What Is The Key In Basketball? Complete Guide

Like the red zone in football, the key is an area considered to be a danger zone in basketball. Once a player enters this location, the chances of landing shots may increase significantly. Still, it begs the question, what is the key in basketball?

The key in basketball is the line where the free-throw shooter will stand to make the shot. It might be named as such as it looks like a key when looking at it from the top. It also comes in different colors, which may depend on the court’s theme.

In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the key in a basketball court. Also, you’ll learn more about the key’s history, dimensions, and other relevant information.

key in basketball

The key is an area near the basketball hoop that extends to the baseline. Beginners to the sport might not understand this terminology. Hence, it can also be described as the rectangular shape where players usually place themselves for free-throws.

What is the Size of the Key in Basketball?

size of the key in basketball

The key in basketball is 16 x 15 feet (4.9 x 4.6 meters), and the measurement starts from the free-throw line and ends at the backboard. The NCAA, on the other hand, has different dimensions for the keys on their courts. Regulated college basketball courts will have a 12 x 15-foot (3.7 x 4.6-meter) key, which is smaller than the NBA standard. Additionally, many official high school basketball courts follow the same dimensions for their courts’ keys with the NCAA.

What is the History of the Key in Basketball?


A basketball key is already part of the original court’s design. Although, the original key’s design was narrower than its conventional appearance in modern basketball courts. Also known as the ‘cup’ or ‘bottle’ in other languages, the key tends to be the location where most of the ‘edge of your seat’ action tends to take place during basketball games.

So, how long is the key in basketball?

Before, the key had a 1.8 m. width. It still had a free-throw circle on its head along with a shaded lane for the body. However, the dimensions widened to 3.7 m at the beginning of the 1951-1952 NBA playoffs.

This change was deemed to be a necessity as centers, such as George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers (now called Los Angeles Lakers), found it reasonably easy to shoot from the key’s baseline. The width widened further to 4.9 m. at the onset of the 1964-1965 season as some players, like Wilt Chamberlain, still dominated that area.

In April 2008, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) approved of the changes in the key’s design. At the time of writing, its appearance is now rectangular but still had the same width used in the NBA.

What is Three in the Key in Basketball?


A ‘Three in the Key’ is a 3-second violation imposed on players for spending more than three seconds in the key. According to the official NBA rule book, an entire section exists for this defiance. The official guideline states:

“Section VI—Offensive Three-Second Rule 1. An offensive player shall not remain for more than three seconds in that part of his free throw lane between the end line and extended 4' (imaginary) off the court and the farther edge of the free-throw line while the ball is in control of his team. 2. Allowance may be made for a player who, having been in this area for less than three seconds, is in the act of shooting at the end of the third second. Under these conditions, the 3-second count is discontinued while his continuous motion is toward the basket. If that continuous motion ceases, the previous 3-second count is continued. This is also true if it is imminent the offensive player will exit this area. 3. The 3-second count shall not begin until the ball is in control in the offensive team’s frontcourt. No violation can occur if the ball is batted away by an opponent. 1. PENALTY: Loss of ball. The ball is awarded to the opposing team on the sideline at the free-throw line extended.”


Perhaps the only reasonable way to prevent three in the key and other similar violations is to leave the area before the three-second timer rings. Players can always get out of the key and re-enter it as many times as they want, provided time is still available in the shot clock.

What is Top of the Key in Basketball?

top of the key in basketball


The ‘Top of the Key’ is a strategy NBA teams make to make as many shot attempts while standing at the top of the key, hence the name. This strategy is a ‘high risk, high reward’ ordeal since shooting from that specific location tends to be the most inefficient area to shoot.

The top of the key is also the furthest spot away from the basketball hoop to shoot two-pointers. In contrast, three-point shots tend to be slightly farther away from this location. Hence, NBA participants, which include coaches and players, need to carefully deduce if taking the shot from this location will be worth it.

So, is shooting from the top of the key irrelevant in basketball?

It depends on the situation; shooting from the top of the key is still relevant for setting up specific plays. For example, a player attempts to shoot at that specific location. However, the chances of missing are high. So, other teammates will already be ready and waiting to take the ball for a rebound if it misses the basket.

The top of the key strategy is also an excellent way to create space during plays. Spacing can be a critical factor in this sport. Proficient guards may need to rely on adequate spacing to occupy almost every part of the floor, reducing their opponents’ area of movability, which also opens opportunities for other types of play.

Final Words – The Key in Basketball


By now, you should have a better understanding of the key in basketball. In this guide, you read about the key, its history, the potential violation, and a strategy involving this specific location in the basketball court.

As a basketball fan, you should now know better when commentators are talking about ‘top of the key’ strategies or ‘three in the key’ violations. But, as a player, you can use the information posted in this article to ensure you’re always at the top of your game while playing in the court’s key.

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