What Is Isolation in Basketball?

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Seven

What Does Iso Mean in Basketball?

Isolation, or iso, is a type of basketball play used in a basketball game against man-to-man defense. The idea of an iso play is to give the basketball player designated as the ball handler, usually one of the team’s best offensive players, room to get in a one-on-one matchup against an opposing team’s weaker defensive player. This is done by preventing the remaining defenders from joining the play, which gives the isolation player a better chance of being able to take advantage of the mismatch.

Setting Up an Iso in Basketball

The spacing of the offense is the key to making an isolation play work and creating a true one-on-one situation. In order for that to happen, here are some key things that basketball coaches will tell their team:

  • Big men should position themselves low along the baseline
  • Guards should move toward the three-point line
  • As a player dribbles the ball into the offensive zone, the remaining offensive players need to open enough room for the ball handler to effectively play one-on-one against his defender
  • At the same time, the whole team needs to be far enough apart to ensure that there are viable passing lanes for open jump shots should the defense opt to double-team the scorer


Once the isolation play is set up, an offensive player cuts toward the point guard (or player dribbling the ball into the zone), who then passes it to the cutting player. The remaining offensive players tie up their defenders, giving the ball handler extra time to play against his lone defender.

If another defender shakes his man and double-teams the intended shooter, the offensive player passes the ball to his newly open teammate, ideally giving him a chance for an easy drive for a layup or dunk, or for a jump shot.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers

When to Run an Isolation Play

There are several scenarios when an iso play makes sense:

  • When the shot clock is running down and the offense needs to quickly set up a high-percentage shot
  • When a defender is on the verge of fouling out, because the player is likely to defend more passively than normal, giving the ball handler a greater chance to score
  • When an offensive player has the hot hand, or is in some kind of offensive groove in consecutive possessions
  • When a team is holding the ball for the last shot of the quarter or game and the play calls for the best iso player to make something happen
  • When a superior offensive player notices they have a weaker defender guarding them

Ball Handler Attributes

The player bringing the ball into the offensive zone needs to be patient and cognizant of the shot clock, but collected enough to allow the rest of the offense to get into position before setting the isolation play into motion.

The intended shooter needs to be skilled enough to evade the opponent while able to read the other defenders and be alert to an imminent double-team. Ball hogs are often poor choices for spearheading an isolation play. If the intended shooter gets double-teamed, he needs to be enough of a team player to pass to the open player instead of taking a low-percentage shot.

Some common moves used by the ball handler in an iso play are:

  • The step-back
  • A quick crossover
  • Calling for a ball screen

Best Iso Ball Players in NBA History

1. Kevin Durant

2. Kobe Bryant

3. Michael Jordan

4. James Harden

5. LeBron James