What Is The Key In Basketball? Explained


Basketball terms, in general, are easy to understand, but sometimes a word like “KEY” confuses a lot of us while we scratch our heads trying to figure out what that term means and what it has to do with the game.

What is the key in basketball? The key in basketball is the rectangular shape where the free-throw shooter lines up to shoot the ball behind the line which is the width of the key. The rebounders line up outside the length of the key, in which it extends to the baseline. The key is sometimes a different color than the rest of the court and has a 3-second violation rule attached to it.

Why is the key important that it needs its own rule you ask? The key is like the red zone in football, it is the danger zone. Once a player enters the key with the basketball the percentages of their scoring chances increase significantly.

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How Do You Explain The Key To A New Basketball Player?

My brother who started playing basketball really late in life played on a senior men’s basketball game where the ref called five three in the keys in a row on him. My brother who was a fan of basketball had no idea what the key was as no one had ever explained it to him.

If I had to describe the key to a new player to the game of basketball, I would tell him this. The key is the area that is rectangular in shape on the court where the player’s lineup during a free-throw. It extends to the baseline and is sometimes a different color when compared to the rest of the gym hardwood floor.

If I was in the gym with the player, I would walk around the line and on top of it until that sunk in with the player and they understood. A rule of thumb is to tell the player to count to 3 then exit out of the key and re-enter as they wish. Of course, if a shot goes up it resets. As they do this they will get used to how long they should be in there and it will be instinct and they will exit accordingly.


History Of The Key

The first key to being in place in basketball was much narrower and actually looked like the key hence the name. It was measured six feet wide and looked like a key when you look at it due to the free-throw circle or jump ball area alongside with it.

It was later widened to 12 feet wide in 1951/52 due to the dominance of centers. Then the NBA in 1964/65 widened it 16 feet to prevent centers from dominating again. FIBA Basketball had a key that was shaped like a trapezoid for a long time until they changed it to rectangular in 2010.

Dimensions Of The Key

The Dimensions of the key in the NBA are 16 feet (4.9 meters) and 15 feet (4.6 meters) from the free-throw line to the backboard. In the NCAA it is a little narrower at 12 feet (3.7 meters) and 15 feet (4.6 meters) from the backboard. The measurements of the NCAA key is the same as High School measurements.

The Key has a restricted area which is the half-circle in which you must stay out of this restricted area to draw fouls. Along with the restricted area the key has markings on the length of the key for players to stand when rebounding a shot from the free-throw shooter. These markings indicate where a player should stand.

Q & A About the Key

What is a 3-second violation?

A three in the key is a violation and a turnover resulting in the other team’s possession of the ball. When an offensive player stands in the key for more than 3 seconds. The rule was instilled to prevent players from parking underneath the basket and gain an advantage to score.

Could you imagine Shaquille O’Neal standing there all game and as a defender trying to move him? It would feel impossible to do so. Here is the rule as per the NBA Rule Book on their official website.

Section VI—Offensive Three-Second Rule

  1. An offensive player shall not remain for more than three seconds in that part of his free throw lane between the endline and extended 4’ (imaginary) off the court and the farther edge of the free-throw line while the ball is in control of his team.
  2. Allowance may be made for a player who, having been in this area for less than three seconds, is in the act of shooting at the end of the third second. Under these conditions, the 3-second count is discontinued while his continuous motion is toward the basket. If that continuous motion ceases, the previous 3-second count is continued. This is also true if it is imminent the offensive player will exit this area.
  3. The 3-second count shall not begin until the ball is in control in the offensive team’s frontcourt. No violation can occur if the ball is batted away by an opponent.
    1. PENALTY: Loss of ball. The ball is awarded to the opposing team on the sideline at the free-throw line extended.


How do you prevent a 3 in the key?

You must leave the key area before 3 seconds, once you do you may re-enter and the time is reset, you are granted a new 3-second count. Sometimes ref’s will tell you to leave the key, other times not and you will have to use your judgment.

Does the Three-second reset after a shot attempt?

The three seconds resets after every shot attempt. As long as the shot goes up you are okay and do not have to leave the key or receive a turnover violation. Pump fakes do not count, if you are in motion to shoot and you been in the key for almost 3 seconds the count stops as long as you shoot at the rim.


Do I really only get 3 seconds?

The referee’s first observation is not to count the three seconds in the key but to officiate the actual game itself. I believe before the ref notices you get about 1 or 2 extra seconds and then they start counting. Sometimes they even give you the warning to leave the key.

What if one foot is in the key and one is out of the key, does the ref still count?

Yes, the count will continue, both feet have to leave the key.


I hope this helps explain what the key is, now you don’t have to guess what those commentators are talking about anymore or like my brother, receive five turnovers in a row.


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