Inside the Paint: Understanding the ISO Play in Basketball

I’m sure you’ve heard commentators mention the term “ISO” during games and wondered what they meant.

Well, the “ISO” expression is slang for “isolation, but what exactly does it denote?

That’s where this post gets right down to business.

An “ISO” is a basketball move used by coaches to “isolate” a certain matchup while their team possesses the ball. This is usually performed by handing the basketball to the team’s greatest player and then asking their teammates to clear out, so as to generate a 1-on-1 scoring opportunity for the player in possession of the ball— sometimes purposefully; sometimes out of desperation. The wing is the most typical “ISO” placement, however it may be executed from any area of the court floor.

what does ISO mean in basketball - one versus one matchup

In this article, we’ll go through the definition of the word and break down how the concept works within the game of basketball.

We’ll also look at some of the finest isolation players in today’s NBA, as well as techniques that can be performed by anyone to improve their own isolation skills.

Some examples of an ISO in basketball

“ISO” plays are still popular in the NBA today.

In basketball, there are several “ISO” methods.

At the conclusion of a quarter, it’s a common option for coaches who’re desperate to see their teams claw back some points.

Several old-school basketball coaches used to be opposed to running any “ISO” plays because they focused the whole offense on one player.

Although running too many “ISO” plays can lead to a team’s top player being labelled a “ball hog,” coaches frequently call for an “ISO” play when one of their finest offensive players has the “hot hand” and can make numerous baskets in a row.

Because it is tough to generate a fantastic shot in isolation, this technique should be performed only by very talented players.

what does ISO mean in basketball - setting apart the most talented player from the rest of the team

Here are a few instances where an isolation play has given a team a breakthrough during a game:

Example 1 – Michael Jordan ISO run versus Utah Jazz

Michael Jordan, when playing for the Chicago Bulls, was a prime example of an isolation player able to execute the technique of going one on one against an opponent almost flawlessly.

Check out the footage below from one of his NBA games against the Utah Jazz:

As the game was close, head coach Phil Jackson knew to call an isolation play for Jordan.

Look at how Jordan crushes poor Bryon Russell in the video above.

It’s difficult not to feel terrible for Russell since he never had a chance against Jordan’s wicked skills.

Example 2 – LeBron James vs other teams

Lebron James is also renowned as the “King of Isolation Plays” with 111 points.

James is regarded as one of the top ISO players of his generation and remains one of the best in the game today.

Have a look at the video below, which compiles some of his best isolation moments:

The 17-time All-Star has four NBA championships to his name and may add a couple more before retiring as one of the game’s all-time greats.

Who are the best isolation players in the NBA today?

There are a long list of candidates who fit the bill here, but for the sake of brevity we’re only going to talk about the best of the best.

First up, we have…

James Harden

James Harden’s dynamic isolation game is quite breath taking.

The 33-year-old Philadelphia 76ers star routinely devastates defenders with his signature step-back three-pointers.

His repetition style keeps the defenders on their heels, never giving them time to adjust their position, and once he steps back, he puts the defender off and gets them exactly where he wants them so that he can make that shot, which usually works perfectly.

James Harden has led the league in isolation scoring ever since synergy play type data became available in the 2015-16 season, with his points per game for this metric peaking in the 2018-2019 season at 18.1 points per game.

Next is…

Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving is one of the finest isolation basketball players in the NBA today.

He has an elite-level ability to tear through a defense all by himself due to his lightning-quick first step, shiftiness in and around the lane, as well as his speedy dribble.

Perhaps the biggest testament to his one on one dribbling ability is that of his former Cleveland Cavaliers team mate LeBron James, who said:

“The kid (Kyrie) was born to play one-on-one. You have those great one-on-one players in our league history and he’s up there.”

Source – The Ringer

What drills can someone practice to become a better isolation player?

Since isolation plays are such an important element of the game nowadays, it’s in your best interest to become the best ISO player you can be.

Here are a few essential drills to work on to enhance your isolation game:

Ball handling drills

Strengthening your ball-handling is one of the quickest methods to improve your ISO game.

Crossovers, between-leg dribbles, and dribbling the ball while low to the ground should all be practiced.

Also, practice dribbling the ball behind your back to confuse and frustrate the defender.

One on one positioning and movement drills

The most effective technique to improve any basketball ability is to practice it at game speed.

Playing a lot of one-on-one will help you perfect your ISO skills.

The finest isolation players in the NBA certainly got there by putting in numerous hours of one-on-one practice.

Plyometric drills

Plyometric drills can help you improve your ball-handling explosiveness.

Plyometrics will help you train your fast-twitch muscle fibers to respond faster.

This allows you to execute the crossover motion more quickly and keep the defender off balance.

Advantages and disadvantages of isolation plays

As with any technique in basketball, there are pros and cons when it comes to execution.

Here are a few benefits and drawbacks of this match routine.

  • During an isolation play, the attacking player has more control over the ball. That’s his method of driving weak players to the wall and scoring points in the opponent’s rage.
  • ISO plays allows offensive players to have more room. It enables them to move freely and produce consistent shots.
  • Isolations act as a trap to draw defensive players in and force them to foul. The reason for this is that ISO play is prone to collisions, the majority of which are caused by opponents.
  • If you put too much faith in one player, the opponent will watch him more closely. It will make shots harder for him to pull off and in the long run, this move may deplete the isolation player’s stamina and bring about excess fatigue
  • When a player has an excessive amount of ball possession, the team around him may become envious. If you give a player too much room to shine, the other players might be deprived of opportunities to score.

Final thoughts

When used appropriately, the isolation play can be a very useful tool.

Although it occasionally diverts attention from away from the equal opportunities that should be afforded to each basketball team member, it signifies the importance of individual skill in a basketball game.

The isolation play is especially useful when a coach wants the ball in the best player’s hands at the end of the game, right when the clock is ticking towards the final seconds with the match result hanging in the balance.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and found it informative, check out some related posts on other important basketball metrics, such as:

About Samuel Waihenya

Samuel is an avid fan of basketball and has been following the sport for over 10 years. He now intends to dedicate his time to produce great content for his own little basketball blog that aims to help its readership with whatever basketball-related topic they can think of. Have a read through Samuel Waihenya's author bio page here.