Those who have heard several “Old School NBA Defense vs New School NBA Defense” debates, the word “hand checking” would not be foreign to most of you. In fact, when we first start learning the ropes, checking and its derivations seemed almost natural, even instinctual if you ask me. As newbies, trying to muscle an opponent from driving pass us with our arms seemed like good defense, though we are (very) soon told that this act was, in fact, frowned upon in the society of basketball. And although Hand Checking still exists in the NBA today, it has become a much tamer, shadow of its former self.
“Checking”, by definition, is any action which impedes or hinders the opponents movement. In short, don’t stick your hands on any bodily part of your opponent unnecessarily. You are entitled your space on the court, and so is your opponent. Your hands should be always kept to yourself, unless the situation calls for you to do so (this is an important rule in life as well).
When an offensive player decides to attack or go into your entitled space, you are allowed to hold your position without “impeding or hindering the opponents movement”. This is where the “hand checking” comes in. The hand check is a simple motion of placing your palm or an extended forearm on your opponent’s hip, as they enter your entitled space. A legal hand check does not serve to break the opponent’s motion or balance, you do not derail or attempt to hold the guy. The act of a proper hand checking creates a strong boundary within your own space when your opponent tries to force their way in; similar to how you hold your position when someone backs you down in the post. Combine that with your chest positioning, and you would have created a sturdy screen that prevents your opponent from pushing through. On driving layups, they are essentially the go-to defensive move; screening and leading the opponent away from the basket, preventing them from going all the way to the hoop.
Here’s where it gets tricky: the subtleness of this art does make a world of difference, the thin line between a foul and good defense. This is similar to the Charge/Block dichotomy, in which many detailed factors affect the way of the call.
Entitled Space: Imagine a circle with the radius being the guy’s shoulder length; that is your entitled space. As there is constant movement, the entitled spaces will constantly shift and overlap, and it becomes a battle of ‘who was here first’. General rule of thumb is that the one resulting in the overlap cannot be causing contact. Offensive player will have an advantage since defenders are said to ‘react’ to their movement, and the onus is on the defender to not intrude into the offense’s space or cause contact.
Initiative: Foul is usually call for whoever initiates contact, although the offensive counterpart often has more leeway. When the defender extends his hands to hand check a stationary ball-handler, he is 1) breaching into the offense’s entitled space and 2) initiating the contact. If the ball-handler drives into the defender’s entitled space, the defender is allowed to hand check to maintain his entitled position. The second case is a reaction to the offensive player’s initiative.
With those two factors taken note of, you can safely use hand-checking in your daily games. Always remember that as a defensive player, we avoid creating a situation whereby the opposition can bail themselves out by calling ‘foul’. Play good fundamental defense. Move your feet, use good positioning and anticipation to have an edge. Your hands and arms should primarily be used to make plays on the basketball (swipe, steal, block), the rest of the body should used to screen out your offensive assignment.