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What is a Pick-up Basketball Game?

What is a Pick-up Basketball Game?

What is a Pick-up Basketball Game?

Pick-up basketball is one of the most essential forms of a basketball game.  Typically played recreationally, a pick-up game of basketball will test your grit, determination, perseverance, and willpower.  But what exactly is a pick-up basketball game, how is it played, what should you wear, what are the rules, and how do you find a pick-up game?

These questions and more will be answered below.  We will walk you through exactly what a pick-up basketball game is and how to prepare yourself fully before jumping into one.  You may also find our in-depth review of how to play a one-on-one game useful!

What is a Game of Pick-Up Basketball?

A game of pick-up basketball, quite simply, is a recreational, non-league affiliated game of basketball.  It is typically played on an available court, whether outdoors or indoors, and is played on a first-come, first-serve basis.  A game of pick-up basketball is usually played with teams of five-on-five but can be played with a team of four-on-four.

Differing from a game of one-on-one, a pick-up game is played full court.  This means that the game will be utilizing both ends of the basketball court, with the defense and offense needing to run full court to begin new sets. 

A game of pick-up basketball differs from a traditional, league regulated game in many ways.  For starters, a game of pick-up basketball does not have any referees nor are there any officials to keep a tally of the points scored. 

This means that fouls and keeping track of points scored will fall on the players on the court.  While calling fouls and keeping track of the score falls on the individual players, calling a foul and the current score is an honor system. 

Typically, in a pick-up game, fouls are only called that truly impact the shooting sequence of a shooting player.  This means that small, tick-tack type fouls, including reach-ins, defensive three-seconds, and charges will not be called.

How do Pick-up Games Start?

Due to the very nature of pick-up games, in that they are often unorganized and determined by the players on the court, so too is the start of the game.  Typically, a game of pick-up is started when there are enough players on the court and one of the players asks if others would be interested in starting a game.

Teams can be determined in one of two ways.

Firstly, a team of five may already be present and ready to begin a game.  These are typically players who either train together or simply friends who are looking to enjoy a recreational game of basketball.  Whatever the case, if a team of five is already present and ready to begin a game, then the opposing players will simply band together to form their team.

The second option is to shoot for teams.  This is where each player will take a free-throw shot.  The first five players to make the free-throw shot will be a team and the five players who missed from the free-throw will be their own team.

However, things can get a little dicey when there are more than ten players on the court and looking to play. 

Typically, in that situation, the players will be determined by whomever scores from the free-throw line.  This means that it is extremely important to make your free-throw shot on your first attempt if you would like to participate in the game.

If you miss your shot and ten other players make theirs, then you will not participate in the first game.  However, as most pick-up games are set on a first-come, first-serve basis, you will be first up for the next game.

Why You Should Play a Game of Pick-up Basketball

Many newer players are often, understandably, intimidated when it comes to playing a game of pick-up basketball.  This is understandable.  However, a game of pick-up basketball can be more fun than a regulation game and can help you to increase your overall basketball skills.

In addition, playing a game of pick-up basketball will not only introduce you to many differing types of players but will also help you to increase your experience in defending differing basketball styles, schemes, and plays.

Lastly, playing a pick-up game of basketball will help to increase your overall basketball confidence.  You will face stiff competition and a variety of playing styles.  However, if you are able to play well offensively and defensively, you will have the confidence needed to take your game to a more professional league.

What Determines Which Team Starts with the Ball?

Again, unlike in a professional or league regulated game, the start of a pick-up game will not be decided by a tip-off of the ball.  Rather, the team to start with the ball will be determined by either one of two scenarios.

The first scenario is based on a do-or-die shot by a player on either team.  This is, a player will shoot the ball, either from beyond the three-point line or at the free-throw line.  If they make the shot, their team will begin with the ball.  If they miss the shot, then the opposing team will start with the ball.

The second scenario is determined only if one of the two teams had previously won the last game.  Under this scenario, the team that had won their previous game will start the game with the ball.

How Are Points Scored?

Similar to the one-on-one game, a pick-up game is determined by points of one and two increments.

To score, an offensive player may take or attempt a shot from anywhere on the court towards their basket.  However, any shot attempt made from with the three-point perimeter will count as one-point.  Whereas any shot attempt made from beyond the three-point perimeter will count as two-points.

How Does a Pick-up Game End?

Again, similar to the one-on-one game, a pick-up game ends when either team reaches the set number of points scored.  Typically, a pick-up game is played to 11, 13, 15, or 21 points. 

And, again similar to the one-on-one game, many players will call that the game must be determined by two.  This means that in order for a team to win the game, they must have +2 points over the opposing team for the game to be called.

As an example, if the game is being played to 21, the opposing team must have 19 points or less in order for the team which reaches 21 to be called the winner.

Unofficial Rules of the Pick-up Game

While the pick-up game is definitely more relaxed and less stringent on the rules, as compared to a professional league, there are some unofficial rules which go into the game.  It is important to understand these unofficial rules as to be more confident on the court and to not embarrass yourself in a pick-up game.

One of the most important unofficial rules of a pick-up game is to simply get out of the way.  While players are on the court, many players on the sideline may choose to practice their shooting skills or their layups on the opposite side.  While this is, generally, acceptable, non-participating players should be mindful of the game and should be quick to move off the court if the player begin to come to the other side.

Secondly, another unofficial rule of the pick-up game is to call next when you want to play the next game.  Calling next should be done loudly for the players on and off the court to hear.  However, if there are a lot of players off the court and waiting to play, simply calling next will not guarantee you a spot.

Rather, many pick-up games are determined on a first-come, first-serve basis and you will need to wait your turn to begin a game.  If you come to the court and there are players waiting to play the next game, it is advisable to ask around and see who has next and if they have a full team assembled and ready to go.

Lastly, when it comes to calling and being charged with a foul, doing so should be done on an honor basis.  This means that you should only call legitimate fouls and fouls that impact the ability to shoot.  In addition, if you are called for a foul, admit so gracefully.  No one appreciates the foul-denier, and all calls should be honored.

When a player calls a foul, the ball will be checked-in, and the play will restart.  Unlike the professional league, in a pick-up game, there are no free-throw shot opportunities.  Checking in the ball ensures that both players are ready to start the offensive and defensive scheme and ensures that no player takes advantage of the other players distraction.

To check-in the ball, the player on offensive will pass the ball to their defensive counterpart directly in front of them.  The defensive player will then pass the ball back to the offensive player.  Once the offensive player has received the ball, the ball is considered live.

Which Rules Are Not Included in a Pick-up Game?

As we mentioned above, when it comes to a pick-up game, many fouls assessed are strictly due to an interference with an offensive player’s attempt to shoot or score the ball.  Those fouls are typically honored and will result in the offensive team restarting the play after checking the ball in.

However, not all fouls that are considered legitimate in the professional league are done so in a pick-up game.  Due to the more unorganized, haphazard, and unofficial nature of a pick-up game, smaller, more tick-tack fouls are not considered to be legitimate.

These include a shot clock violation, offensive fouls unless deliberate and harmful in nature, three-second violations, charges, and other smaller violations.

However, many non-foul violations do remain in the pick-up game.  This includes backcourt violations, travels, and unnecessary roughness, to name a few.

Best Defensive Schemes to Run in a Pick-up Game?

Although it may be more prudent to run a zone defense in certain situations, most pick-up games are played man-to-man.  This is typically due to a level of unknowingness between players and the difficulty with which it is to determine a player’s zone-defense knowledge.

However, man-to-man is usually determined based on relative size.  That is, you will be matched up with an opposing player that is closest to your own physical build and height.  If you are a big man, then you will likely be paired to defend the opposing team’s big man.  Similarly, if you are a smaller point guard, you will likely be paired to defend the opposing team’s point guard.

Understanding Pick-up Basketball Terms and Language

Within the pick-up game, there are a plethora of words used to express feelings of remorse, apology, defense, and assistance.  Here are just a few.

Got It – Typically utilized when going to a rebound, a player may yell “got it” so that there is no interference between two players on the same team.

Screen, Screen! – Typically yelled out on defense to let your teammate know that an imminent screen is about to be set on them.

My Bad – a term of apology when a player makes a mistake

And One! – There’s some disagreement here but yelling and one is typically meant to indicate a foul has been levied.

Iso, Iso! – typically called out by a player looking to isolate himself against the defensive player.

Brick – yelled out, in jest, when a player takes a shot and misses badly.

I got ball – a defensive player yelling out to his teammates, indicating that he is going to guard against the player with the ball.

Count? – What’s the current score?

What to Wear While Playing a Pick-up Game?

Generally, choosing an outfit to wear for a pick-up game is relatively easy and straightforward.  As there is no official dress code, you are often given full discretion on what to wear to the court. 

However, there are a few, simple unofficial rules that will not only help you to play better but will also ensure you appear ready for a game.

Firstly, it is of utmost importance that you wear proper basketball shoes.  Not only will wearing proper basketball shoes help you to appear more professional for a pick-up game but doing so will also decrease your chances of sustaining a foot or ankle injury.

Secondly, you should opt to wear either basketball shorts or simple athletic joggers.  For your upper body, you can wear either an athletic shirt or a no-sleeve shirt.

In addition, you should avoid wearing a team jersey and team shorts.  While not an official rule, it is commonly seen as a faux-pas and not entirely mature to do so.

Similarly, many pick-up basketball games are played as shirts-vs-skins. This means that a team will keep their shirts on, while the opposing team will play shirtless. While not as common nowadays, shirts-vs-skins is done to better differentiate opposing players and teams.

Lastly, not all basketball are made equal for playing on an outdoor court. Be sure to check out our list of recommended basketballs for pickup games.