Basketball Positions & Their Roles
Because there are only five players on the basketball court, each player position has a term: point guard, who dribbles the ball up the court, shooting guard, power forward, small forward and center. The center, often the tallest, often stood closest to the basketball hoop, the forwards on either side, and the two guards furthest away.
The modern NBA is much different. A few years ago, Coach Brad Stevens explained, "I don't have five positions anymore. It may be as simple as three positions now, where you're either a ball-handler, a wing, or a big" and as General Manager Daryl Morey explained on a podcast, 3-points are worth a lot more than 2-points, players miss 3-pointers just as much as 2-pointers, and so modern NBA teams focus more on player match-ups and open 3-point shots.
The point guard is responsible for handling the ball and triggering his team's offense. Some consider the position the most difficult. And as a former point guard, I was tasked to set the offense, make the first pass, and dribble the ball up the court -- other players simply run up the court and wait.
While other players will handle, dribble and pass the ball, the point guard will do the majority of that work. The point guard's primary job is to get teammates involved in the offense.
On the defensive side, the point guard will harass the opponent's point guard, to make dribbling, passing and setting up the play more difficult. As a tip, because once the ball-handler crosses half-court, you can use the half-court line to your advantage and be more aggressive just as the dribbler crosses half-court. The best half-court presses often use two players to trap the ball-handler against the edge of the court.
Former Laker great Magic Johnson was one of the best point guards in basketball history. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry are great, current NBA Point Guards.
The ideal shooting guard is a player who can score a lot of points in a short period of time. While the shooting guard must be able to handle the ball and pass successfully, his greatest contribution is as a scorer. The shooting guard must be able to drive to the hoop and hit the outside shot as well.
The greatest shooting guard in NBA history is Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. Kobe Bryant is also considered an all-time NBA great shooting guard.
The description of small forward usually has nothing to do with a player's height; it has to do with a player's ability to make plays with the ball. The small forward has to be able to dribble the ball, drive the ball to the basket and make outside shots.
A small forward is often compared to a shooting guard in that they have similar jobs, but a small forward will usually help out more on rebounding and do his job closer to the rim than the shooting guard.
Hall of Fame Celtics forward Larry Bird was a great all-around player who was often labeled as a small forward.
The power forward is a big and powerful individual who can dominate rebounding and inside scoring. Most of the power forward's shots are taken from inside 12 feet and many are within just a few feet of the rim. The power forward must help his team block shots and box opponents out when going for rebounds.
Former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone is one of the greatest power forwards in basketball history.
The center is almost always the biggest man on the court--a player who can alter the opponent's offensive game by his presence, size, and wingspan. These factors allow him to accomplish the tasks of blocking and changing shots.
A center should also be a good scoring option when his team gets the ball near the basket.
Top centers develop an array of offensive moves like the drop step and hook shot to score points.
Players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal rank among the best centers in NBA history.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman authored The Minnesota Vikings: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Who's Better, Who's Best in Football -- The Top 60 Players of All-Time, among others, and placed in the Pro Football Writers of America awards three times. Silverman holds a Master of Science in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism.