What Do Those Basketball Terms Mean?

Having trouble with all those unfamiliar basketball terms? If you're new to the game, the long list may be seem a bit overwhelming, so I've broken them down here to make them a little easier to understand.


The alphabetized list below includes terms related to basketball defense. For more general terms and those related to basketball offense, click here

Glossary of defensive basketball terms

Defensive Basketball Terms

Anticipate – The ability to recognize what's developing on the court before it actually happens. It's the skill that helps a defender intercept a pass or step over to help a teammate who gets beat. 

Advance (or Approach) - This is an aggressive step at the ball handler to get her to react. Push with the back foot and slide the front foot forward toward the ball. Stay down low with good balance. Keep the front hand up to contest the shot and keep the other hand low with the palm up to defend against a bounce pass or dribble. Keep the knees bent to guard against the drive and the feet in a position to force her toward the sideline.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Belly up – When the ball handler picks up her dribble her defender should "belly up" to her by playing close and tight to pressure her into turning the ball over. 

Block out (or Box out) – The act of gaining position to rebound the ball when the defender gets between his man and the basket. To block out, turn to face the basket with arms up, elbows out, backing into the opponent using the hips and backside to hold him off. A player in this inside position gains the rebounding advantage by forcing the offensive player to go over or around to get the ball.

Blocking – A personal foul caused when the defender makes illegal personal contact with an opponent who may or may not have the ball. Blocking is called when the defender impedes the progress of the opponent.

Box out (see Block out) 

Defensive Basketball Terms

Close out - When a defender is playing help-side defense and the ball is passed back to her player, the defender needs to quickly recover. Once the pass is made, run at the ball handler at full speed for about 2/3 of the distance and then lower the body to approach with a stutter step. Knees should be bent and hands up to prevent the drive and guard against the shot. 

Closely guarded (or 5-second violation) – Violation that occurs when a ball handler in his team's front court is continuously guarded by any opponent who is within 6 feet of him while he's either dribbling or holding the ball. The offensive player has 5 seconds to get rid of the ball or drive past the defender.

Contest the shot – Any time an opponent has an opportunity to shoot, the defender should aggressively contest the shot by putting her hand up in the shooter's face. Don't swing at the ball in an attempt to block it but just go straight up to avoid a foul. Yell, "Shot!" to give teammates a heads up to go to the basket for a possible rebound.

Cover out (or Deny) – The position a defensive player takes to deny her opponent the opportunity to receive a pass. It involves facing the opponent, standing with knees slightly bent about an arm's length away from her, and extending the lead foot and an arm into the passing lane. The defender should see the ball and her player simultaneously by keeping her head up and looking over the shoulder of her lead arm. The palm of the lead hand should face out with the thumb down to knock down the pass.

Cover down (or Drop) – Whenever the ball penetrates the free throw lane area on a pass or a dribble, all defensive players need to slide down toward the baseline and give help to try to stop an easy score.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Dead – Once a ball handler ends his dribble and picks up the ball, his defender should yell, "Dead!" to alert his fellow defenders that the ball handler is in trouble. The player guarding the ball should belly up to the ball handler, aggressively waving his arms  to take away any passing or scoring opportunities. The rest of the defense should cover their players closely in hopes of getting a 5-second call.

Defensive slide (or Step and slide) – The proper way to move the feet when guarding the ball handler. Step first with the foot closest to the direction the dribbler is going and then slide the other foot to meet it. Stepping and sliding as opposed to crossing the feet allows defenders to keep up with the dribbler without getting tripped up. Keep a balanced defensive stance, staying about an arm's length away from the ball handler. Use short, quick steps. 

Defense – The team that does not have possession of the ball.

Defensive stance – The position a defender assumes which allows him to most effectively guard his player. Stay on the balls of the feet with feet shoulder width apart, knees bent, back straight (like sitting in a chair), head up, hands out, and palms up.

Deny (see Cover out)

Double fouls – When two opponents commit fouls against each other at the same time.

Drop (see Cover down)

Drop step (or Swing step) – When the ball handler dribbles by the defender's lead foot, the defender should quickly drop step with his lead foot while making a reverse pivot off of the back foot. Drive the lead shoulder and elbow back to help accelerate the turn. Keep the head up and the eyes on the dribbler's mid-section. While pivoting, push hard off of the pivot foot at a 45-degree angle in the direction of the drop step. 

Defensive Basketball Terms

Established position – The position held by a defender who's firmly set in place with both feet planted on the floor. If an offensive player runs into a defender who has established his position, the offense will be called for charging.  

Defensive Basketball Terms

Five-second violation (see Closely guarded)

Flagrant foul – A personal or technical foul, which is violent in nature. Examples are fighting, striking, kicking, or kneeing an opponent.

Foul – An infraction of the rules, which results in a player being charged and penalized. Each player is allowed 5 fouls before he us removed from the game.

Full-court press (see Press)  

Defensive Basketball Terms

Goaltending – When a player touches a shot ball while it's in its downward flight above the rim. It also occurs when a defender touches a free throw attempt outside the basket.

Guarding – The act of legally positioning a defender's body in the path of an offensive player by extending an arm, shoulder, leg, or hip into the path of the opponent without making contact.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Half-court defense – A defensive set in which the defenders pick up their players at half-court.

Hand check – A personal foul caused by a defender making repeated contact with her hands on her opponent.

Held ball – When at least two players on opposing teams are holding the ball so firmly that neither can gain control of it without undue roughness.

Help (or Seal and recover) – While on defense, dropping off of an assigned offensive player to help a teammate whose player has gotten by him. Once the ball is stopped and the teammate recovers, the helper jumps back to his original player.

Help-side (or Weak side) – On defense, players who are two passes away from the ball are in help-side position. They should drop a couple steps off of their player toward the ball so they're in a position to help on the drive if needed. Drop about a step below the line of the ball and open up the body to see the assigned player and the ball at the same time using peripheral vision while looking straight ahead.

Holding – A personal foul caused by illegal contact with an opponent which interferes with his freedom of movement.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Incidental contact – Permissible contact with an opponent, which doesn't give either player an advantage or disadvantage. For example, a defender who doesn't see a screener coming may inadvertently run into him. As long as the screener doesn't lose the ball as a result or get pushed excessively, the contact is allowed.

Influence – As a defender, using body position to force the offense to go where the defender wants him to go. As a general rule, force the ball to the sideline or baseline. It's also a good idea to influence the dribbler to use his weaker hand.

Intentional foul – A personal or technical foul, which keeps the opponent from capitalizing on an advantageous situation. It could be contact away from the ball or contact when a defender is not making a legitimate attempt to play the ball or a player. It also occurs when a player causes excessive contact with an opponent.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Man-to-man defense – A type of defense in which each defender is responsible for guarding one specific opponent.

Defensive Basketball Terms

One pass away – When an offensive player is in a good position to receive the ball because he's one pass away his defender should deny the pass by covering out and having one arm in the passing lane.

Open up – When a defensive player is on help-side, he should take a couple steps off of his player toward the ball and open up his body so that he can point to both the ball and his player as well as see them at the same time without turning his back on either.

Over the limit – When a team commits more than the allotted fouls in a period, their opponent shoots bonus free throws.

Overplay (or Turning a player) – When a defender wants to force a ball handler to dribble in a different direction, she overplays her by getting her body in the dribbler's way forcing her to turn and go another direction.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Paralleling – The manner in which a defender plays the ball handler nose-to-nose to force him to go from sideline to sideline (or parallel) as opposed to straight down the floor. This is useful in slowing down the ball.

Personal foul – Illegal contact with an opponent while the ball is live, which hinders the opponent's offensive or defensive movement. A personal foul also includes contact by or on an airborne shooter when the ball is dead.

Press – A type of intense defensive pressure usually applied at either full, 3/4 or 1/2 court in which the defense pressures the ball, tries to take away passing angles, and tries to trap the dribbler.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Rebound – Gaining possession of the ball following a shot. To be in good rebound position, a rebounder can't interfere with an opponent going after the ball by pushing her or extending the shoulders, hips, knees, or arms in a direction other than vertical.

Retreat step – In a basic on-the-ball defensive stance, the defender has one foot slightly forward. If the ball handler moves either to the right or left, the defender's first reaction is to take a step backward to gain a little cushion.

Push the front foot into the floor and shove against it while taking a slide step back with the rear foot. Never bring the feet any closer than shoulder width apart. Once this step is made, make a swing step if necessary.

Defensive Basketball Terms

Safety – The offensive player whose main responsibility is to hustle back on defense first to stop the fast break and protect the basket until the rest of her teammates gets there. Usually, the safety is the point guard since she's often the player closest to half-court who can get back the quickest. If the point guard takes the ball in for a shot, another player closest to the top of the key needs to hustle back to safety.

Screen (or Pick) – When an offensive player wants to help a teammate get open, he can set a screen on his teammate's defender, like a wall the defender has to get around. Screens are most effective when they're set no more than a step away from the defender with the screener having a solid, wide base. The screener must remain stationary; he can't move or lean once he gets set. It's up to his teammate to lead his defender into the screen and brush by the screen to get open.

The defender should yell, "Screen!" to let teammates know when a screen is coming. If a player gets stopped by a screen, he should yell "Help!" and possibly "Switch!" to indicate the need to trade players.

Seal and Recover (see Help)

Step and slide (see Defensive slide)

Swing step (see Drop step)

Defensive Basketball Terms

Take a charge - A personal foul occurring when an offensive player makes contact with a defender who has already established a set position. A player with the ball must avoid contact with a stationary defender by stopping or changing direction.

Team foul – Any foul charged to a team. Once a team reaches 7 team fouls, its opponent is in a bonus free throw situation.

Trap – When two defensive players double team the ball handler and position themselves side by side to make a "V" so that the defender cannot dribble or pass between them.

Turning a player (see Overplay)

Defensive Basketball Terms

Zone defense – A defense in which players are responsible for guarding an area as opposed to a specific player. Zone defenders are responsible for any players that come into their area.

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