Most commonly, a two-way player in basketball is a player who performs well in both offensive and defensive roles. However, there is some confusion around this terminology, so you have to pay a little attention to how the phrase is being used in order to be sure of its meaning.
In some cases, this exact term ‘two-way player’ is used, not to reference on-court abilities, but a specific type of NBA contract that the player may be signed to.
We’ll cover both meanings here and clarify how to determine which meaning is intended. We’ll also take a look at a few examples of both two-way players and two-way NBA contracts.
The Traditional Two-Way Player in Basketball
So the most common and widely accepted use of the term is in reference to skill. If a player can provide both offensive and defensive pressure, they might be called a ‘two-way’, or sometimes just an ‘all-around’ basketball player.
This is an important qualifier. NBA players are all elite, but most of them will still specialize in certain tasks. Scoring is where you tend to find the most glory and excitement, so offensive specialists are quite common.
If you’re strong enough on offense, you can get away with a weaker defense. Recently, when Damian Lillard was traded to Milwaukee, the Bucks had to give up Djrue Holiday to make the deal happen. Holiday is a strong two-way player, while Dame is a particularly strong offensive player. There’s some concern regarding whether Dame is strong enough offensively to make up for what the Bucks lost defensively in sending away Djrue.
But there are, of course, defensive specialists as well. Draymond Green is a fantastic example of this. While Green can certainly score, it’s quite obvious that he’s not providing the same offensive pressure that comes from Steph and Klay. But he does consistently provide defensive friction at a level that Steph and Klay do not. In fact, it’s not a slight to suggest that Green defends at a level that the ‘Splash Brothers’ are not even capable.
So a two-way player is one who strikes a healthy balance, providing both offensive and defensive skills reliably. These players are not generally elite on offense or defense, but can be quite strong on both.
The term can be similar, almost synonymous, with the term ‘3-and-D player’. A 3-and-D player is a strong defender who also has a reliable 3-pointer, particularly with catch-and-shoot 3’s.
Players like Danny Green exemplify this role. Danny has been ridiculously successful in the league, one of only 3 players to win rings with 3 different teams. This is largely because he can be trusted to provide strong support on defense, but also slip to the corner to nail catch-and-shoot 3’s at an impressive clip.
The Two-Way Contract in Basketball
The term ‘two-way player’ is also occasionally used (confusingly) to reference a player who is sitting on what is called a ‘two-way contract’ with an NBA team.
A two-way Contract in the NBA allows a team to retain a player on reduced salary with a developmental team. Every team in the NBA, with the current exception of the Phoenix Suns, has a partner in the NBA G League that may be leveraged in player development.
The G League is nowhere near as lucrative as playing in the NBA. However, it does offer the opportunity to get paid to play basketball, and to do so in an extremely competitive environment.
So instead of keeping a rookie on an NBA team and paying them the full rookie minimum salary to sit on the bench, a team can chose instead to offer a two-way contract. This guarantees a player the right to 50% of the rookie minimum salary while playing in the G League where they can log a lot more game minutes.
The list of two-way contracts is extensive. Each player can have up to 3 players on this contract. This is up from 2 with the new 2023 NBA CBA. Teams often want to fill each of these 3 seats if possible. With 30 teams, that’s around 90 two-way contracts each season.
Two ways of looking at two-way players. Yeah, usually when you hear the term, it’s in reference to a player who can contribute on both offense and defense. But it’s sometimes surprising just how often the alternate meaning is intended. Hopefully this has cleared things up for you.