9 Misunderstood Basketball Rules

James Naismith's Basketball Rules
Naismith’s Original Basketball Rules

A little basketball rules lore to get us started…

In the winter of 1891, in a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, James Naismith was tasked with creating a diversion for a bunch of cooped up college students. He laid out the 13 original basketball rules.

So basketball rules were well established from the very beginning. It’s really just the interpretation that gets messy.

Most of us are raised on a very flexible set of traditional school yard basketball rules. You just play, and eventually an understanding emerges between you and your opponent regarding what is acceptable on the court. These rules are dynamic. They evolve during a game. They evolve across regions and even courts. There are arguments, sure, but it works.

Get competitive and the arguments get more heated. Now you have to bring in an unaffiliated party with an intimate understanding of official basketball rules as prescribed by a governing authority. You gotta bring in the refs.

And basketball rules can certainly vary across leagues and styles and enforcers. If you really want to dig deep on this, compare the official NBA rules to the official FIBA rules. There are plenty of differences. Big differences.

But in this blog post, we’ll be discussing some of the most misunderstood rules of basketball. these are the rules that are constantly misquoted and misrepresented. And this article might just make you think twice about what you once thought you knew.

The Most Misunderstood Basketball Rules

1. Fouls

Owing at least partly to the flexibility of their interpretation, fouls are quite easily the most confusing and misunderstood element of basketball offication.

An exhaustive documentation of foul logic in basketball would be quite long, so I’ll save that for a different article. If you want a painfully complete list right now you can turn to Rule 12 of the Official NBA Rulebook.

Here we’ll briefly cover the basics and a few of the more commonly misunderstood fouls. The simple idea here though, is that if you do something wrong, you get punished. The list of things you can do wrong is extensive.

  1. Personal foul: A personal foul is committed when a player makes illegal contact with an opponent.
  2. Flagrant foul: A flagrant foul is a personal foul that is deemed excessively violent or unsportsmanlike.
  3. Shooting foul: A shooting foul is committed when a player is fouled while attempting a field goal or free throw.
  4. Offensive foul: An offensive foul is committed when an offensive player initiates illegal contact with a defender.
  5. Technical foul: A technical foul is called for unsportsmanlike conduct or violation of the rules by a player, coach, or team.
  6. Illegal defense: An illegal defense is called when a team violates the defensive three-second rule or sets an illegal screen.
  7. Charging foul: A charging foul is called when an offensive player runs into a defender who has established position.
  8. Blocking foul: A blocking foul is called when a defender illegally impedes the progress of an offensive player.

The penalty for committing on of these or any other foul is typically free throws or a forced change of possession. But it can involve ejection when fouls are egregious or persistent enough.

A simple detail that took me far too long to understand is that a fouled shot that is successful gets one free throw attempt (referred to as an ‘And 1’) while a fouled shot that is missed is rewarded with either two or three free throws depending on what a successful attempt would have counted for.

A more common misunderstanding is that a defender is not allowed to ‘reach in’ on a ball in play or reach ‘over the back’ from behind a ball handler. Though these behaviors will increase the risk of a real foul, neither are fouls themselves without contact.

There’s also a lot of confusion surrounding those fouls where a collision is warranted and expected. As a defender positions themselves against an offensive play, contact is a near certainty. Foul rules exist here to protect players primarily.

As a defender gets into guarding position, they are permitted to move in order to maintain that guarding position. A legal guarding position against a dribbling offensive play occurs when the defender has both feet on the floor and is facing the opponent.

An offensive player who crashes into this legally established defender will receive a charging foul, resulting in a turnover. But if a defender is not deemed to have established a legal guarding position, and they similarly impede the movement of offensive play, this can result in a blocking foul.

There are certainly times where the difference between a charging foul and a blocking foul is a difficult call. And an inappropriate move, a leading elbow or knee perhaps, by an offensive player as they approach, can result in an offensive foul regardless of the defenders positioning.

2. Traveling

The third entry in Naismith’s original basketball rules is that you can’t run with the ball. And it’s one of the things makes this game so beautiful. You can’t just muscle up to the goal. You are forced to dribble. It’s rather elegant if you ask me.

In practice, this is enforced by the traveling rule…

You catch a pass and plant your feet. You are now permitted to pivot on one foot. Once you pivot though, that pivot foot cannot move until you start your dribble. As soon as you again place two hands on the ball, you’re stuck. You’ve ended your dribble.

Now you can pivot on one foot again, but otherwise you must pass or shoot. You can leave both feet to attempt either, but you’ve gotta take that attempt.

The key then, to identifying a travel violation, is Immediately identifying the pivot foot when a player captures the ball, either off a dribble or a pass. Once you spot the pivot foot, you know what foot can’t move.

Seems pretty straightforward, but confusion arises in the details. In order for possession to be established, the player must have control of the ball. When you’ve got a ball bouncing around at crazy angles, it can prove difficult to pin down when exactly that control is gained. A player might easily sneak in an extra step or two amidst the confusion.

3. The Three-Second Rule

This rule has a pretty significant impact on the game and it is often misunderstood. Simply put, you can’t just hang out in the lane. If you are present, holding the ball or not holding the ball, at any position within the paint as it extends 4 feet beyond the court on the basket side, for more than three seconds, the ball goes to the opposing team on the sideline.

That means that If your team has the ball, you only have three seconds to enter the paint and initiate a shot. You can rebound a miss and the clock restarts for another attempt. But you can’t just camp out in there.

There’s also a defensive three-second rule though. A defender cannot remain in that same 16 foot range that extends between the free throw line and 4′ beyond the baseline without actively guarding an offensive player within 3 seconds. You can be double-teamed, but you can’t just post up under the basket and wait for the offense to come to you.

I find this to be one of the most fascinating and revealing basketball rules. It informs so much of basketball defensive strategy when you boil it down.

4. Ball Carries

Similar to the way the NBA has handled traveling in recent decades, one could argue they’ve been relaxing enforcement on ball carrying. Watch someone like LaMello Ball or Kevin Durant, and you might start to think the rules are pretty flexible so long as you can make it look cool.

LaMello Ball Carry

And, in addition to our tweeter, self-proclaimed NBA ‘snitch’, @DevInTheLab, there are plenty of complaints online about how this rule is enforced. Technically, a carry occurs when a player allows the ball to rest in the palm of the hand.

Well, there’s your problem. That’s a vague rule. Take a look at this, the NBA interpretation from Rule #10 Section 2.D of the Official NBA Rule Book.

A player who is dribbling may not put any part of his hand under the ball and (1) carry it from one point to another or (2) bring it to a pause and then continue to dribble again.

NBA Rule Book

So you’re not supposed to put your hand under the ball and carry it…

Woof, there’s so much left opened to interpretation there. At what point is the hand really under the ball? The pinky is part of the hand, so if you wanted to be a hard ass here, you’d enforce every time you saw a pinky cross over that magical planar threshold between the center of the ball and the floor.

I don’t think I’d want to watch that game. Traditionally, this rule has probably been enforced in the NBA a little more aggressively than it has in recent years. If it’s loosening up, I think it’s because it’s just fun to watch.

5. The Over and Back Rule

Once the offense crosses half court, they cannot turn back. There’s also the ‘8-second rule’ keeping the offense from camping out in the backcourt. So the offense needs to move the ball up steadily and once they’ve dribbled across the midline, they can’t dribble or pass backwards.

In practice, any pass recipient once the ball has moved into the front court, must have planted both feet beyond the midline before receiving the pass. Also, the ball has not officially crossed the midline until the player has placed both feet and the entirety of the ball on the other side of the plane at one time.

6. The Closely Guarded Rule

Sounds ominous, like the name of a thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It is in fact a rule dictating the closeness with which you may guard your opponent. it is one of the lesser known rules of basketball, and it is enforced differently across various leagues. The rule is applied only in front court play.

In NCAA play you are not allowed to guard the same player within 6 feet of contact for more than 5 seconds at a time. For this reason, it is often referred to as the ‘5-second rule’ which can get a little confusing because there are multiple rules involving 5 second time periods. While the rule previously applied to a player who was both dribbling and holding the ball, it now applies only to a player holding the ball.

FIBA reduces the distance to one meter, allowing for a little more pressure. The defender is also required to be in an active guarding position in order for the rule to be enforced.

The NBA only enforces this rule on throw-ins, in which case it’s basically nullified by the fact that you have to toss the ball in within 5 seconds, so I’m not sure what the deal is there.

7. The Illegal Dribble

Apparently it has been going around that you’re not allowed to bounce the ball higher than your own head? I don’t even know where this came from. Presumably some Dad got beat by their kid on a whacky dribble move and couldn’t take it.

It’s not true. There is no official restriction on how high you can bounce the ball. fine if you want to this on your local court, but it’s pretty lame. I don’t know how you would enforce this, plus it’s a little unfair for the short Kings and Queens.

8. Referees Shouldn’t Decide the Outcome of a Game

Uh… I’m pretty sure that’s their job.

It’s not the refs making calls that decide the game, it’s the players committing the violations. Yeah, this can feel a little wishy washy when there’s a lot at stake and the call is questionable. But it’s the real duty of the ref to call violations impartially down to the final buzzer.

If it would have been called in the first quarter, it should be called when we’re down to a tenth of a second.

9. Zone Defense is Illegal

I still see this come up now and then. It’s confusing for several reasons. First of all, zone defense itself is a little confusing to some. Technically a zone coverage is any defensive scheme where your defenders cover a region of the court (a zone) as opposed to a player matchup.

So from the 40’s all the way up to 2001, the zone defense was technically illegal in the NBA. But think about it. Your players still need to move within their zones to be effective. So then, at what point does a zone become a man-to-man?

So in reality, the zone went through varying levels of illegality over the years. In the early years, you kinda had to stick with your matchup. Over time, and especially with the introduction of the 3-point line, officials got a little more lenient. Eventually the rule itself was abandoned.


But it’s important to understand that these rules all constantly evolve over time. And they need to evolve. Everything else is evolving, so expecting the rules to stay perfectly stagnant is just not reasonable.

So there are significant adjustments every year in leagues all over the world. some of these adjustments are put in writing. Others only manifest on the floor, in the behavior of the officiants. And these changes are designed to make play more interesting, safer, or more challenging.

Just watch a couple of games from the eighties and it’s wildly apparent just how much this game has changed over the years. This video does a great job of driving this point.