For basketball aficionados, jersey numbers aren’t just numbers on a uniform; they can represent many different aspects of their lives. For players, it could mean nostalgia, hope, or superstition. It could even give some players a mental edge against their opponents. Michael Jordan himself famously had a performance edge when he returned to the number 23 after wearing 45 in his comeback year in 1995.
NBA teams have such an appreciation of the significance of jersey numbers that players that have influenced the organization often have their jerseys retired. This means that no other player will ever wear the jersey number for their team in the future. Michael Jordan’s jersey no. 23 for the Bulls, both of Kobe Bryant’s no. 24 and no. 8 for the Lakers, for example, will never be seen on the NBA hardwood on any player except for special occasions.
Because of this significance, there are specific rules in place to prevent the use of certain jersey numbers in the NBA. We’ll dive into the details in this article.
How Do Jersey Numbers Work in the NBA?
Let’s start with the basics.
Jersey numbers are required for all players to help coaches, opponents, officials, and fans quickly identify players on the court. Therefore, the jersey has to be printed in a way that is easily visible from the spectator’s stand. This means that all jersey numbers must be printed in a color that contrasts the fabric. To maximize visibility, jersey numbers should also be at least 0.75 inches wide and 6 inches tall.
NBA players are often just represented as a number on the page in stat sheets and official records. And a player may choose his own number as long as the team executives allow it.
Only two-digit numbers are allowed in the NBA. Players, therefore, can choose from numbers 00-99. Owners and team executives would then have to approve while also ensuring that another player is not currently in use.
Generally, players choose their numbers every off-season. However, they don’t typically change their numbers from one season to the next. In fact, they get really attached to their numbers, with some even reportedly buying numbers from new teammates if they get traded or have recently signed with a team where their desired numbers are already taken.
Players generally treat their jersey number as a way to express themselves. Kobe Bryant, one of the most successful players in the history of the NBA, is probably one of the best examples of this. Once he entered the league, he wore number 8, the sum of the 143, the number the young athlete wore to the seminal Adidas Basketball camp he joined before declaring eligibility for the NBA. However, Bryant decided to change his number mid-career to number 24. He said this was part of his effort to go back to the basics of basketball as it’s the number he wore as a young basketball player.
Other players have similar stories on why they chose their numbers. Many current players chose their numbers because of some of the past greats of the game. Jayson Tatum, for example, wears 0 as a nod to Gilbert Arenas. On the other hand, Chris Paul grew up idolizing Allen Iverson, which is why he wears number 3.
What are the Rules Around NBA Jersey Numbers?
However, the NBA has the final say on whether a jersey number is allowed. For example, when Dennis Rodman wanted to wear jersey no. 69 when he got to Dallas, the team allowed him to wear it, but the NBA thought it wasn’t appropriate for any player to wear it because of the lewd connotation given to the number.
And because jersey numbers are what officials primarily use in keeping track of critical in-game stats such as personal fouls and points, no two players from the same team can have the same number to avoid confusion.
What is the Most Worn Number in the NBA Right Now?
This current season, the most worn number in the NBA is 5 and 8, with 25 players using it on the court.
Number 3, the second most worn number in the NBA this season, is being utilized by 24 players, most notably Chris Paul, Terry Rozier, and Ricky Rubio.
The number 11 comes in at third, with 23 active players choosing to sport it. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets is one of the more famous players who wear it for his team. Other noteworthy players who chose number 11 for this season include Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and the up-and-coming star Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks.
Number 0 is fourth on the list, with 22 players choosing it for the current season. Curiously, it has started to rise in popularity in recent years as opposed to the 90s when you could barely find anyone willing to use it on the court.
Are There Most Worn Numbers by Position?
Analyzing the data from the NBA, it’s easy to spot a trend in popular jersey numbers among players of a certain position. The results are pretty interesting to figure out why this is happening.
For Point Guards, for example, no. 3 seems to be a popular choice, with 10 of them currently active. On the other hand, for Shooting Guards, jersey no. 1 is worn by 11 of them in the 21-22 NBA season.
Forwards seem to prefer number 8 with 12 Power Forwards and 10 Small Forwards. It’s interesting to observe this as the player most associated with this number was Kobe Bryant, who only occasionally played at the small forward spot.
Centers, however, don’t seem to have number preference, with no. 13 being the most popular, with 6 out of 64 current centers in the NBA.
What are Other Commonly Worn Numbers in the NBA?
Sometimes, the position doesn’t explain why specific numbers are popular. No. 12 seems popular across the board, with over 409 players who have used it in the league since its inception. No. 11, on the other hand, has been worn 373 times, while No. 5 has been used 348 times in league history.
However, it’s not as easy to see patterns in such a huge sample size of all the players in NBA history. So, we can’t really tell why these numbers have become so popular.
What Makes Certain Jersey Numbers Popular?
Choosing a jersey number, for many players, is a sacred process. It is, after all, a number that is going that represents their work on the basketball court.
Unfortunately, no study has been done on this subject yet, especially on retired players. As a result, most of our evidence is purely anecdotal from interviews.
However, from these anecdotes, it’s pretty easy to spot trends. Here is a couple of popular reasons that we’ve noticed over the years:
Part of the reason young people get interested in the sport is that they were inspired by past players. And for some players, the easiest way to emulate their idols is by choosing the same jersey number. So they wear it as an ode or a homage to the past greats.
Lebron James, for example, wore 23 in Cleveland and Los Angeles as a tribute to Michael Jordan, who wore the same number in Chicago. And because of their brilliance on the court, more young basketball players numbers are now also 23. The up-and-coming Jayson Tatum also wears his No. 0 with a past NBA standout in mind – Gilbert Arenas.
In this sense, there is a pretty apparent reason why many point guards and shooting guards wear no. 3 these days. You see, a particularly influential player in the 90s from the Philadelphia 76ers who used to wear No. 3. His name is Allen Iverson, and he used to be one of the biggest stars in the NBA after Michael Jordan left the game in the 90s when many of the current players were just starting out with the game. Even when AI was still playing, many players idolized his devil-may-care attitude on the court.
Aside from no. 23 and no. 3, other basketball idols who young players try to emulate also often have pretty popular numbers. No. 34, worn by the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and other dominant players, for example, has become on of the most popular jersey numbers in the world.
Another one of the best jersey numbers in basketball is 33 which was worn by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Bird. Naturally, it’s also one of the most popular numbers for young players in today’s game.
There are quite a few players who choose their numbers for personal reasons. One of the more famous ones is Chris Paul, who wears No. 3. He’s the third in his family to play high-level basketball. His father was the first, and his older brother was the second. He chose to wear No. 3 to continue both their legacies on the basketball court, he says in interviews.
Other players choose their numbers as an homage to their roots. Damian Lillard, for example, wears No. 0 to represent the “O” in Oakland, where he grew up. Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, wears 34 to represent the birth years of his parents.
Wrapping Things Up: What is the Most Worn Number in the NBA?
NBA players can use any number they want from 0 – 99, barring jersey retirement rules and league veto powers. The wealth of choice has made it quite interesting to learn about players’ motivations for choosing the number to represent them on the court.
In the 2021- 2022 NBA season, the most popular jersey numbers are 8 and 5. These two numbers can make a list of about 50 out of 420 players in the season or about 11% of the total number of active players.
We’ve also noticed that there are discernable trends in the number choice of NBA players per position. Point guards predominantly prefer the number 3, shooting guards seem to take a liking to the number 11, and both forward positions tend to choose the number 8. Lastly, centers seem to favor number 13. The reasons vary, but it’s pretty evident that guards often choose number 3 as a tribute to one of the most popular players in the 90s in Allen Iverson. On the other hand, number 8 seems to be a favorite among forwards because of the significant influence that Kobe Bryant has on them and how the number 8 looks like an infinity sign in the vertical orientation.
From the information available on jersey number selection, it’s pretty apparent that NBA players and basketball culture are generally eager to pay homage to the past. Despite the ability to choose whichever number they want, many players still pick numbers that, in one way or another, pay tribute to their loved ones, idols, and numbers that have some connection to their roots.