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The game of basketball has changed a lot over the years, especially in the 21st century. Some fans and analysts say that basketball has become a “positionless sport,” but we disagree. Although today’s players are more skilled and versatile than players from past generations, they still have to play a specific role. But what are the positions in basketball? What does each player do?
As long as a team has five players, there will always be five positions in basketball. Let’s do a quick overview of the five positions and then take a deeper dive into each position’s roles and responsibilities.
The 5 Positions in Basketball – A Quick Overview
Before we focus on each position, let’s first establish the positions in basketball by number. You’ll often hear coaches and players refer to positions by their numbers instead of their regular names. Here are the five positions in basketball and their corresponding numbers:
- Point Guard (1)
- Shooting Guard (2)
- Small Forward (3)
- Power Forward (4)
- Center (5)
This number system serves several purposes. First, it’s more practical to use numbers instead of full names. Coaches can use the numbers to draw up plays during timeouts and call plays on the fly during games. Players may also understand the play calls more easily when using numbers, especially if a player subs in for another.
Second, the numbers mirror the heights of the five positions in basketball. On most teams, the guards are the smallest, centers are the tallest and forwards are somewhere in between. This natural order is helpful for new players who aren’t familiar with each position. If they’re one of the tallest on the team, they know they’re supposed to be a 4 or 5.
Third, the numbers are accurate symbols of each position’s role. Point guards are the leaders and primary ball handlers, so #1 is appropriate. Shooting guards are scorers and secondary ball handlers. Small forwards do a little bit of everything, so they’re right in the middle. Power forwards and centers play similar roles as rebounders and defenders.
Now that you understand the five positions in basketball by number and by name, it’s time to take a closer look at the unique roles of each one. We’ll go in numerical order from point guards to centers.
1. Point Guard
Point guards are the de facto leaders of the team. Coaches often call them the “floor generals” because of their high basketball IQ. Point guards are responsible for handling the ball, running the offense and controlling the pace of the game. They should be capable scorers, but dribbling and passing are much more important at this position.
The shortest player on the court is often the point guard. Their small stature enables them to become elite ball handlers. It’s not a coincidence that smaller players like Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving — all point guards — are considered the greatest ball handlers of all time. The only notable exception was Magic Johnson, who stands at 6’9”.
The agility and quick thinking required of the position have made it one of the most sought-after positions in basketball, accounting for 22.9% of NBA salaries. They’re willing to dive for loose balls and make the extra pass to the open teammate. Overall, point guards are supposed to be the heart, mind and soul of the basketball team.
2. Shooting Guard
As the name suggests, shooting guards specialize in shooting the ball. They’re often the opposing defense’s worst nightmare. When shooting guards get into a groove, they can single-handedly win games by knocking down jump shot after jump shot. This position is more important than ever now that the three-point revolution has taken over modern basketball.
The ideal prototype of a shooting guard is none other than Michael Jordan. Shooting from the mid-range was always his biggest strength, but he could dominate the game in other ways. He was also an elite finisher, free throw shooter and defender. Every shooting guard is expected to master these parts of the game and lead the backcourt in scoring, if not the whole team.
Shooting guards sometimes go by another name — “three and D” players. This nickname comes from their tendency to be excellent two-way players. They can light up the scoreboard with jump shooting and lock down the other team’s best guard on defense. Shooting guards like MJ, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Klay Thompson have filled that role to perfection.
3. Small Forward
Small forwards are the Swiss Army knives of a basketball team. They might not be elite at any particular skill, but they’re supposed to be above-average at everything — shooting, finishing, passing, dribbling, rebounding and defense. Small forwards need this balanced skill set so they can fill any role within the offensive or defensive scheme.
All small forwards should model their games after Lebron James. He’s not a lights-out shooter or amazing ball handler, but he doesn’t have a single weakness in his game. He can score on any defender and fit into any team’s playstyle. His 6’9” 250-pound frame is ideal for the small forward position.
Small forwards have to be gifted athletes to play at a high level. They often have the speed of a point guard and the strength of a power forward. The best small forwards like LeBron, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green can guard all five positions on the opposing team. The small forward’s versatility makes it arguably the most important position in basketball.
4. Power Forward
Power forwards are the unsung heroes of the basketball team. Their main responsibilities are rebounding, defending and scoring from the post area, which means they often take a beating throughout the game. The post position in basketball is the painted area from the free-throw line to the rim. The post is where the biggest and strongest players battle it out.
However, despite this bruising playstyle, power forwards also need to be decent shooters, passers and ball handlers in the modern era. Rebounding and defense are still the top priorities when playing the post position, but the best power forwards can do many other things. They have come in many shapes and sizes over the years.
Officially listed at 6’6”, Charles Barkley was one of the best rebounders and defenders of all time, despite being severely undersized. Prototypical power forwards like Tim Duncan and Karl Malone used their physicality to dominate the game from the post. Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki were skinnier and added more scoring finesse to the position.
In any case, power forwards must be extremely strong and durable to handle the position’s responsibilities. Look no further than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Other power forwards are more skilled, but Giannis is the best because nobody can handle his strength and athleticism around the rim on offense or defense.
Centers are the tallest players on the court, so their main responsibilities are rebounding, controlling the paint on both ends and stopping the other team’s tallest player. They like to hang around the post position, similar to power forwards. Centers usually have limited roles and skill sets, but they can still dominate the game thanks to their unmatched size.
Bill Russell was the original center prototype in the 1960s as the best defender and rebounder in the NBA. The position has naturally attracted physical anomalies like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal over the years. These players are all-time greats because they used their size to its full potential — something every center must learn to do.
Today’s best centers are changing basketball forever. They’re still seven-footers who primarily control the game from the post position, but now they’re learning to shoot, pass and dribble like smaller players. Nikola Jokić is effectively a point guard in a center’s body. Joel Embiid can take over a game with his jump shooting. Victor Wembanyama is 7’5” and can score from anywhere on the court.
Honorable Mention: 6th Man
As an honorable mention, every team needs a reliable sixth man. These players are the first ones to come off the bench during the game. Any of the five positions in basketball can fill the sixth-man role, but they tend to be shooting guards or small forwards because of their versatility. Coaches should be able to insert the sixth man into the starting lineup if necessary.
The best sixth men in NBA history look quite different, but they’re all capable of leading the team. Manu Ginobili and Vinnie Johnson could run the offense while the starters rested. Ricky Pierce and Jamal Crawford could be the team’s best scorers on any given night. Every basketball team at every level must have at least one skilled player coming off the bench.
Master Your Position in Basketball
Each of the five positions in basketball needs to learn a unique skill set. If you want to develop these skills, all you need to do is have the right mindset and put in the work with consistency. Every position, every role is important, and that’s what makes for an incredible team.
Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.