Basketball slang terms frequently come from pickup games played in cities around the United States. Many of these descriptive terms, like “shooting bricks” or “dropping dimes,” add some creativity and flair to descriptions of games played.
Players who honed their basketball skills in games where these fun basketball slang terms were used carried these expressions with them to high levels of play throughout the country. Plus, basketball commentators, who enjoyed a love of descriptive language, spread the terms into everyday use.
Nowadays, you’ll find that most of these terms are understood by a good share of basketball players at all levels of play.
Here are a few terms you’ll want to know if you want to expand your basketball IQ. Let’s start with the definition of basketball slang.
What is Basketball Slang?
Basketball slang refers to the calling common of basketball terms in an informal manner. It is often used only by people who know the sport and is unrecognizable by casual fans.
Here are some examples of basketball slang:
A player’s shot attempt that doesn’t hit the rim or backboard. Undoubtedly, an embarrassing moment for the shooter. This is usually compounded by the opposing team fans chanting, “Air Ball, Air Ball, Air Ball!”
An alley-oop is an assist in which the passer tosses the ball high enough for the receiver to catch and/or guide the ball in for a dunk over the rim. An alley-oop is a flashy play that can be effective against defenses that overplay or zone defenses.
When shooters believe they have been fouled while shooting and make the bucket, they might say, “And one!” This phrase is derived from a referee’s call of the same expression.
If a team fails to cross the half-court line in eight seconds after gaining possession of the ball.
A move by an offensive player to get open typically entails moving forward closer to the ball first (towards the perimeter) before going “backdoor” to the basket. A successful backdoor cut is completed with an assist from the player with possession of the ball and results in a lay-up, dunk, or short shot for the cutter. It’s a staple of the Princeton Offense.
Ball Don’t Lie
When a player misses a free throw shot after a questionable referee call, the player who was called for the foul might say, “Ball don’t lie,” as an indication that the ref’s call was a bad one.
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Bank is Open
When a player makes a shot using the backboard, in effect banking it in off the glass, it’s a common hoops expression to say that the bank is open.
A type of pass in basketball is used when the throw needs to be long. The pass is completed with one arm, much like a baseball is thrown. A baseball pass might be used in the backcourt when the ball handler sees a teammate wide open near the basket.
Another name for rebounds. When a player gets the ball after a missed shot, that player is said to have got the board.
Boxing out an opponent is a rebounding technique where a player screens an opposing player from the ball while actively seeking it. By placing their bodies in between their opposition and the basket, rebounders have a better opportunity of collecting the rebound.
Breaking someone’s ankles usually happen after a nifty dribbling maneuver, and the defender loses his balance. It is similar to the term “putting ‘em on skates.”
“He could rebuild Atlantis with all those bricks.” If you heard the word “brick” in basketball, it is always not good. “Shooting bricks” is equivalent to missing shots left and right. It is the direct opposite of the term “making it rain.”
In basketball, the slang term “buckets’ refers to made shots or baskets.
Bury a Jumper
A successful jump shot. Because the ball goes down the hoop, it is said to be buried.
A buzzer-beater refers to a made shot at the end of a shot clock (last second or so) or, more likely, at the end of a half or game. Successful buzzer-beaters at the end of the game – when the outcome is still in question – are the football equivalent of a completed Hail Mary pass.
Catch and Shoot
When an offensive player receives a pass and immediately attempts to make a basket. This usually refers to an outside shot.
The free-throw line in basketball is called the charity stripe. With no defenders guarding the free-throw shooter, it should mean easy points.
A player who takes a lot of shot attempts with little success. More often than not, these shot attempts are from three-point range.
Coast to Coast
When a player dribbles the ball from the defensive end all the way to the offensive end near the basket. This expression is usually used in a fast break situation which ends in the dribbler making a lay-up.
A “dagger” is a made shot that has the potential to put the game away for good. For example, Team A leads Team B by two, 92-90, with 10 seconds left and two seconds on the shot clock. Suddenly, player X attempted a three-pointer and made it as the shot clock expires.
The score is now 95-90, making it virtually impossible for team B to win. The shot that player X made is what’s called a “dagger.”
Drive and Dish
When the player with the ball dribbles towards the hoop but, instead of shooting, passes to a teammate in hopes of an assist.
Dimes is the slang term for assists, that is, a pass that leads to a basket. However, when an assist is specifically referred to as a “dime,” it has the connotation of being fancy.
Emptying the Bench
This means the coach has pulled out all his starters and put his second or third-stringers in the game. Emptying one’s bench is usually done toward the end of a game, and the result is already sealed.
An offensive move by a player with the ball where a step is taken in one direction before shifting in another direction to get a shot off. See more on the Eurostep.
An upbeat tempo style of play in which the team that rebounds defensively hurries down the court to look for a good shooting opportunity right away. The Los Angeles Lakers “Showtime” offense made frequent use of fast breaks.
When a player is so hot that virtually everything shot is made. The payoff of a “heat check” — see below — comes into play.
An on-ball defender might try to draw a charge by acting like incidental contact was a little something more. By falling on the floor or “flopping,” the hope is that the officials will call an offensive foul. A flop is most likely to happen on a hard drive by the player with the ball.
“Downtown” is the slang term for the area beyond the three-point arc. If someone made a shot “from downtown,” this usually means he made a three-point basket.
A full-court press is a type of defense in which the opposing team (the one with the ball) is guarded for the complete length of the court. This can either be done in man-to-man defense or zone defense. Defensive coaches may implement full-court press defenses to increase the pace of play, force turnovers, or leverage the speed of their team.
Greatest Of All Time. In basketball, most GOAT discussions center around Michael Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, and Kobe Bryant are also usually in the conversation.
When somebody got stuffed, that means he is blocked in his shot attempt. The term is usually used when the offensive player tries to dunk, and a defender emphatically blocks that attempt. In basketball, “getting stuffed” is the same as “getting denied.”
A violation of the rules where a foul is made — typically against the shooter or ball-handler.
The hack-a-Shaq is a defensive strategy that emphasizes fouling someone who is not a good free-throw shooter. This is usually done when the opposing team is in a penalty, and you don’t want them to run their normal offense.
Don Nelson first implemented the strategy, then of the Dallas Mavericks, to exploit Dennis Rodman’s poor free-throw shooting. Since then, it became synonymous with Shaquille O’Neal, another notoriously bad foul shooter.
Refers to the ball-handling abilities of a player. A guard with a “good handle” can really control the ball effectively.
A “heat check” in basketball is applied to a player who has made a few shots in a row. The player heating up attempts a difficult shot, perhaps from long distance, to see if he can keep his streak going.
The area of the basketball court near the free-throw line and elbow.
A one-handed shot in which the shooter places opposite shoulder toward defenders and shoots the ball by swinging their arm in a curved motion. By placing the body in between the defender and the ball release, this shot is very difficult to block. Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s sky hook was nearly impossible to block.
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The ability to jump high off the basketball floor is referred to as his or her hops – or jumps. Players with impressive vertical jumping ability, or hops, seem to float almost in the air. At higher levels of play, players with hops are more likely to make impressive jams or dunks.
This refers to the play where an offensive – the team with the ball – throws the ball into play from out-of-bounds. Most teams will have some inbounds play to call for this situation, especially when they need to get a shot off quickly.
When the players without the ball clear out of the way – usually by going to the opposite side of the court – so that one offensive player can create their shot on their own.
Knocking the Bottom Out
This term is used when someone is making a high quantity of shots. The term’s origin goes way back to the advent of basketball, using actual peach baskets as goals. When someone makes a high volume of his field goals, it would literally break the bottom of the peach basket.
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Best Basketball Lingo
Basketball slang and lingo can spread quickly. If a star NBA player uses a term in an interview or an announcer calling the game at a critical moment shouts the term, it’s more likely to become widely known quickly.
As basketball is a fluid sport, new basketball jargon, lingo and slang are developed ongoing. Here are some basketball terms folks use to describe the game.
Make it Rain
If a player is making it rain, he is making shots from all over the floor. It doesn’t matter where he is– left side, right side, top of the key, corner– he is making every attempt.
Mouse in the House
When a taller offensive player has a shorter defender on him in the paint, he might shout to a teammate, “Mouse in the house!”
Nothing but Net
“Nothing but net” is an expression used to describe essentially the perfect shot. In this made attempt, the ball does not hit any part of the rim. Instead, it goes directly straight into the net. SPLASH!
The paint refers to the area of the basketball court between the free-throw lane markers from the baseline to the free-throw line that is usually painted a different color from the rest of the court.
Picked his Pocket
If you hear this term used, it simply means the defender got a steal while the opponent is dribbling. “Picking his pocket” usually means the same as “stole his cookies” in basketball slang jargon.
The foot on the ground should stay anchored in place when an offensive player has the ball and is not dribbling. With the pivot foot on the ground, the player with the ball can rotate to look for passes or to get off a shot.
Along with the shooting guard, the point guard makes up the backcourt for a basketball team. Point guards typically dribble the ball up the court and look to distribute the ball by making passes to players and creating offense via penetration. A good point guard can control the tempo of the game.
Pound the Ball Inside
When the team on offense makes a focused effort on feeding low-post players the ball. Also known as feeding the post, this strategy takes advantage of a team’s post player’s ability to score inside.
When you hear a prayer used in a basketball context, this generally refers to a shot attempt that is unlikely to go in. For example, an offensive player may heave a shot from 60 feet and beyond when the ball is inbounded with only a second remaining. This may be referred to as a “prayer.”
Put on Skates
To put someone on skates is to make a defender fall as if on skates. This is often caused by some nifty and quick dribbling by the offensive player.
Putting on a Clinic
Play at such a high level in any or all aspects of the game that a player’s play could be used to teach others.
A slam dunk also called a jam or just a dunk, refers to a made shot where the shooter jumps high enough to enable him or her to throw the ball down forcefully in the hoop. Famous practitioners of the slam dunk include Dr. J, Daryl Dawkins, and David Thompson.
A basketball lineup that doesn’t include a traditional center – a “big man.” Designed to be smaller and faster, a small ball lineup can present match-up advantages.
Splash refers to a made shot in basketball that doesn’t touch the rim or backboard. It is most often used for long three-pointers. Sinking a three-pointer that swishes is making a splash. The Golden State Warriors duo of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were adept at their 3-point shooting; they earned the nickname “The Splash Brothers.”
When an NBA superstar – think LeBron or Kevin Durant – gets the benefit of the doubt on close calls by officials. Referees may rule in their favor despite visual evidence to the contrary because of a certain “halo effect.” For example, if a shot attempt by LeBron is way off the mark, the official might assume that he was fouled because his shots usually go in or are close to going in.
A made shot that doesn’t hit the rim or net is a swish. A teammate or the player shooting might say, “Nothing but net,” when a swish is made.
Taking it to the Rack
This expression is used when someone is attacking the basket aggressively.
Also called a “floater,” this shot is typically made off a dribble which is worried about a shot-blocker blocking the shot. The player shoots the ball with enough arc to avoid being blocked. A teardrop is usually shot in the paint by a guard.
If you’re called for a technical foul by a referee, you’ve been teed up. Technical fouls are beyond the scope of regular play and usually involve some type of bad behavior by a player or coach. Swearing, taunting, and excessive violence are examples of why a player may be called for a technical foul.
Thread the Needle
A precise pass usually leads to a basket that goes between defenders and figuratively “threads a needle.”
A foul called by the referee typically would not be called. A small offense that an official calls can have huge consequences if the infraction is called on a star player who is in foul trouble.
Too Much Sauce
“Sauce” in the basketball context refers to an excellent move or an excellent player in general. It originated from hip-hop artists that use the word “sauce” for swagger and excellence.
When a player records double digits in three of five basketball stat categories – points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals.
The expression “wet” is often used to refer to jumpers or jump shots. It simply means that the jumper is good and pretty to look at.
A wedgie is when a ball gets stuck between the backboard and the basket. This results in a jump ball in professional basketball.
To “wiggle” in basketball means to move in and out of defenders, usually through a dribbling move.
The areas of the basketball court where the free-throw lines extended meet the three-point line — that general area, not necessarily that specific intersection.
Rather than playing man-to-man defense, defensive players may elect to guard an area of the court by playing zone defense. Common half-court zone defenses include a 2-3 zone and a 1-3-1 zone. In a 2-3 zone defense, typically, two guards play about 18 feet out from the hoop and guard either the right or left side, moving to the pall as it is passed among offensive players.
Final Thoughts on Basketball Slang
Interesting basketball slang makes definitely makes the game more interesting. Which is more exciting? To say that someone is good at assists, or there’s a master at droppin’ dimes?
Slang terms also serve the purpose of helping distinguish casual fans from more serious fans. If you know most of the terms above, you’ve probably played or watched a fair amount of hoops.
Basketball slang terms will be updated regularly, so please check in again and see if you find something new.
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 is the founder of Sports Feel Good Stories and is the all-time leader of triple-doubles on his Nerf basketball court.
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