What is the key in basketball? The Ultimate Guide

The basketball field involved various colored zones, circles, and rectangles. If you are a beginner then you need to develop a proper understanding of these areas. You may have heard about the work ‘Key Area’ on the basketball court. This area enables players to shoot the basketball and make goals easily. 

What is the key in basketball? The Ultimate Guide

Here we have discussed in detail what is the basketball court key and what is its history?

Where Is The Key In Basketball?

The key in basketball is a part of the playfield area which is rectangular in shape and present near the hoop. Usually, this area starts from the borderline(behind the hoop) and goes up to the free-throw line. To understand the term more clearly, let’s see what is free-throw line, and baseline/end line are. 

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Free Throw Line

This line is present inside the 3-point arc and determines the boundary of the key. It is 15 feet large and starts from the borderline. 


This line acts as an overall boundary of the basketball playfield. The hoop is installed inside this baseline. 

As there are two hoops on opposite sides, there will be two keys in every basketball court. 

Other Names Of Key 

The court key has other names as well, depending on the level of the game. For instance, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have given key another terminology known as “free throw lane”. The reason is the key covers the whole area from the free-throw line to the end line. 

Moreover, the FIBA recognizes Key Court as a “restricted area”. As this area is usually painted separately with vibrant colors, that’s why it is also referred to as “paint.” 

History of the Key 

Previously, the basketball key area was only six feet long. It starts from the free line and gets enclosed at the free-throw circle. Therefore, a key shape is formed on the playfield. Due to this shape, the area started to get recognized as a ‘key area’. However, the shape of the key changed after a few years. The reason is the taller players take advantage of this smaller area and throw shots e.g, George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain. Therefore, in 1951, the NBA increased the size of the key from 6-feet to 12 feet. Later in 1964, the size of the key extended from 12 feet to 16 feet. 

Now, the NBA uses a 16ft wide key whereas the NCAA uses a 12 ft wide key. On the other hand, the FIBA used a trapezoidal area in the past but after 2010, they also adopted a 16ft wide rectangular key. 

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What Is Top Of The Key Basketball?

‘Top of the Key’ is also an enclosed area of a basketball playfield. This area is present right next to the free-throw line. As the top of the key is a circle so it bisects both ends of the free-throw line.

During a basketball match, the defensive players stay on the top of the key area to stop the goal from the opponent team. Whereas, the offensive team players are present around the corners of the top of the key and try to make shoots.

Moreover, during a pick play, the player also stops their defender in this area so their mates can make a pass easily. We have discussed in detail these functions of the top of the court.

Functions Of Top Of The Key

The top of the key is important due to the following reasons.

Launching Offense

The top of the key is the main area of the basketball playfield where most of the game activities are performed. The start of the match where the referee holds the ball and then throws it in the air is carried out in this area. 

The reason for opening the match in this area is that both the teams get equal chances to take possession of the ball and create “court balancing”. This playfield balancing also involves an equal number of team players on either side of the court. 

Another reason to start the match in this area is that this central area has more space so shooting from this area will be easy for both teams. A team can pass the ball to their mates whereas the opponent will also have an equal number of chances to catch the ball. 

Pick-up Games

During a pickup or half-court game, the game begins at the top of the key. As there is no toss before the game so both teams start the game by “checking the ball”. This checking includes hitting the ball to and fro to recognize the beginning of the opportunity. So, if you want to take the ball to the top of the key and make a shot then you need to catch the ball when your opponent misses the chance during the rebound. 

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However, the NBA has calculated its statistics and stated that the top of the key has some drawbacks as well. Though it appears, that the top of the key lets you get many scores, actually getting goals is not quite easy from this place. 

What Is A 3-Point Arc?

The 3-point arc is basically a 3-point line. This line is present above the top of the key. This line indicates how many points a successful shot is worth. You can score two shots or single-shot depending on the distance from this 3-point arc. 

What is the 3-Second Violation Rule?

Although standing in the key boosts the odds of scoring, players are not permitted to remain in the key for more than three seconds. This restricting regulation is often referred to as “Lane Violation” or “Three in the key”. There are two conditions when three in the key rule can be violated. 

Defensive Lane Violation

When a single defensive member stays more than 3 seconds in the key, this rule is enforced to the whole defense team. As a result of the penalty, the attacking team obtains the free throw and the ball. This regulation requires the defensive team to cover a particular region of the goal. However, the FIBA league is free from this regulation. 

Offensive Lane Violation

When an offensive player remains in the key for more than three seconds and another player of the same team takes charge of the ball but fails to shoot or pass, then this team faces a penalty. The major objective of this rule is to prohibit offensive players from entering the backcourt while the shot clock is active. You may do as much rebounding, blocking, and dunking as you desire with this shot clock.

Final Thoughts

We have discussed in detail what is key in basketball and what are its violation rules. So, if you want to excel in basketball, it’s better to have a comprehensive understanding of its rules and then do the practice. 


The key is 4.1 feet or 1.25 meters away from the borderline. This rule is followed in all basketball leagues including NBA, FIBA, and NCAA. 

The key is 16 ft wide and 19 ft long from the baseline or endline. 

The free throw line is 15 ft long from the plane of the backboard. This free throw line is present inside the 3-point arc. 

The 3-point line distance is not the same in all leagues. For instance, in the NBA the 3-point line distance is 22ft while in WNBA this distance is 20ft. 

If the referee notices you after 1 or 2 seconds, then he starts counting. Sometimes, they also give you warning to leave the key. 

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