A Pickup Basketball Manifesto

I play pickup basketball because I like the challenge, I like trying to outhustle, outplay, and outsmart the other team. Pickup also connects me to my youth and is way more interesting than spending 90 minutes on the stair-master.

Winning is much easier when you have coordinated team play on offense and defense. I don’t mean you have to run Jerry Sloan’s Flex offense, implement Tom Thibodeau’s defense, or follow the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, but working together, assuming roles, and communicating go a long way in determining if you’re going to play 5 games in a row or if you’re gonna get embarrassed 15-4 and have to pick up on the JV court with two guys in matching neon green tank tops who just got done lifting.

The Swanson Pyramid of Greatness…

If you ball, you know that a large number of pick-up players have a different orientation. They mostly want to emulate their favorite NBA players. Unfortunately, Kobe, Melo, and D-Rose generate a lot more interest in emulation than Steve Nash and Rondo.

Too many players have a Melo, Kobe, DRose orientation without the requisite skills to pull it off

Don’t get me wrong, Kobe, DRose, and Melo are talented players and it’s important to have confidence and be aggressive but too often their Kobe-esque thinking is along the lines of:

I’m the man
To win the man needs to score
To score the man must shoot
And keep shooting–no matter what it does to team chemistry

This kind of play often undermines teammate effort and the game devolves into quick shots by everyone due to a turn-taking mentality.

There are 11 or 12 different ways to win at pickup basketball, some more fun and efficient than others. Here are the principles I try to use and encourage in teammates:


  • Understand Which Shots Make the Most Statistical Sense. Depending on the rules and scoring systems of pickup ball particular shots become more or less advantageous [more on this here].
  • Make the extra pass. Most pick-up defenses are brittle, more passing usually leads to higher percentage shots.
  • Don’t over dribble. You know the type, they seem to need 3 dribbles just to get into their offensive flow. Meanwhile any spacing advantages created prior to those three dribbles diminish and the chances they turn the ball over increase [more on this here].
  • Be patient. Too many pick-up ballers seem to play against some internal 10-second shot clock. They also mistake passing for a lack of interest in shooting by their teammates. As mentioned above, patience on offense will nearly always get your team a better shot.
  • Set picks. When people move around on offense and set screens on and off the ball advantages proliferate.
  • Occupy and move between places on the court where you can make shots.
  • Take open shots. This is about self-awareness and comfort, some players don’t realize that they are open for a jumpshot and others don’t practice shooting off the catch -which means they often catch the ball, pause, take a dribble (allowing the defense to recover), and then shoot a contested jumper [more on this here].
  • Play within yourself (not with yourself) and figure out your role on your team. If you are the 4th best offensive threat on your team, make your move / take your shot when others have created advantages for you. If you are the best offensive player on your team create advantages for your teammates.
  • Get offensive rebounds that come to you but don’t crash the offensive glass at the expense of getting back on defense.


  • Try: A pick-up team that actually cares on defense is much harder to beat than one sporting players who play half-hearted defense –believing they can make it up on the offensive end. A team with a player who slacks a bit on offense is much easier to overcome than one who slacks on defense.
  • Communicate. Letting fellow defenders know when a pick is coming, if there is someone posting up behind them, if they should switch, show, fight through, or go under a screen makes a big difference.
  • Box out. Putting all that effort into getting a stop only to have the other team collect an offensive rebound is demoralizing. Getting guys to either box out or having them guard players who don’t crash the offensive boards is important.
  • Pay attention. This goes along with trying but it is also about watching for tendencies. Does your guy only go right? Is he hesitant to shoot but has a quick first step. Does he smile when he is about to pass and grimace when he is about to shoot (I know a guy like this).


  • Get back on D. Good pick-up teams often score lots of easy baskets in transition, but a little hustle and court balance/spacing can greatly reduce primary and secondary fast-break points, and sometimes cause turnovers, missed layups, and fouls which is generally preferable to a layup as no one has ever fouled out of a pick-up game.


  • Play a role. You don’t need to be a top player to contribute to your team, you just need to fill a role that the team you are on needs. Pattern your game after a player who fits what you can do and then watch video of them, their moves and positioning on the court. For example if you can play defense or block shots and shoot a decent mid-range jumper but have a suspect handle then watch clips of someone like Serge Ibaka or David West.
  • Make peace not problems. Try and notice when other players seem to be headed toward conflict and reign them back in [more on this here].
  • Use basketball to create community and break barriers. Pickup basketball can break down and interrupt racist and classist elements embedded within our societies. Use pickup as a way to complicate your thinking and build relationships both in your own neighborhood as well as when you go abroad.
  • Be a student of the game. Spend a little time trying to figure what’s going on in terms of the people and co-constructed cultures of pickup basketball (that’s the main goal of this blog).

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