What Is A Wing In Basketball?

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New to basketball? The term “wing” may be causing you to scratch your head – many newbies can’t for the life of them figure out what “wing” means in basketball.

Is the wing a player? Some kind of basketball play? Or maybe an area of the court?

It’s very simple, actually. Read on for answers!

“Wing” Has Two Meanings In Basketball

One of the contributing factors to the confusion among newcomers to basketball is that “wing” has two meanings.

First up, the wing is an area on the basketball court. In fact, there are two types of wings – I’ll talk about them below.

As for the second meaning, “wing” refers to certain player positions – more specifically, the shooting guard and small forward.

To hopefully help you get a better grasp of “wing,” let’s have a look at it from the standpoint of both the court and player positions.

The Wing On A Basketball Court

There are two types of wing areas on a basketball court:

  • Traditional
  • Full

The traditional wing is defined as circles outside the free-throw line, between the sideline of the court and the free-throw line. There are two wings on each half of the courtone on each side of the free-throw line. This makes four traditional wings in total.

As for the full court wings, they encompass the area along the sidelines of the court and extend from baseline to baseline. If the paint went from baseline to baseline rather than stop at free-throw lines, wing areas would be just outside the painted parts of the court.

Both wing definitions are “correct” and play an important role in basketball strategy. Often, coaches refer to the wings when formulating plays or instructing players where to go.

In basketball, full wings are categorized into strong and weak sides. The strong side is the side which the ball is currently on. When the ball moves from one side to the other, the side that contains the ball becomes the strong one, and defenders switch positions to follow the ball.

The wings are important in offense as well. Drawing players and/or the ball into the wings opens the lane, allowing the team to get the ball closer to the hoop. Additionally, players typically try to direct the ball toward a player in the wings when the team pushes up the court after a defensive rebound.

Strategic plays involving the wings are beyond this article’s scope, but I do hope that my description gave you a better idea of what the wings are and why they are important.

Wing Players - Shooting Guard

Michael Jordan is perhaps the most famous shooting guard in basketball.

Aside from specific areas on the basketball court, the word “wing” is used to refer to players who are specialized in playing in the wings.

These days, pretty much any player can be a wing player. More versatile wing players can pass, rebound, and play defense, and “non-wing” players can likewise hang out in the wings most of their time.

However, shooting guards and small forwards are considered traditional wing players. When someone says “wing player,” they likely mean the shooting guard or the small forward.

Let’s start with shooting guards. Commonly called the SG, the off guard, or the 2 (two) guard, shooting guards spend most of their time in the wings and partner with the point guard (PG) to make plays on the court.

The main responsibility of a shooting guard is to stay open and be ready to score, which perfectly complements the function of PGs (to set up other players).

Among famous examples of shooting guards are Michael Jordan (though he could also play a small forward), Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and James Harden.

What makes a good shooting guard

Great shooting guards possess the following skills:

  • They have great long-range shots. Spending much of their time in the wings, SGs often attempt long-distance shots. This means that good shooting guards are excellent at long-range throws and that any aspiring SG should work on their shot accuracy.
  • They stay open for the ball. SGs must remain open for the ball and be ready to make a shot at any time. This may sound easy, but anticipating actions from both opponents and teammates and knowing when and where to move are no small feats.
  • They are great in defense. SGs are crucial in attacks, but they should also be skillful enough to serve as the backbone of their team’s defense.

With all these in mind, shooting guards should possess strategic thinking. More precisely, they should be perfectly aware of what is happening on the court. Among other things, this will allow a shooting guard to move up to accept a pass when needed or to retreat to their half of the court to participate in defense.

Another crucial trait for an SG is confidence. Shooting guards attempt shots often, with many of them being unsuccessful. With that in mind, a good SG should not dwell on their failures, a lot like goalkeepers in soccer – rather, they should keep shooting. Eventually, the ball will go in.

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Wing Players - Small Forward

LeBron James is one famous example of a small forward.

The second player traditionally called a “wing” is the small forward, also sometimes called SF or the 3 (three). Small forwards are one of the two forwards on their team, the other one being the power forward.

SFs are among the most versatile players on the court. And interestingly, they also tend to be really highly paid. Samford University wrote in 2019 that in the NBA 2019-2020 season, the average small forward would have a salary of about $8 million. This would place small forwards in third place behind point guards ($9.39 million) and centers ($9.61 million).

Small forwards are typically shorter and quicker than power forwards and centers, as well as stronger than guards. When it comes to their on-court responsibilities, SFs defend and score points. They also often serve as secondary and tertiary rebounders.

Famous small forwards include LeBron James, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, and Julius Erving.

What makes a great small forward

The versatility of small forwards puts certain requirements on their basketball and personal skills. Among other things, a small forward should have excellent defense skills to be able to guard every other position on the court.

Next, small forwards should have an intricate understanding of the game, which would help them make the right decisions and be in the right spot to make an offensive play possible. WIthout high basketball intelligence, SFs would not have been versatile. 

SFs are often considered team leaders as well, which is another reason for the importance of strategic thinking.

Another must-have for small forwards is a well-rounded set of basketball skills. This is a no-brainer really – the versatility of SFs dictates that they must feel comfortable in every position and situation on the court.

At the same time, small forwards should excel at something. Some small forwards are excellent shooters, while others have a knack for rebounding. You should be good at everything, but it would also be nice if you had your own specialty – this could help you tremendously in the right situation.

Basketball skills aside, small forwards must have many mental capabilities as well. More precisely, SFs should possess the right balance of decisiveness and aggression to make difficult decisions quickly. 

Being team leaders, small forwards should have impeccable work ethic as well. Your teammates should look up to you, after all, so you need to set the right example.


Now, you should be able to distinguish between wing players and court areas easily! There’s nothing complicated about this, but those unaware that “wing” has several meanings may be baffled whenever they hear this word.

Justin D. Johnson
Justin D. Johnson
Justin is a PhD student at Stanford University and has been a basketball youth coach for over ten years. He is passionate about sports, cinema, astronomy, and sharing knowledge.