What Does ISO Mean in Basketball?

Basketball has a lot of confusing details for casual viewers and non-players. While many people understand the basics of the sport, some more in-depth questions can arise while watching a game. "What does ISO mean in basketball?" may be one of those questions.

Although it's not widely known, ISO is a fundamental basketball move. Moreover, it even has its own section in the rule book. The official name for the play is ISO, but most people refer to it as ball handling.

The name ISO comes from "isolation play." It occurs when the player has the ball and plays one-on-one with the defender closest to them. The player doesn't pass the ball to their teammates and plays solo against the opponent. Teammates can contribute by clearing the way and distracting the defense.

Types of Isolation Play

One-on-one is a position that gives one of the highest chances for scoring in basketball. There are various types of isolation play, which are dependent on the situation.

Every kind of isolation play has its own advantages and disadvantages, so coaches must choose the right style for the right circumstance.

The first option is to use cuts like v-cuts, i-cuts, backdoor cuts, and more to get the dribbler out of the lane. Another way to build the play is to use screens. You can benefit from double screens, back screens, cross screens, etc., for defensive purposes.

The third type is to get the best player to drive the ball towards the basket for an easy layup. Lastly, you can choose to design the isolation play along the perimeter, the wings, and the corners of the court.

Why Is ISO an Effective Play?

It's not an ISO every time a player simply tries to take the ball and score in the flow of regular play.

Players typically use a series of one-on-one moves to set themselves up for a shot they intend to make. On the contrary, you need to involve a strategy and team engagement for ISO.

Usually, ISO is the type of play you can use to save the game at the last minute. It allows you to build a game upon the best player in the team.


You give the ball to the player you can trust to make a shot, and the player tries to tackle the defender one-on-one and score the basket. It is a wise move to channel all the effort to keep the ball at your top-scoring player's hands. 

Also, if the opposing team guards the defender too well, there’s always the possibility of finding an open teammate who can take an easy jump shot.

To create an effective isolation play, one should consider players' size, height, speed, and foul rate. If you do it correctly, teams will look mismatched on the court. Moreover, you can take the mismatch as a signal if you're not the one building an ISO play.

The Best Ways to Improve Your ISO Skills

Isolation is a fundamental technique that’s essential to master. To start, you must have a tight dribble and excellent off-hand skills.

ISO is mainly about having the upper hand against the defender by advancing, backing up, or driving forward to the basket. It is essential to have the ability to finish with either hand. Thus, defenders can't funnel you to your off-hand and hinder your shot.

Furthermore, it is also essential to keep track of the position and quickly adapt. You should be able to switch to a different approach the moment the defender restricts your movement and blocks your shot.

You should flow with the ball and check for open teammates while keeping the defense on their toes. 

To be a well-rounded basketball player, you need to be capable of attacking the defense in various ways. These ways include setting screens, making cuts, and going after boards.


A skilled player is not enough for a successful isolation play. That play involves strategy and technicality. Hence, a competent coach must know ISO thoroughly.

ISO is an essential component in the late shot clock and out-of-bounds plays. Furthermore, it is an excellent tactic if you have a player with a hot hand.

Lastly, it's crucial to play as a team. Yes, it is ironic as the name is “isolation game.” However, as we mentioned before, ISO is essentially teamwork.

For example, take LeBron James. Despite being a shooting prowess, he knew when to step back and turn over the lead when going against the Warriors.

Examples of ISO Plays in the NBA

As we mentioned, ISO is one of the most essential plays in the basketball playbook. The NBA's greatest players used it to bring great success to their teams and themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the best uses of isolation play.

  • James Harden

One player in today's basketball stands out with his excellent isolation play, James Harden. He is one of the best ISO players of the Houston Rockets with a record of 321 points.

According to the NBA, 45% of his shots were ISO in the 2019 - 2020 season. The fact that he has been NBA Player of the Week four times and Player of the Month twice is no surprise.

Harden's ISO play rate is significantly higher than Russell Westbrook, who took 25% of his shots in isolation and is the second-most in the league. Harden follows in the footsteps of great isolation players such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving.

  • LeBron James

LeBron James is one of the most recognizable faces in basketball with 111 points. As the NBA's biggest star, he has millions of fans worldwide. His best play strategies led him to win three NBA championships: two with the Cavaliers in 2015 and 2016 and one with the Heat in 2013.

  • Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard has twice hit a series-winning shot in the playoffs. He has 110 points. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard is among the top ten point guards in the NBA, and he is not afraid to let you know it. He has been the Portland Trail Blazers' most consistent player since 2012.

His consistent greatness results from various factors, including excellent passing, leadership, and unexpected strength. With 110 points, Damian Lillard is one of the league's top scorers.

  • ISO Play for Teams

San Antonio Spurs is one of the teams that ran ISO effectively in 2021 with a rate of 5.6% ISO plays. Although the team used isolation effectively, they were 19th for field goal percentage in the league. 

On the other hand, being the king of three-point shots, the Warriors relied on screens, quick passes, and teamwork rather than isolation plays.

They consistently ranked fifth in the league. Thus we can see that in an era dominated by three-point shots, isolation may pose a challenge. ISO can be a potent tool as long as the teams know when to rely on it.


Isolation plays effectively encourage players to reach their full potential. Besides its practical benefits, it's a feel-good moment for players.

Almost everyone dreams of taking down a defender one-on-one and scoring an epic shot. However, building an effective ISO play is more than taking the ball and bursting into the defense.

As you can imagine, these kinds of stunts require a lot of preparation. Besides dribbling and handling skills, physical strength and mental toughness are essential.

If you pay attention to the strategy behind and practice them in training sessions, you can create an appropriate position during the game.

We hope you know now what ISO means in basketball. Let's conclude with a quote from MJ: "I don't look for opportunities, I create them.

Joshua Bast

My name is Joshua Bast and I have been playing basketball ever since I was 7 years old. I love the game play, I love the feeling whenever I score a basket, but what made me fell in love was the camaraderie with my team mates. This blog is dedicated to help any up-and-coming basketball players maximize their potential.

Joshua Bast