What is Carrying in Basketball?
If you’re only experience with basketball is the superhuman players of the NBA, it’s very possible that even after hours of game watching you’ve never seen a carry.
This is for good reason. Top tier players like those at the college level and beyond have a great deal of experience in moving the ball, and muscle memory alone makes it unlikely they will make such a basic mistake.
Even if an NBA or college level player does carry the ball briefly, referees don’t always call it.
This is in part because their dazzling skill makes any carries brief and sometimes hard to see, but also because constantly interrupting the game with calls can detract from the entertainment value given to the fans.
Carrying gets more common with younger players, and those who are otherwise new to the sport.
This is because younger players don’t have enough practice at ball handling to know what to do, and may not be familiar with the rules yet.
It’s much more common to make a mistake such as holding the ball too low or not consistently dribbling when the ball is bigger and handling skills are undeveloped.
By the time they ascend to higher levels of play, muscle memory from long hours of practice has made it very unlikely that they’ll carry.
They’ve simply gotten too good at the sport to do this—or at least better at hiding it.
What is a Carry?
In short, carrying is a traveling violation where the player is essentially palming the ball.
This could be flipping the ball over so instead of dribbling it is resting in their hands, or placing their hands on the lower half of the ball before continuing to dribble.
By holding the ball in this way they can control it through holding it up instead of dribbling, thus “carrying” it.
If the player holds the ball in this way and doesn’t throw it, or moves their feet more than one and a half steps after they are no longer dribbling, then it is considered a carry.
When a referee is trying to call whether there was a violation or not, they typically look at the basketball player’s palms.
If the palms are facing towards the sky, it’s a carry. If they are facing toward the floor, it is not.
Many basketball players dribble from the sides of the ball rather than the top.
This is because it is easier to control the ball from the sides, and any player who has spent more than a few months playing will quickly figure that out.
Dribbling from the sides of the ball is perfectly legal, but it needs to be done from the top 90 degree plane of the ball. Once the hand descends below this level it is considered a carry.
It may also be considered a carry if the rhythm of the ball dribbling significantly changes, as some basketball players have large enough hands to grip the ball from the top, or if it changes in other ways such as stopping for a significant length of time.
Dribbling high above the shoulders is also legal, but it isn’t generally recommended because you have poorer control over the ball.
A secondary issue is that the player can accidentally carry by having to reach up and hold the ball from the bottom in order to keep the ball from getting away from them.
Common Traveling Violations
Although carrying can be explained very simply, there are actually a number of different infractions that are similar to a simple carry.
There are a whole host of ways one can break the rules through carrying, and many more that are technically legal but look illegal.
Let’s take a look at the violations first, so we can better separate the differences.
One of the most commonly seen travel violations is the Carry-Double-Dribble. In this violation, the player dribbles with their hand towards the underside of the ball. As they dribble, the ball comes to a rest for short period of time in their hands.
You can tell a carry-double-dribble apart from proper dribbling both from the hand position on the ball, and from the rhythm of the dribble. If there are very obvious hesitations in the ball bouncing, it is more likely to be a carry.
When this happens, it is usually called as a carry-double-dribble, because the ball came to a rest however briefly while in the player’s possession. If this violation is called, the other team is awarded the ball.
Although the carry-double-dribble is the most common violation, it isn’t the only one. If the player causes the ball to come to rest but is still moving their feet, this is another violation.
It may be called as Carry-Traveling instead however. Players do have some leeway in foot movement after picking up the ball.
Players are allowed to move their feet slightly, taking no more than one and a half steps before throwing. Any more than this, or continuing to dribble is considered a carry.
Younger players frequently make this mistake because they aren’t yet good enough at basketball strategy to know what they are planning.
They may pick up the ball to throw it, realize they can’t make it, and continue dribbling, but it is no less a violation.
They may also hesitate as they try to formulate a plan or see what other team members are doing, and carry during this hesitation.
Regardless of how it is is called, the violation has the same punishment, the other team gets the ball.
Legal Moves That Look Like Carries
As basketball players progress from young children playing their first games all the way up to college and NBA levels, it can be very challenging to call a carry properly.
Some of the greats are well known for legal moves that may be confused with carries, and have even been accused of actual carrying.
An example of this might be the “killer crossover” by Tim Hardaway, that redefined the sport, and then later adopted by NBA great Allen Iverson.
Although it may look like a carry, it isn’t because the palms of the player is on the side of the ball, not the bottom.
Michael Jordan has huge hands that frequently go below the line of the basketball, which can make it hard to call whether he is carrying or not.
In general, Michael Jordan valued his strategies and the quality of the game, and it is very unlikely that any carrying people accused him of were actually carries.
Most of the accusations could be blamed on the fact that his hands were so much longer than average.
Also, referees do not call carries on NBA players even if they do notice them.
This is partly because NBA players very rarely carry, but also in part because it would ruin the entertainment of the game.
Referees tend to give their all stars a pass, which means if you want to see these things being called you’ll have to watch middle school or high school games instead.
Not only will referees be more likely to call a carry, but players who are not as comfortable with their ball handling skills will be more likely to have infractions that need to be called.
Some people insist that the legends in basketball, including the NBA players we just talked about, were genuinely carrying.
They complain that these moves aren’t special at all, and are in fact illegal. While some of these moves could go either way, in several cases the carrying was pure laziness and should have been called.
Lebron James has come under fire several times for carrying, sometimes justifiably.
In 2019 when the Lakers were playing the Jazz, Lebron James was caught obviously carrying the ball for several seconds, but it was never called.
The player opposite of him even pointed at him during the carry, but the referee looked the other way.
Less blatantly Curry carried the ball during the 2019 NBA finals, but once again the refs didn’t call it.
Tim Hardaway has long accused Allen Iverson’s crossover as being illegal, but this may be jealousy over his success.
In reply to Hardaway’s accusations, Iverson quipped about the only carrying he was doing was carrying all the way to the Hall of Fame.
The simple truth is, although NBA players are sometimes seen obviously carrying the ball, they are seldom called.
This is in part because it may spoil the entertainment value at this high level of basketball, but also because it can be very hard to tell the difference in most cases.
Although carrying isn’t always called in higher levels, it’s still not something players should be doing.