Five players per team are on the court at a time in a basketball game. Under normal circumstances, each of these five players plays a specific position with a different role, with different attributes being most valuable to a player in each role.
On the other hand, the borders between the positions can be quite fuzzy, and many players represent a sort of hybrid of two or more positions. Tim Duncan, for instance, is nominally a power forward, but he’s actually been used in the NBA in a role at least as close to that of the classic center as to that of the classic power forward.
Plus it’s just in the nature of the sport that players move around the court and perform all different functions throughout the game as needed in a given situation. So players from all five positions will at least occasionally do shooting guard-type things or center-type things. (Whereas you’ll never see, for instance, the pitcher catching or the catcher pitching in a baseball game.)
But even if the categories aren’t absolute, it still makes sense to speak in terms of five basic positions in basketball. These are:
* Center *
The center generally plays closest to the basket on both offense and defense. He must be able to get up as high as possible for rebounds. As the last line of defense, he needs to be able to defend against and block shots from inside.
The number one physical thing you want in a center is height. The center is almost always the tallest player on the team. While a center with a stick figure-like body type such as that of Manute Bol can still have value as long as he’s extraordinarily tall, ideally you’d like your center to have physical strength and overall athleticism to go with the height.
The center should have good physical skills of rebounding, getting off a quick jump shot in a crowd, the hook shot, and using the backboard on his shots-all things that come up repeatedly for a player who plays close to the basket. On the other hand, it would only be a bonus if a center were an effective outside shooter or fast break player, as these aren’t skills that are typically needed for where a center is and what he is expected to do.
* Power forward *
The power forward is closest to the center in physical attributes and playing style, though with somewhat more speed and athleticism.
The power forward is most often the second tallest player on the team, though it’s even more important for a power forward than a center to be more than a largely stationary, very tall shot blocker and rebounder. The power forward spends a lot of time inside, so he must be strong and comfortable with a lot of physical play and banging around, and must be an effective rebounder and effective inside shooter like the center. The power forward, though, is expected to also have the ability to hit shots from a little farther out than from where the center would typically shoot.
* Small forward *
The small forward of course isn’t “small” compared to the general population. But he’s usually the shorter of the two forwards on the team.
Both in terms of physical attributes and skill set, the small forward is a “tweener.” He must have enough height and ability to play inside to do center and power forward type things, as well as having the speed and athleticism to do guard type things. He is usually the second or third best outside shooter of the five positions, and needs to be an all purpose defender.
* Shooting guard *
The shooting guard is, as the name indicates, usually the player that takes the most shots. He needs to be a dangerous outside shooter, including from three point range.
Often the shooting guard handles the ball second most on the team, behind only the point guard. So it is almost as important for him to have top ball handling and passing skills as the point guard, and slightly more important to have the skills of moving without the ball and getting open.
The shooting guard needs to be quick and athletic. Shooting guards typically have a bit more height than point guards.
* Point guard *
The point guard handles the ball the most of any player on the team, generally bringing the ball down the court and initiating the offensive plays. As such, he needs to be the best ball handler, dribbler, and passer on the team.
Point guard is the position that least needs excessive height. Not only are point guards typically smaller than the average basketball player, they can occasionally be smaller than the average person. Muggsy Bogues is the most extreme example of this, having had a very successful NBA career as a point guard at just 5’3″. That’s not ideal size certainly, but it shows that it’s possible to play the position, and play it well, even at such a height.
All players benefit from intelligence and court vision, but the point guard most of all, since he’s often coordinating all five players on offense.
Point guards need to have a good outside shot, though it’s not quite as crucial as for shooting guards. Some point guards are offensive weapons comparable to shooting guards and take plenty of shots themselves. Others see their primary role as passing to set up shots, and only take shots when the opposition overcommits to double teaming the player(s) to whom they’re trying to pass and leaves them wide open for a shot.