What is the Key in Basketball?

Although basketball terms are generally easy to understand, there are times when a term like ‘KEY’ leaves us scratching our heads unable to figure out exactly what that term means and how it relates to the game.

What is a key in basketball? A key is a rectangular shape behind which a free throw shooter lines up and takes a shot, with the width of the box being the length of the key. In the key, rebounders are usually positioned beyond the baseline and are often different colors from the rest of the court. During the conference, the key has been attached with a three-second violation rule.

Why is the key such an important part of the game that it needs its own rule? Like the red zone, it is where an opponent’s chances of shooting increase significantly once a player enters the key himself.

If I had to teach a new player the key to basketball, I would tell him this. The key is that rectangular area on the court where the player identifies himself to take a free throw. There are parts of the hardwood floor that are a different color and sometimes even extend to the baseline.

As a rule, I would walk around the line on top of the player until it sank in with the player, and they understood what I was doing. Another method is to have them count to 3 then remove themselves from the key. Obviously, if the shot is fired, it gets reset. As they do this, they will learn how long they need to spend in the hole, and it will suddenly become instinctual to tear it open accordingly.

This key has a long history.

The first basketball key that was ever used was narrower and looked like a key, so the name came about. It measured six feet wide and was made up of a free-throw circle and jump-ball box.

In 1951/52, the NBA increased the size of the court to 12 feet in order to correct for the dominance of the center. FIBA Basketball used a key that looked like a trapezoid until 2010 when they switched to a rectangular shape.

A Key’s Dimensions

NBA free-throw line measurements are 16 feet 4.9 meters and 15 feet 4.6 meters, and NCAA free-throw line measurements are 12 feet 3.7 meters and 15 feet 4.6 meters. The measures of the NCAA key coincide with high school measurements.

The Key has a restricted area that is the half-circle and you must not accede to this half-circle in order to avoid fouls. As well as having the restricted area, the key is marked up the length of the key for players to stand when rebounding a shot from the free-throw shooter. These markings help players to determine where to stand.

Q&A on the Key

What is a violation of 3 seconds?

Three-in-the-key is a turnover caused by a player staying in the 3-point arc for over 3 seconds. The rule was instituted to stop players from parking beneath the basket to gain an advantage in scoring.

Can you imagine the pain of Shaquille O’Neal standing on the floor and not being able to move one defender? There would seem to be no way around it. Below is the rule as stated on their official website.

Section VI—Offensive Three-Second Rule

  1. In the part of the free-throw lane between the midpoint of the court and the extended perimeter of the line on his team’s side of the line where the ball has already been caught, a player may not stay longer than three seconds.
  2. An allowance is made for a player who is on the line within the last three seconds of the third second and is shooting at the time of the third second. Under these conditions, the 3-second count is discontinued and the offensive player continuing to proceed toward the basket. If the movement ceases, the previous count is carried forward. The same goes for when it is imminent the offensive player will exit the facility.
  3. The 3-second count can begin once the ball is under the offensive team’s control in the frontcourt. The ball may be hit by an opponent and it does not violate any laws.
    1. Penalty: Passing insufficiently. The ball is given to the opponent at the free-throw line extended, which is further down on the sideline.

Is it possible to prevent a 3 in the key?

You should exit the key area before the 3-second time runs out, once you have done so your 3-second time is reset. Sometimes refs tell you to leave the space, other times not, however, your judgment is important.

How long does it take for the 3 second to reset after you attempt a shot?

Those three seconds restart with every shot attempt. The shot has to land in the basket and you don’t need to leave the key or receive a turnover. Pump fakes don’t count, so long as you’ve been in the way for almost three seconds it doesn’t count in the fourth.

Am I really supposed to get only 3 seconds?

A referee’s first stop should be in the actual game itself, not counting the three seconds in the key. I think before the ref notices you have about one or two extra seconds. Sometimes they even warn you to not take the key.

Can a foot be in the key and another be outside, or does the ref have to count both feet?

I will count both feet again, both of them have to exit the key.

Christina Mullenax

Christina is an American-Russian professional basketball coach and former player who is the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association. She currently also serves as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association.


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