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The WNBA Season Is Tipping Off

A primer on how to watch professional basketball

A collage of WNBA players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The WNBA season starts Friday. That’s exciting because, among other things, (1) this past WNBA Finals, in which the Minnesota Lynx defeated the Los Angeles Sparks, was the highest-rated WNBA Finals in 14 years, which means things are trending upward; and also (2) this past NCAA women’s tournament produced the best, most electric, most suspenseful final three games of any basketball tournament in recent memory, and the buzz from that is still soaking the atmosphere, so let’s hurry up and get started here, is the thinking.

As such, maybe you (like me) are feeling like you want to spend more time watching WNBA games this season. But maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of learning a new kind of game on the fly (like I was), and new game rules on the fly (like I was), and new game schemes and game tendencies and game actions and game reactions and game terminology on the fly (like I was). If that’s the case, then you can take the rest of this article as a CliffsNotes of sorts for the WNBA, because it’s different from the NBA, which I know because there’s an extra letter in it, which makes it different, because that’s how “different” works.


+++ The team in possession of the ball is referred to as “the offense.” The team attempting to prevent the offense from scoring is referred to as “the defense.” (“Players” are responsible for playing both offense and defense.)

+++ On occasion, a player will, during regular game play, take the basketball and shoot it into the hoop. This is referred to as a “field goal,” or sometimes a “basket” or “bucket.” It can be worth one point, two points, or three points, depending on where and when the shot is taken. Here’s a video of a player scoring multiple field goals:

That’s Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm. She averaged the second-most points per game in the WNBA last season, which means she made many field goals or baskets or buckets.

Regarding the designation of points: You’ll notice in the screenshot below that there are many lines on the playing surface. Each of those lines means a different thing. And two of them are used to determine a shot’s value.

Screenshot of a WNBA court with the 3-point line circled in red

The line circled in red is the “3-point line.” Any shots taken from behind the 3-point line are worth three points. (Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks led the league in 3-point percentage. She shot 48.2 percent from deep.) It doesn’t matter if you’re 1 inch behind the 3-point line or 25 feet behind the 3-point line; each made shot from behind the line is worth three points just the same, and I know that seems unfair, but that’s just how it works. Here is a list so that it’s very clear:

  • A shot made from 1 inch behind the 3-point line: worth three points
  • A shot made from 10 inches behind the 3-point line: worth three points
  • A shot made from 2 feet behind the 3-point line: worth three points
  • A shot made from 9 feet behind the 3-point line: worth three points
  • A shot made from 25 feet behind the 3-point line: worth three points

The line circled in white is the “free throw line.” That’s where a player stands and shoots from if (a) she is fouled while attempting a shot, or (b) the defending team has committed enough team fouls to put its opponent in “the bonus,” which means any player fouled gets to shoot free throws, regardless of whether the foul occurred during a shot attempt. (A “foul” is when one player makes contact with another player in any manner considered illegal.) Each made basket at the free throw line is worth one point. (Tianna Hawkins of the Mystics lead the league in free throw percentage last season. She shot 95.3 percent.)

Any shot that’s made that is neither a free throw nor a 3-pointer is worth two points. Here is a list so that it’s very clear:

  • A shot made from directly in front of the rim that is neither a free throw nor a 3-pointer: worth two points
  • A shot made from several feet on the right side of the rim that is neither a free throw nor a 3-pointer: worth two points
  • A shot made from several feet on the left side of the rim that is neither a free throw nor a 3-pointer: worth two points
  • A shot made from just inside the 3-point line that is neither a free throw nor a 3 pointer: worth two points

+++ On occasion, a player will, during regular game play, jump high enough to put the ball directly into the rim without having to shoot it. This is referred to as a “dunk.” A dunk is worth two points, which I hope you were able to figure out given the Points Scored guidelines above. Here’s a video of a player dunking it:

That’s Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury. She has more dunks than anyone else in WNBA history.

+++ On occasion, while a player is attempting a field goal, a defender will stop the ball’s flight by hitting it with her hand. This is referred to as a “block.” No points are awarded to the defense for such a maneuver, but they are valuable nonetheless, because the winners of games are determined by point tally, and so stopping the other team from scoring as often as possible is greatly beneficial. Here’s a video of a player making a block:

That’s Sylvia Fowles of the Lynx. She averaged the second-most blocks per game in the WNBA last season. She was also voted the “league MVP” (“most valuable player in the league”) and “Finals MVP” (“most valuable player of the Finals”). Because, again: Blocks do not score points for a team, but they are valuable.

+++ On occasion, while a player is “dribbling” (which means “bouncing the ball on the floor repeatedly”) a defender will take away the ball. This is referred to as a “steal.” (It’s referred to as a steal only if the defender is able to secure possession of the ball for her team. If she doesn’t—if she simply knocks it away but the dribbling player’s team retains possession—then it is not a steal.) Similar to blocks, no points are awarded to the defense for steals made, but they are valuable nonetheless. Here is a video of a player making many steals (if you pay attention, you’ll also see several blocks as well, though you should focus on only the steals right now so there is no confusion later):

That’s Alana Beard of the Sparks. She averaged more steals per game than anyone else in the WNBA last season. She was also voted the Defensive Player of the Year, a very prestigious award. Because, again: Steals do not score points for a team, but they are valuable.

+++ On occasion, a player will miss a shot attempt. When that happens, there is the opportunity for what’s known as a “rebound,” which is when a player grabs the ball after it ricochets off the rim or backboard. Players on offense and defense are both eligible to grab a rebound following a missed shot. If an offensive player secures it, it’s called an “offensive rebound.” If a defensive player secures it, it’s called a “defensive rebound.” Here’s a video a player getting a rebound (and also making field goals):

That’s Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun. She averaged more rebounds per game than anyone else in the WNBA last season.

+++ On occasion, a “coach” (or: “the person in charge of managing a team”) will decide their team needs a break from game action. This can occur for any number of reasons. The players might be tired, for example. Or maybe the other team has scored several baskets in a row and the coach wants to regroup. Or maybe an offensive possession has fallen apart and it looks like it’s going to end in a poor shot. On and on. When the coach feels this, they may call a “timeout.” Doing so pauses the game for either 20 seconds or two minutes.

(An important note about “timeouts”: A “timeout” pauses only the time in a basketball game. It does not pause the time of the actual universe. For example, if a “coach” calls a two-minute timeout at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, the timeout will be over at 8:32 p.m. on a Thursday. Time across space and the stars and the planets continues on, uninterrupted, at the regular rate of speed.)

(That never changes.)

(None of this does, actually.)

(Until it does, actually.)

(The WNBA is going to be great this season, is the point.)

(Watch the WNBA, is the point.)

(Basketball is the best sport, is the point.)

(And you can get the WNBA League Pass for only $17, which is incredible.)