How Many Basketball Players Are There on a Team?

Basketball is a team sport where a certain number of players from each side are on the court at a time. There are various rules that go along with this, particularly in terms of how many players can be sitting on the bench and ready to be available as substitutes. That is why it is important to know how many basketball players are actually on a team. 

In most versions of basketball, five players on a team are on the court at a time. As for players on the bench, the number varies, but the more standard numbers are 8 players on the bench (NBA) or 7 players on the bench (FIBA Competitions such as the World Cup). 

If you want to learn a bit more about this topic, including the exceptions to the rules above, keep reading.

How Many Players on the Court at a Time?

Since basketball is a team sport, there are two teams on the court. Each team will be able to have five active players on the court at a time. For various reasons that will be discussed in this article, one team may be forced to play with fewer than five players. However, the other team will still be permitted to have their full allotment of five players if that were to happen. 

This means that there are a total of ten active players on the court at a time. At no time is an inactive player permitted to come onto the court during play. Reserves can only come in at the invitation of the referee and during a stoppage in play. A reserve must replace an active player who will then need to exit the court before play resumes once again fully. An active player shooting a free throw cannot be substituted. 

How Many Players Are Necessary to Begin a Game?

While the general rules for basketball are the same across the board, there are some league-specific rules that do come into play. One of those involves the number of players that are necessary to start a game. While five players from each team are expected to be on the court, the rules do allow for the game to begin with only four players. 

A team beginning with four players will have no reserve players. A late-arriving player is permitted to suit up and enter the game at the invitation of the referee when play has stopped. However, the rules do not allow a team to play with fewer than four players on the court. The exception to this is if a team only has four players and one becomes injured or fouls out. 

Exceptions for Professional Basketball

One important exception to these rules is evident with professional basketball in North America. In both the NBA and WNBA, no team is permitted to play with fewer than five players on the court at any time and for any reason. A team must also have a minimum of eight players suited up and available for play prior to the start of the game.

The only time a professional game will be stopped after it has started due to player shortage is if injury or illness dictates it. There are other provisions in the rule book to keep the game going without the minimum five players on the court at a time if they need to be invoked. Much of this has to do with the revenue aspect of the sport. 

Exceptions for College and International Play

The rules for college and international basketball are a bit different. While it is still expected that five players from each team be on the court during the game, there is a provision that allows for a team to start with only four players. That is the absolute minimum. If a team cannot put the minimum four players on the court at game time, then a forfeit is the result. 

It is important to keep in mind that the opposing team is not required to play with only four players if the other team does not have five. In fact, in league play, this would not occur. In more ‘friendly’ type of basketball games, however, the opposing team may play with only four players in order to provide a more level playing field. 

In college and international basketball, a fifth player can enter the game after it starts if he or she becomes available. Once a game has started, a team can actually be reduced to three players if someone becomes injured or fouls out. However, no team can play with fewer than three players at any time. If that becomes necessary, then a forfeit is the result. 

How Many Reserve Players is a Team Allowed?

In organized basketball, a team is permitted to have more than the five players that are on the court. Most leagues will permit a team to suit up 12 players and make them available for play throughout the game. All players must be declared eligible prior to game time, meaning that another player cannot come in later if someone else is injured or fouls out. 

The seven reserve players sit on the bench until they are substituted into the court of play. While some recreational leagues will require that every player receive a certain number of minutes of game time, there is no such restriction in organized league games. A reserve player may not see any live court time for many games at a time. This is perfectly acceptable. 

How Often Can a Player be Substituted?

In basketball, a player is allowed an unlimited number of substitutions. This is different than many other organized team sports, such as baseball or soccer, where a substituted player cannot reenter the game. In basketball, a player can be substituted for as little as one play or as much as the rest of the game. 

Like hockey, players in basketball can come into the game during the middle of a period. Unlike hockey, where players can be substituted in while play is occurring, players in basketball must wait until a break in play. The referee is the only individual who can indicate that it is acceptable for a substitute to come onto the court to replace another player. 

The player being substituted must completely leave the court before play can resume. If a team starts play with six players on the court for whatever reason, a technical foul will be incurred. Keep in mind that, outside of professional North American basketball, a team is not required to have reserve players. In the NBA and WNBA, a minimum of three bench players are needed to start the game. 

If a team wishes to substitute a player who is shooting a free throw, the team must wait until the free throws are either made or there is a break in action after a miss. A team may not substitute out a free throw shooter and have another person take his or her place on the line. The exception is for an injury, but then the other team is permitted to choose the person that takes the free throws in that situation. 

What Happens When a Player Fouls Out of a Game?

Basketball players are only permitted a certain number of fouls in a game. In most leagues, this is capped at five personal fouls. The NBA and WNBA do allow six personal fouls in a game. Once the limit is reached, the player is considered to have fouled out and cannot return. Players who have fouled out can remain on the bench, while ejected players must actually leave the court entirely. 

Outside of professional basketball in North America, a player who has fouled out can never enter back into play. If a team is reduced to fewer than three players as a result of this, then the game is over and the other team will be declared the winner. 

In the NBA and WNBA, the rule is a bit different. If a team ends up with fewer than five active players because of fouls, then a player is permitted to come back into the game and play. From that moment on, all fouls committed by that player will result in a technical foul. The other team will get free throws and the ball back. However, this rule does not apply to an ejected player. 

5 Key Position Players in Basketball

As you now know, there are five players per team playing on the court at any one time. Each player will have a specific role to perform on the court. You will find that basketball differs quite a bit in relation to how each player approaches his role and how best to support the team. Each position requires a unique skill set in order to be successful. 

The five main position players are:

  • Point Guard
  • Shooting Guard
  • Small Forward
  • Power Forward
  • Center

Each of these positions has evolved over time. Depending on the skill level present on each team, one role may become predominant over another. Guards are typically positioned towards the back of the court, whereas forwards tend to play more in the front of the court. Centers tend to play in the middle on offense and where needed on defense. 

To understand how each of the five players work together in the best interest of the team, it is helpful to know their respective functions. 

The Role of the Point Guard

Every basketball team needs a playmaker, and that is typically the point guard. This will typically be the best dribbler and ball-handler on the team. The point guard will usually bring the ball up the court and direct the play. From a coach’s perspective, the point guard has the best basketball IQ on the team. 

In essence, the point guard is going to be the coach on the team. He will be in constant communication with the coach and institute the plays that are called in from the bench. In essence, he is the coach’s messenger. It is often difficult to replace the point guard during a game because of the vital role he plays, which is why this position generally plays the most minutes. 

Depending on how skilled the point guard actually is, he can do many things on the court. You will find that this position is governed by the player who ends up with the most assists on the team. He can open up the court and get the ball to an open player who can then score. Although he is typically not the highest scoring player on the team, the point guard can also be a scorer. 

Because of their need for speed, point guards tend to be the smallest player on the team. This allows the player to retain more control of the ball and dribble quickly to get out of trouble. Point guards also need to be fast in order to get away from the opposing defense and be able to dish the ball out to one of the other four players on the court. 

Some of the best-known point guards to ever play the game include Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, and John Stockton. 

The Role of the Shooting Guard

As its name implies, the shooting guard is on the court to score. This is the position that will work away from the ball to get open. When that happens, the point guard will get the ball to the shooting guard who will then shoot from the open position. Because they need to shoot over opposing players, shooting guards tend to be taller than point guards. 

The shooting guard may well be the most overall talented player and one of the team’s highest scorers. There will also be several shooting guards on the bench that can come in and take over to give the starter a rest. Shooting guards tend to make their living close to the three-point line, making long jump shots as opposed to driving to the hoop on every play. 

Shooting guards will also dish out quite a few assists, although not as many as point guards. A good shooting guard may get double-teamed a lot, opening up a forward or center that can be dished the ball for an easy score near the basket. Shooting guards should also be fast as they will be the first line of defense to get back and stop the opposing from scoring when the ball is turned over. 

This is a position that has really begun to evolve in the modern era. Shooting guards are getting taller and stronger. This means that they can pose a threat up close to the basket just as much as they can away from it. Shooting guards now commonly drive the ball in for an easy layup if other position players are able to move the opposing team away from the basket. 

Some of the best shooting guards to ever play the game include Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryan, George Gervin, and Dwayne Wade. 

The Role of the Small Forward

Players who are proficient at the small forward position tend to be quite versatile. Because they need to be so nimble, they tend to be one of the tallest players on the team but quite lean at the same time. This allows them to be fast, play tough defense, jump high, and not be slowed down by extra bulk. Small forwards tend to have a great deal of:

  • Athleticism
  • Flexibility
  • Rebounding
  • Speed

Small forwards may not be the highest scorer on the team, as they will be called on to pass the ball a lot. Some small forwards will be very good shooters. This benefits the team because it causes the defense to focus on them when they have the ball, meaning they can more easily get the ball to an open player who is ready to score. 

Small forwards are called on to play great defense. For a basketball team to be successful, they need to be equally adept at playing offense and defense. All five players on the court are responsible for making this happen, but small forwards will be called upon to bridge the gap and play equally well on both sides of the court. 

Some of the best known small forwards to every play include Kevin Durant, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, and Elgin Baylor. 

The Role of the Power Forward

Many people consider the power forward to be where much of the glitz and glamor is. This is the player that is going to be closest to the basket on offense, meaning that this is positioned well to do a lot of the inside scoring. A power forward tends to be strong and tall. These two attributes allow him to muscle towards the basket to clear an opening to score. 

The power forward will use a variety of different shots to score, including the hook and sky hook. This is the player who needs to be ready to rebound while always being ready to sprint up the court to play defense when necessary. After a rebound, the power forward will either sprint back up to score or dish the ball outside to one of the guards. 

While much of the focus of the power forward is on offense, he needs to be prolific at defense as well. He might be the last person up the court when the ball is turned over to the other team, but he will position himself close to the opposing basket to keep the ball out of the hoop. Power forwards are often quite adept at blocking shots as well. Finally, power forwards will work hard to assist the center whenever possible. 

Some of the more notable power forwards to ever play the game include Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, and Dirk Nowitzki. 

The Role of the Center

Usually, the tallest player on the court for any given team, the center is quite important. This individual is meant to score right in the vicinity of the basket. You will also find that the center is the person responsible for taking jump balls, which can help give a team an advantage right away. 

It goes without saying that the center is the one position that can almost be eliminated on a team. In fact, some basketball teams will end up playing without a center. In his place will be three forwards and two guards. This is because so many big players have become so versatile that they can play both the forward and center positions. 

Centers are also important from a defensive perspective. They are meant to help secure the zone around the basket and make it difficult for the opposing team to get an easy shot. While centers might not be the fastest player on the team, their size means that they can easily move from one position on the court to another. 

A good center can also draw the defense away from the pain and make it easier for forwards to drive to the basket. This means that they will often be playing away from the ball. Many centers do not score very much, but their impact is felt in many other ways on the court. 

Some of the better known centers in basketball include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Patrick Ewing, and Wilt Chamberlain. 

Are There Offensive and Defensive Players in Basketball?

The five players on the court for a basketball team are expected to play both offense and defense. Whereas many team sports do have separate players assigned to either offense or defense, basketball does not. This means that a point guard, for example, must be able to direct the offense and then be willing to get back on defense as quickly as possible. 

Certain players are more proficient at playing defense than offense, and vice versa. In addition, some teams have perfected the art of defense, while others are known for their offensive skills. This is why you might notice some teams average many more points per game than the opposition, only to lose the majority of their games due to poor defense. 

It should also be mentioned that certain positions are more offensive minded, while others are more focused on defense. Guards are typically more focused on offense and find defense hard at times. This is largely due to their small size. Forwards and centers are often better defensive players because of the positions they take up in the backcourt. 

Can a Player Shooting a Free Throw be Substituted?

It is important to know when a player on the court can be substituted. As mentioned, there should be five active players from each team on the court at all times. While there are some exceptions to this, they are few and far between. In order to give players a rest, substitutes can be freely used throughout the game. 

While any player can be substituted during virtually any stoppage in play throughout the game, the exception is a player who is shooting a free throw. This player must shoot the free throws first before being substituted. 

If the last free throw is made, the referee will immediately stop play and allow the substitution to occur. If the last free throw is missed, then play will continue until there is a stoppage in play. It is at that time that the referee will allow the substitution to take place. 

What About 3X3 basketball?

This post would not be complete without mentioning that there are now variations to the traditional 5 on 5 version of basketball. While many are version of street yard basketball that cannot be considered official, 3X3 basketball has taken off and is now popular across the globe. In fact, it is an Olympic sport as of the 2021 Games in Tokyo. 

As its name implies, 3X3 basketball is played with three players on each side. Only one half of the court is utilized, so traditional position players are nowhere to be found. Typically, players will be fast and quick, as that is what the game was designed for. Players are allowed several substitutes, but they are rarely used since each game only lasts 10 minutes at most. 


Basketball is a team sport. Each team is permitted a certain number of players on the court at a time, along with a specific allotment of reserves that are on the bench. This will vary by league and association rule, but the general guidelines are the same as this post mentions. The team that can make the best use of its players is likely going to be the winner. 


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