Everyone knows that basketball is the best sport of all time. One of the best things about it is that it’s accessible to basically anyone. Even if you haven’t touched a ball since middle school, you can probably find a fun pickup game at your local YMCA, 24 Hour Fitness, or even an outdoor court.
But… if you haven’t touched a ball since middle school (or even high school), chances are you’re a bit rusty. I can’t really tell you how to improve your shot, other than practice — though Allen Iverson may disagree.
But. There are a few simple tricks I can tell you RIGHT now that will make you a better pickup basketball player. Even if your fundamentals are super rusty and you don't have time to work on them.
1. Pass the ball to people’s hands.
This is the number one easiest thing you can possibly do to be a better basketball player.
When I’m cutting or posting up, I put my hands where I want the ball.
It’s shocking to me how often people at pickup don’t throw the ball to my hands. Maybe I’ve posted up and I’ve got my man on my right hip, so I put my left hand low. I want the bounce pass so I can turn to the basket and shoot… But then the pass comes high and to my right. This is a stealable pass, and I’m not really set up to catch and convert.
Or maybe I’m running hard towards the ball at the elbow, and I’ve got my hands ready to catch the ball in front of me, just above my hips… and the pass goes to the top of the key, or drifts high to my right, or comes in super low. By the time I change my speed and direction to catch this ridiculous (not rediculous) pass, my defender has caught up with me and I’m no longer open.
It’s a super simple concept, and one of the easiest things you can do right now to be a better player.
Just pass the ball to the receiver’s hands. And, of course, if they’re on the move, pass it to where they’re going, not to where they are now.
2. Don’t guard your man too close.
Unless you’ve got a shooter — you’ll know, either because your teammates tell you, “He’s a shooter,” or because as soon as she gets the ball, she scores on you — there’s no reason to be joined at the hip. But I see this all the time at pickup.
People wasting energy and heartbeats following their defender all the way around the arc, instead of giving them distance and cutting straight through the paint. People staying so close to their man and watching him so closely, they have no idea what else is going on on the court.
If you’ve got a shooter, stay close enough that you can take away the shot if they get the pass. That doesn't mean you're so close you can touch them. It means when the pass goes up, you can jump to your man and get there before they get the open shot.
Otherwise... think of it this way. The further your man (or woman) is from the ball, the further you should be from them. You should be able to see the ball at all times, and you should be between the person you're guarding and the basket at all times.
I was really sad the other night after a guy on my team was so committed to guarding his man… that a completely open player drove right by his shoulder and scored an uncontested layup.
That should never happen.
3. Cut to the ball — if you’re standing still, you’re probably not open.
You may feel like you’re wide open… but if you’re standing still, you’re probably not. The further you are from the ball, the truer this is. As long as you’re standing still waiting for the ball, a defender (or two) is waiting for that pass. Because she wants to steal it.
I won't make that pass, because I know it's going to get stolen.
If you want the ball, cut to the ball. Or cut to the basket. Or cut to the ball — then immediately back to the basket. (Your defender will have tried to get between you and the pass on the ball cut, so you can really get open on the basket cut.)
If you don’t get the pass, cut back out.
This advice is, like, triply true if your teammate with the ball has lost their dribble, or is getting double teamed, or is otherwise in some sort of trouble. If you’re just standing there, you’re not helping. You're probably hurting, since by standing still, you’re taking away someone else’s cut.
4. Get back on defense.
If people are asking, “Who’s guarding him?” that means you’re doing a shitty job. You need to know who you’re guarding, and you need to get back on defense. If the person you’re guarding is getting easy, uncontested buckets, that means everyone will hate you and think you suck.
5. When you’re guarding the ball, take away the right and force the dribbler to go left.
Most people are right-handed, and a surprising number of people can’t go left — either at all, or as well as they can go right. Resist the temptation to guard them straight-up until they demonstrate they can go both ways.
If your person if left-handed, then obviously do the inverse and try to force them to go right.
6. Communicate with your teammates.
There’s no shame in asking a teammate, “Do you want to switch on those?” after your man sets a pick. There’s no shame in asking, “Where do you want the ball?” It’s actually really helpful to know who wants it in the paint vs. the three-point line. (Though sometimes when I ask this, people think I'm, like, flirting or something.)
If you don’t know who you have or can’t remember who’s on your team, say so.
Avoiding communication because it’s “awkward” isn’t going to make anything less awkward. It’s only going to make people mad at you. (For more, check out 5 Things ALL “Socially Awkward” People NEED to Know.)
7. Know this court’s rules.
Every court is different, and, again, there's no shame in asking. Even if you’re the only girl at the whole gym — which, obviously, adds another layer of awkwardness, because not only are you the only girl, but you feel like you’re also the only person who doesn’t know if you’re playing 2’s and 3’s or 1’s and 2’s, how to get into a game, whether there’s backcourt violations, what you're playing to, etc. (You’re not the only person who doesn’t know, FYI.)
Every court is different. But I’d say typically, the way it works is you go in and there’s a game going on. You find someone on the sideline and ask, “Who's got next? How many are waiting?” If there are already five waiting, you’re on for the game after this one. If there are fewer than five waiting, then you’re on with the others who are waiting to get on.
If you don’t have five people waiting by the end of the current game, the people on the losing team have the option to shoot for the spot(s) that are open on your team.
So if there are three people waiting to get on, you might hear someone tell the losing team, “Shoot for two,” which means, “Shoot for the remaining two spots.”
Once the teams have been determined, the winners typically stand on the outside (near the three-point line), and the losers (or new team) stand on the inside. This gives you a chance to look around and decide who you’re guarding and memorize who is on your team.
Some courts have longer waiting times than others. Some have enough people waiting that they have an actual chalk board or clipboard to sign up. Some games charge a fee to play, others are free. It all depends.
(On that note, if you're a woman in the San Francisco Bay Area looking to get into a regular all-women's pickup game, check out Pick Her Up Basketball in Oakland.)
8. Don’t do dumb shit that hurts people.
It’s not worth it. Everyone will hate you. Don’t throw elbows. Don’t wreck people’s ACLs. Don’t get under people who are jumping. Don’t check people when they’re in the air. Because why? What even is the point? It’s fucking pickup and there is no reason to do such a thing.
Just like we all hated Vince Carter when this happened:
Except WORSE. Because it's FUCKING. PICKUP.
The great thing about these tips is you don't have to practice any of them. You just have to go do them. So... go do them.
And if you want to know more, check out 10 Things You Do At Pickup Basketball That I Make Fun of You For, or order Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, by Shea Serrano. He's, like, the funniest author EVER (at the very least, he's up there with Bill Bryson, Laura Kipnis, and Danny Wallace), and has interesting insights about the game.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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