When Winning is Everything: A Quick Guide to Dominating Pick-up Basketball

At my current school, Tufts University, a tragedy recently occurred. It was announced in a school-wide e-mail that this winter there will be no intramural sports. Along with the NBA, sex, food, and occasionally my friends and family, winter intramural basketball has been among the few things to constitute my thoughts and dreams since the end of last season. I’m a basketball-addict, so this is the equivalent of denying Lamar Odom of candy or Caron Butler of Mountain Dew. Although winter IM basketball has never been a coherent institution at Tufts, in the past we would at least manage a few competitive games before the inevitable school/work/partying-induced forfeits that wound up dooming the league.

Nonetheless, this recent announcement marks a true travesty for a senior who merely wants an IM championship before he graduates. I guess there will always be men’s leagues–if I’m lucky maybe I’ll even play alongside Moochie Norris. In the mean time, I’ll have to satisfy my addiction with unhealthy amounts of pick-up basketball. And in the process, I plan on kicking some liberal-arts butt. But how to kick butt? Being an average 5’10” baller with increasingly fragile knees and ankles (and thus decreasing quickness and jumping ability), I have had to adapt my game over the years. ‘Tis the season for giving and alliteration, and AGR gives back by passing down the tried, true, and trusted tips and tricks for tackling pick-up basketball. Somewhere, Brah-rak O-brah-ma should be taking notes

Use your hands in a legal-ish fashion
Hand-checks on defense: Pick-up ain’t the NBA, so take advantage of it. Constantly use a hand or forearm (or two hands/forearms) to impede and check your opponent, whether he has the ball or not and whether he’s on the perimeter or in the paint. This strategy is valuable against the big and strong as well as the tiny and quick. It is unclear whether this is a foul or not, but regardless, no one calls this foul, ever. Next time your teammate asks you, “Yo, who’re you checkin’?” think to yourself, “No, who am I hand-checkin’?”
Push-offs on offense: Getting open can be important, especially for shooters. Because of the dearth of NBA-caliber athleticism in pick-up hoops, many die-hard ballers have carved out a niche for themselves as sharp-shooters. If you are one of those guys, stop frantically running around to get open and instead create some extra space by wedging a hand or forearm in between you and your sure-to-be-frustrated opponent. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Exploit the inherent offensive advantages of pick-up
1’s and 2’s vs. 2’s and 3’s: In pick-up basketball, the game is typically scored with 1-point and 2-point field goals as opposed to 2-point and 3-point field goals. This gives an advantage to the shots from beyond the arc from a simple mathematical perspective. 2’s have more value relative to 1’s (double the value), than 3’s have relative to 2’s (1.5 the value). If this still doesn’t make sense, play out a short scenario with me: The Wizards hit four trey-balls and two regular buckets en route to 16 points in the first six minutes of a game. Their opponents, the Lakers, hit zero threes but manage to make the necessary eight regular field goals to keep pace and tie the game at 16-16. Now, let’s convert this situation to pick-up. The Wizards would have 10 points ((4*2)+(2*1)=10) and the Lakers would only have 8 (8*1=8). As you can see, the long-ball goes a little bit longer for your team in pick-up. Start gettin’ your Antoine Walker on and launch away.
When there are fewer players…: there is more paint to be had. Take advantage of the open interior. Whether the game is half-court or full-court, 4v4 or 1v1, pick-up basketball can offer a cleaner lane to work with than in traditional 5v5 hoops. Drive, post up, and score in the paint. To boot, there are no offensive three-second violations (which will be touched on later).

Know the situation
Match-up exploitation: Because of the whimsical nature of pick-up basketball, the on-court talent gaps are often times larger than those seen in organized basketball. If your team has the LeBron of pick-up or your opponent has the equivalent of Squeak from BASEketball, forget the concept of teamwork and go to work on the match-up, instead. (This goes both ways–on defense, remember to offer  constant help if you are cursed with Squeak for a teammate or LeBron for an opponent.) Likewise, avoid bad match-ups by ignoring any godawful offensive teammates you might have.
Knowing your environment: Is the game half-court or full-court? And about that court– is it long/wide or short/narrow? Are you inside with the hardwood or outside on the asphalt? What about the hoops…do they have soft rims or double-rims? Hard or soft backboards? Are they 11 feet, 7 feet, or somewhere in between? We could go on and on…is the ball flat or pumped? Is the weather windy or calm? Hot, comfortable, or cold? Different environments complement different styles of play better than others. AGR can’t pick apart every potential environment (although I do recommend ruthlessly taking advantage of soft backboards), but we’ll say this: Wake up, smell the leather of your shoes and ball, and know your environment.
Scouting: Waiting frequently accompanies the pick-up experience. No one likes waiting, so turn that waiting into scouting. Scouting can be the difference between winning and losing–scout the opponents, out their weaknesses, and rout them into oblivion.

Take advantage of the rules (or lack thereof)
Lack of “shooting fouls:” In pick-up basketball, points shouldn’t come easy. There are no refs, so it’s the best time to get gritty and grimy. And because there are no refs, there are no shooting fouls or free throws; instead, a fouled shooter merely regains possession after calling the foul without the opportunity for freebies at the charity stripe. Thus, I recommend pummeling any shooter with an easy shot to eliminate an easy bucket. If they make the shot with the foul, they don’t even get the ball back (a recommended rule change from AGR, incidentally. Rewarding an and-1 with possession would add an exciting element to pick-up in lieu of free throws). The fouling-the-shooter strategy can be obnoxious and even dangerous for your opponent as well as yourself (via court-rage), but it’s a winning strategy, nonetheless.
Lack of offensive 3-second violation: This can be exploited by anyone. The lack of a 3-second violation allows for the most physical of backing-down, the most patient of jump-hooks, and the most intricate of post-pivots and pump-fakes. Offense, take note.

Carom the ball (pick-up basketball has a love affair with lazy rebounding)
Boxing out: I’m pretty sure the words “box out” are foreign to the average pick-up player. Get low, establish position, and make Paul Millsap proud.
Tipping the ball: When attacking the boards–especially on offense when you are crashing from behind–take advantage of typical pick-up laziness and the lack of “over-the-back” calls by slapping the ball towards a teammate. On defense this can ignite a fast-break and on offense you can create quick shots for teammates. No other maneuver results in more obscenities from opponents.

The picks of pick-up…
Setting picks (and moving picks): The pick-and-roll is one of the simplest and most unstoppable plays in basketball. The good news for pick-up players–other than that the play is simple and unstoppable–is that defending the play requires the opponent to fight through a screen, which necessitates effort and smarts on behalf of the defense (something pick-up defenders don’t typically possess). The even better news is that this play is made even more dominant by the use of the moving pick. The moving pick’s illegality is overlooked in pick-up and frustrates defenders more than Kobe himself. The fundamental play of basketball might be the screen-and-roll, but the fundamental play of pick-up is the moving screen.
Making picks and picking up: To divide teams in pick-up ball, sometimes two “captains” draft players to create the teams for the next game. Assert yourself as a captain, pick up the best players to assemble the best team, and then pick up the inevitable onlooking females after hours of dominating the courts. Bro-life-win.

Be a pal
Sharing is caring: Share information and analysis–it’s good to get your team of likely strangers on some common ground. Share the rock (with the good players, at least). Go above and beyond. Offer water, ankle tape, rec specs, or a pregame prayer to share with a teammate. In addition to their material gain that will translate to on-court success, it will facilitate team bonding and chemistry. Sometimes I get odd looks when I pray to the pick-up legend Aaron Carter, but results are results.
Know your teammates: Rarely do all my teammates know each other in pick-up ball. Learn each other’s names so you can communicate effectively. Learn where each player operates most effectively on offense. And learn their favorite players to pump them up by using said player as a nickname that invokes a vicarious identity for them to live/play through (nothing motivates me like being called “Baby Admiral”).
Play with (talented) friends: This one is pretty straightforward. If you bring good players to the court for your squad, you’ll have guaranteed chemistry and talent. Personally, I always bring Kenny Anderson to my games to ensure victory (I give him free tennis lessons in exchange).

Be a pain
Sinning is winning: You know that water/ankle tape/prayer you shared with your team? Actively keep it from the other team. Maybe you even steal their water/ankle tape/prayer. Sinning leads to winning. Some people habitually “misremember” the score in their favor. Others go for the ankles or even Bruce Bowen-esque karate kicks. I don’t condone the aforementioned basketball sins, but I’ll acknowledge their existence and utility for winning.

As Team USA learns every couple of years, international basketball is its own unique game that affords different strategies; the same can be said for pick-up basketball in comparing it to organized basketball. That being said, one common thread remains amidst all the forms of basketball: the desire to win. Hopefully, this guide will serve as a Christmabasketbukkah present for hoops fans worldwide.

Concerns? Field testing data to be shared? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.

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11 Responses to When Winning is Everything: A Quick Guide to Dominating Pick-up Basketball

  1. Anonymous says:

    One strategy you’ve left out is to let even your weakest teammates touch the ball on offense so they don’t become despondent on defense. If the other team is not pressuring, have your worst player take it up the court so they feel like they’re doing something. Pass it to them on the perimeter every once in a while and call for it right back. When I play with much better players and I get completely ignored on offense, I tend to not try as hard on defense.

    • Anonymous says:

      I completely disagree with anonymous 9:15pm. If I’m the worst player on the court I make up for it by playing super solid defense and setting screens on offense

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree with the 2nd anonymous…….I am typically the weakest link on my pick-up teams and my goal is play tough D and set picks on O, and crash the boards, I usually end up getting the ball a couple times, look to shoot if I am open or pass it off…..

        • Anonymous says:

          You should share the ball with your crappy teammate (as 1st anonymous states) but if YOU are the crappy teammate, you should “play tough D and set picks on O, and crash the boards” (as 3rd anonymous stated).

          • Anonymous says:

            I remember being pretty inexperienced and just walking onto a court in the park and this huge dude that could throw down and drain threes was on my team and kept dishing to me. I usually just kept ball moving, but once he like yelled at me saying “take the f*cking shot, you’re open, make them respect you”. I started shooting, and starting making my shots. Passing to your not-so-confident team-mate can help them build some confidence, and confident team-mates will help you win.

  2. Charles says:

    It’s not about what people should and should not do. Most people know what they are supposed to do on the court (unless they are REALLY despondent or recovering from a significant head injury, and in either case they probably shouldn’t be playing), however I think what anonymous one is saying is what people actually will do. During the emotion of the game people do get discouraged and disheartened, especially if they are NEVER touching the ball. They’ll get emotional and when someone calls them out for not getting back on defense they’ll exclaim, “Why should I??” as though their poor wittle feelings are hurt because they never get the ball. Boo hoo. It’s immature, it’s not what I would do, but nonetheless I see this all the time. Most bad ballers know their place, and they understand if they are neglected, however you always have those people who don’t quite understand how terrible they are at the game, and when those people are on your team you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    I do believe one thing he genuinely left out is identifying these kind of players when they are your opponents. If you’re matched up against them, conveniently leave them open and help on others. Hell…leave them WIDE open if they are legitimately awful, and if their team decides he’s too open to ignore they’ll pass it, you attempt to contest the shot (or act like it) and go in for the inevitable rebound. It also gives you significant advantages when defending against their star players, as you now have more freedom to trap, help, double-team, etc. Any league or organized ball team would take this guy out, but as this is not an options you can spin it to your advantage just by knowing your opponent and matchups. He touched on this a bit, so I suppose this is a supplement rather than a “correction” per se.

  3. Pingback: Pick-Up Game (book review) – street basketball, city life, real life | BooksYALove

  4. Anonymous says:

    If you think you should hack someone with an open shot then you know nothing about pick up basketball.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think this is a guide on “how to get your ass knocked-out” . Some of these strategies are effective, but are complete jerk moves and nobody will respect you or your game.
    -Try not to foul
    -share the ball
    -go hard
    Good things will happen

    • achiappanza says:

      Hear hear! This article is a guide to how to turn a pick-up game into a combat zone. That’s not what most of us are looking for.

      Also with regard to teammate support: I completely agree that the faith of my teammates has a huge impact on my performance… either positive or negative.

  6. D. Wilkins says:

    Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds. We are constantly playing teams that are less skilled than us, yet we continue to lose by 10 because we get out rebounded 8 to 1. Box out or tip the ball to someone else if you can’t grab it.

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