What is a Pickup Game of Basketball?

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The most interesting thing about a pickup game of basketball is that it has no specific set of rules. That’s the epitome of fun and excitement or straight up the definition of barbaric, depending on who you ask. So, what is a pickup game of basketball? 

In essence, a pickup game of basketball is a casual basketball game that is started by a group of players spontaneously. Determined by the actual numbers of basketball players showing up and their preferences, a pickup game may use only the half-court of the full court. Generally, since it is not a formal basketball game, the purpose is often recreational. Tolerance for fouls is also higher than an official match called by professional referees.

How Does a Pickup Game Work in BasketballHow Does a Pickup Game Work in Basketball?

Pickup basketball games are still basketball games, so there are no strange rules like you would in a game of HORSE. Sure, the set of rules are less rigid, but the same elements of basketball still exist.

For instance, assembling teams may simply be based on the eye test because, more often than not, players gathered for a pickup basketball game do not know each other. After constructing the teams, the players will have to decide (in their own unique way) who gets possession first. A simple way is to do a mini shootout called “Do or Die.” The procedure is as straightforward as they come: A player from one team shoots a top-of-the-key three-pointer, and if he makes it, his team gets the first possession. If he misses, the other side gets it.

The game proceeds as it would a regular basketball game, but without a referee and a specific score as a goal. For example, the first to 21 (with 1 point scored on a common field goal and 2 points scored on three-pointers) wins the game.

What are the Rules of Pickup BallWhat are the Rules of Pickup Ball?

As previously mentioned, pickup basketball rules are not rigid and may even probably vary from place to place. Every region has its own “system” in place, so to speak.

To prove this point, there is actually no one specific rule on how to divide teams. The players may go for one of many ways. Captains on either side may choose who can be on his team (pretty much like the format of the last two NBA All-Star games), straight-up divide the group randomly, or let the players shoot it out (makers on the same team or alternate teams).

Other related rules that pickup basketball players have to decide are how many points a team should score to win and how many points a usual two-pointer or three-pointer constitute. Most pickup games play a game to 21, meaning the first team to score 21 points wins. However, they may decide to score all baskets as one point or give two points to a made shot beyond the arc. 

How Do You Win a Pickup in Basketball

One tip: If your pickup game rewards two points to long-distance shots, get yourself a shooter no matter what. If all baskets, no matter the distance, are worth 1 point, put a premium on selecting an efficient, interior-scoring big man. However, that is admittedly difficult since you probably don’t know the skills of the players you are playing with.

What we feel is another important rule that must be decided on is if a team can win by one or by two (the slide two rule employed by volleyball, for example). Then, there are regional differences in who gets the ball after a made field goal. It’s a pleasant surprise that many prefer “winner’s ball,” pretty much like 1 on 1 basketball rules. We feel that the “make it, take it” rule works best on half-court settings (two-on-two or three-on-three), but if it’s a full-court, five-on-five game, it makes no sense to do the winner’s ball setup.

How Many Players Can Play the Pickup BasketballHow Many Players Can Play the Pickup Basketball?

A pickup game can have anywhere between two to 10 players. Of course, 1 on 1 basketball rules is different compared to 5 on 5 games. And it gets more interesting if over 10 people are coming into the local gym. That said, some have different setups to accommodate more players.

One example is by having five-player teams rotate. The winner of the game between the first two teams playing owns the court, have another team challenge them, and repeats the process. That way, it would not matter if 50 or 60 people are coming in droves at the local gym; they will simply wait their turn to play.

How Do You Win a Pickup in BasketballHow Do You Win a Pickup in Basketball?

Unlike a sanctioned or official game of basketball, winning a pickup game is all about whichever team can get to the goal score first wins. You decide 21 points and the first team to get there is the winner. Simple as that. What we want to discuss in detail is how you are going to win the game. See, pickup games are often played with people you don’t know, so ensuring a win is challenging, given the circumstances!

But, fret not! We are here to share with you seven proven tips on pickup basketball strategy. You can tweak this and make it your own, but these concepts will undoubtedly improve your chances of winning a pickup basketball game:

Be observant. You would have fewer opportunities to do this if you’re one of the early birds, but if you’re running a little late, it won’t hurt scribbling down mental scouting reports. 

Keep it simple. Remember, almost everything in a pickup basketball game is random, so keep everything simple. Move the ball around, shoot when you’re open, and pass the rock if you’re not. Pickup games are not opportunities to try things you haven’t done before. Go with the moves that you’re comfortable with.

Play hard. In pickup games, whoever hustles will probably win. We’re not saying to dive for the loose balls per se, but a little energy chasing those balls north to south, east to west, will make all the other players fear and love you at the same time. Fear for the opponents and love from your teammates, and in basketball, inciting these two emotions from the players you share the court with is already a success.

Wear it to win it. Contrary to what others may think, the right basketball gear does make you play better. You feel good, you play well. Gear up with solid basketball shoes, wear kneepads for protection and insulation, suit up that old Jordan Laney High school jersey, etc.

How Do You Win a Pickup in Basketball

Have a go-to move. We wouldn’t want to call it showing-off, but it’s also important to show the other players what they can expect from you. If you’re an excellent penetrator, show them some drives and how you do the “English” on the interior finishes. If you’re a pretty good jump shooter, throw some up and let them see the swish. See to it that you exude a sense of ease in your movements.

Don’t call the ticky-tacks. In pickup games, you usually call your own fouls. However, that doesn’t mean you should abuse that right. We’re telling you, everybody will hate you if you wimp out on those little incidental contacts. Man up and, on occasion, dish out some punishment in return.

Be a good teammate. It’s not only about passing, but if you’re on the receiving end of a nice assist, acknowledge your teammate in any way that you can. If you do that, it will only elevate the team’s spirits, which is a significant contributor to success.

Benefits of Playing Pickup BasketballBenefits of Playing Pickup Basketball

1. Conditioning. Not everybody is a finely-tuned athlete, but as you all know, basketball is one of the best ways to get exercise without even thinking that it’s exercise. Running up and down the floor with a little resistance training from all that banging is the definition of a great workout.

2. Helps in skills development. Pickup basketball may not be what you would call “organized basketball,” but it surely helps in the game’s mental and physical aspect. There are always older guys in there that would get up on your face and throw some trash talk your way. Learning how to cope with that is tantamount to learning how to deal with life’s challenges.

3. It’s fun. The playground is one of those times when a basketball can be so innocent and pure. There are no referees to bail you out with a call. It’s just pure, unadulterated fun.

4. Making new friends. One of the most underrated aspects of pickup basketball is its social benefits. After a great run of a couple of games, hang around a little bit for a bottle or two of Gatorade (or beer) and widen your social network. A real social network, by the way, not the fake ones.

Wrapping Things Up: Pickup Game of Basketball

A pickup basketball game is a casual game played by a random group of people that just happened to be there in the court. It can be played by two to 10 people, and if there happen to be more than 10 players, the extra bodies will just have to wait for their turn. 

The best part about basketball pickup games is that they are just free-flowing and fun. The rules are pretty much decided by the players themselves, so that makes it even more exciting. Usually, the two teams set a goal score, and whoever makes it there first is the winner.

With that said, it’s not easy to win a pickup basketball game because the participants are picked almost randomly. The players, for the most part, do not know each other. That means you don’t know each other’s strengths or weaknesses. However, if you just play hard, keep it simple, and be a good teammate, in a nutshell, that’s a recipe for success already.

There are also several benefits to playing pickup basketball. There is the exercise or workout factor, it helps hone basketball and life skills, it’s fun, and it’s an excellent way to broaden your social circle. What’s not to like? Even professional basketball players play pickup basketball every once in a while, so why wouldn’t you?

So, if there’s someone out there who may ask, “What is a pickup game of basketball?”, the answer is plain and simple: Pickup basketball is the purest and most free-flowing type of basketball game. If you are exclusively playing organized basketball, we warmly suggest you try to go out of your comfort zone and try playing pickup games every once in a while.

Did you find this helpful? Then also check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

> How to Play Horse in Basketball

> How to Play 21 in Basketball (With Variations)

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Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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