forward denies passing lanes and interior positions. He does not allow easy baskets or layups, if at all. A power forward who is a liability on defense or is a poor rebounder is a detriment to a team’s success.
Playing power forward demands the following abilities and characteristics:
- Strong rebounding
- Excellent post play
- Scores in the paint and mid-range
- Adequate shot-blocking
- Sets powerful screens
- Great physical conditioning
Here are some of the best power forwards of all time:
1.) Tim Duncan
2.) Dirk Nowitzki
3.) Kevin Garnett
4.) Karl Malone
5.) Charles Barkley
6.) Bob Pettit
7.) Kevin McHale
8.) Pau Gasol
9.) Chris Webber
Center (aka the “5”)
The tallest player on the team is the center. Because of their size, they protect the basket and challenge penetrations. They are usually the strongest rebounders and shot-blockers on the team. The position has evolved from slower but much taller “back to the basket” players to quicker, more skilled players who are essentially power forwards.
Even so, the responsibilities of a center have always been the same. The presence of a center that can score inside balances the offense. This also makes sure that the team always has a rebounding presence on the floor at all times.
Playing center demands the following abilities and characteristics:
- Physical and tough
- Strong interior defender
- Finishes layups and dunks at a high rate
- Impeccable footwork at the post
- Great hands to catch lobs and passes in traffic
Historically, the center position is among the most crowded in the NBA. Here are some of the best centers in league history:
1.) Bill Russell
2.) Karem Abdul-Jabbar
3.) Wilt Chamberlain
4.) George Mikan
5.) Shaquille O’Neal
6.) Hakeem Olajuwon
7.) David Robinson
8.) Moses Malone
9.) Patrick Ewing
10.) Wes Unseld
11.) Bill Walton
Hybrid Basketball Positions Explained
Over the years, basketball strategy, both on offense and defense, gets more complex. Thus, teams need players who can fill various positions at once to maximize the team’s offensive and defensive potential. These players do not fit the mold of traditional positions and are, therefore, the hybrid types. Here are some of them:
A combo guard had the characteristics of a point guard and a shooting guard. He can do both in a pinch, but his overall game doesn’t fit in either mold. Combo guards use their ball-handling abilities to bring the ball up the court and set up teammates, but they also have the shooting ability to come with it.
Some of the earliest combo guards are Vinnie Johnson and Jason Terry. However, probably the best-ever combo guard is undoubtedly Steph Curry. After all, he’s a two-time MVP and a four-time NBA champion.
A swingman is someone who can play shooting guard or small forward. They are sometimes referred to as “wings.” They are often big natural shooting guards that allow them to move up to small forward when needed. Some of the best swingmen in the NBA are George “Iceman” Gervin and John Havlicek. Modern-day swingmen are Paul George and Jimmy Butler.
A stretch 4 is a power forward whose offense is predicated outside the three-point line. “Stretch” describes the effect that this player has on the defense, while “four” refers to the power forward position. More often than not, a stretch 4 has the size of a power forward, but they can generate offense outside the paint.
The pioneer of the stretch 4 position was considered to be Robert Horry under Rudy Tomjanovich in Houston. Dirk Nowitzki was considered the best, while Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and Kristaps Porzingis can also hold their own.
A point forward is a natural small forward who’s good enough to handle the ball full-time as a point guard. The position offers numerous offensive advantages. Since point forwards are taller, they can see over the defense and make passes that a more undersized point guard cannot. They can also take the ball to the post and create from there. A point forward is even more valuable if the team has score-first guards.
Historically, one of the first point forwards was John Johnson of the 1970s Sonics. Johnson averaged a well-rounded 11 points, five rebounds, and five assists playing with Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson during their championship season in 1979. In modern basketball, Draymond Green functions best as a point forward with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and other shooters running around.
Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill also filled the role, but LeBron James probably did it best.
Stretch 5s and Point Centers
Stretch 5s and point centers are probably the least common basketball positions. You can rarely find centers that can shoot threes at a high clip, and even rarer to find centers that bring the ball up the floor and play point guard.
One of the first point centers basketball has seen was Vlade Divac. Divac was one of the primary ball handlers in the early 90s Lakers and a pretty gifted passer. However, probably the best point center is two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. At 6-foot-11, 284, Jokic averaged eight dimes in the past two seasons as the Nuggets’ hub on offense.
For stretch centers, probably the prototypes were Jack Sikma and Bill Laimbeer. Sam Perkins was also a pretty good deep shooter back in the day. Today, more prominent stretch 5s are Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Thomas Bryant.
What is the Hardest and Easiest Position to Play in Basketball?
For many players, the point guard position is the most difficult in basketball. They have the most responsibilities on offense and are also critical on defense. A point guard in basketball today needs several elite skills to be successful. He should be a potent three-level scorer, excellent passer, and respected leader.
Subjectively speaking; however, there is no such thing as the hardest position. A coach tailors his lineups based on the strengths and weaknesses of each player. Each player must also buy into the team’s offensive and defensive philosophies to make the job easier for his teammates. A point guard may have responsibilities that are different from the other four, but he also needs his teammates to excel.
Conversely, there is also no such thing as an “easy” position. You don’t just say to someone who just played basketball to go play “center” because it’s the easiest. Instead, playing positions are determined by the player’s skill level and natural attributes.
For instance, a taller player will be more comfortable playing center than a point guard. An experienced shooter, on the other hand, will have an easier time playing shooting guard.
Basketball Positions FAQs
Here are some frequently asked questions related to basketball positions.
As a way to quickly identify a player’s position for play diagrams, a number is associated with each position. The point guard is shown as a “1,” shooting guard “2,” small forward “3,” power forward “4,” and the center is the “5.” The numbered positions might show up in players’ playbooks and on dry-erase plays written out by a coach.
In past years, each team would likely field a team on the court with each number represented. However, currently and for the past few years, there are so many hybrid positions and teams that mix up their lineup by going “small” or “big” that playing a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the court at the same time is not always the case. Teams look for match-up advantages and will field lineups to leverage those opportunities.
A power forward or center in basketball who possesses good outside shooting skills is able to draw defenders away from the hoop and open up driving lanes for their teammates. The team benefits both from a stretch hitting highly valued three-pointers and from the stretch’s teammates being able to drive and slash to the basket for high-percentage shots. Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and Karl Anthony-Towns are examples of strong stretch players in the NBA.
Final Thoughts on Basketball Roles and Responsibilities
If someone compares basketball to a ballet or an orchestra, that’s not an exaggeration. To be a successful team, each player takes on a role and performs it to the best of their ability.
Of course, nobody is a perfect ball player, but if individuals adjust to each other’s playstyle, the gameplay is much more seamless. Regardless, all the moving components and positions in basketball are part of what makes it fun and exciting.
By Jan Rey with Mike O’Halloran
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin. Mike has written four books on youth basketball.
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