Traveling Rule in NBA

By Andrew D

June 08, 2022

Image Courtesy of Alamy

Ok then. For the uninitiated, a traveling violation is one of the first rules that most people are taught when they start playing basketball.

The reasoning behind the rule is simple. It is to encourage (force) players to control the ball as they move through dribbling. This prevents it from simply being held and carried. If there was no impetus to release the ball, either by passing or dribbling, then steals would be virtually impossible.


A travel violation occurs when a player takes more than two steps without dribbling the ball.

It should be as simple as that. It isn’t, of course, but that is the most basic premise behind the rule. The confusion sets in when deciding at what point the player is deemed to be in control of the ball. But more of that later.

Any player can move independently with the ball as long as they continue to dribble it. If that player comes to a complete stop then they may pivot on either foot and lift the other in order to spin around and look for a passing opportunity.

Referees have ultimate discretion in how strictly they enforce the 2-step rule.

The flow of the game is better if they aren’t constantly calling travel fouls. Provided they are equally lenient to both teams then there is no real harm done. Not an ideal situation, certainly, but one that has long been accepted for the betterment of the game and viewing experience.

If teams blatantly take advantage of any leniency on the part of the referee then they will call more traveling violations and nip it in the bud.


It might seem counter-intuitive to have rule variations between different levels and administrative bodies of the same sport but that is exactly the situation in basketball.

That being said, the rules are very similar and generally work like this:

If a player receives a pass whilst they are moving then they may take one step to “gather” the ball. Gathering is any time that a player takes control of a loose ball. This might be in the process of a pass, bounce, or rebound. While gathering the ball, the player can touch the ball with both hands and take a single step. This step does not count towards their permitted 2 and is sometimes called the “zero step”. Dribbling must then commence once a further 2 steps have been taken or the ball must be passed or shot.

After gathering the ball, the player can take a first and second step before attempting a field goal or relinquishing possession.

This is where recent debates and misunderstandings find their most contentious ground.
What exactly constitutes a gather?

A gather is defined by the NBA rule book as follows:

Definition of the gather

The following definition of the gather will be added to the definitions section of the playing rules:

  • For a player who receives a pass or gains possession of a loose ball, the gather is defined as the point where the player gains enough control of the ball to hold it, change hands, pass, shoot, or cradle it against his body.

  • For a player who is in control of the ball while dribbling, the gather is defined as the point where a player does any one of the following:

    1. Puts two hands on the ball, or otherwise permits the ball to come to rest, while he is in control of it;

    2. Puts a hand under the ball and brings it to a pause; or

    3. Otherwise gains enough control of the ball to hold it, change hands, pass, shoot, or cradle it against his body.

So it seems reasonably clear. Although it’s one thing to look at a definition of something and understand it. It is quite another to judge it happening at full speed in a rapid, hectic sporting context.

The NBA rule book also clearly dictates who is permitted to touch the ball after an unsuccessful field goal attempt.

The player who shoots the ball and misses cannot be the first one to touch the ball if it fails to touch the hoop, backboard, or another player. This is known as an “airball” and means that the player can be called for a traveling violation.


Now that a set definition of the gather has been established, it is necessary to describe how it will be incorporated into the existing rule book with regards to a travel violation. The NBA does this as follows:

Incorporating the Gather into the Traveling Rule

The gather will be expressly incorporated into the traveling rule to clarify how many steps a player may take after he receives the ball while progressing or completes his dribble:

  • A player who gathers the ball while progressing may (a) take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball or (b) if he has not yet dribbled, one step prior to releasing the ball to start his dribble.

  • A player who gathers the ball while dribbling may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.

  • The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after the player gathers the ball.

(Image credit: chensiyuan)


Again, the NFHS and NCAA have different penalties for traveling than the NBA. In those leagues, traveling infractions concede a dead-ball foul. This means that the opposing team gets possession and returns the ball to play from the nearest out of bounds point to where the foul happened.

In the NBA, the opposing team simply gets the ball wherever the foul happened on the court. The only caveat is that they cannot receive the ball any closer to the net than the free-throw line.


James Harden is routinely cited as a perfect example of how certain referees are being lenient when it comes to traveling violations. NBA referees are regarding traveling calls. His particular technique of coming to a jump-stop inside the 3-point line and then taking a step or two backward has even been given a nickname. The “Harden step-back”.

But is Harden actually breaking the rules and getting away with it? Or just taking full advantage of the letter of the law?

Here in The Jump Hub office, we’ve heard both sides of this argument…

We’ve been convinced both ways at one time or another. Regardless of our personal opinions, here is what we actually believe is happening and why Harden is allowed to persist with this behavior unchecked.

It all comes down to that definition of the gather. When Harden performs his European-style layups and shots on the dribble he consistently takes what looks at first glance to be an illegal step. However, the NBA’s own definition and incorporation of that definition into the existing traveling rules make it clear that he’s not committing fouls.

It’s not a move that Harden himself invented. He’s just one of the NBA players to make the best use of it. He capitalizes on what is seen by some as a slight misnomer of the game.


Taking more than two steps is not the only way to travel, let’s look at what else is considered a travel.

So from what we have looked at so far, we can confidently say that taking 3 steps, after the gather, is a travel violation. But there are other ways for this infraction to be called.

We briefly discussed the importance of the pivoting foot earlier. This is the foot that remains planted as the other is lifted and the player spins after landing at the end of a dribble. If the player picks up that pivot foot then it counts as a traveling foul.

If a player lands one-footed at the end of a dribble then that same foot may not be the next one to land. This is known as “hop travel”

Here is a list including the most obvious examples of traveling:

  • Taking more than two steps without a dribble or motion to shoot.

  • Picking up the pivot foot.

  • A player may only pivot from the first foot that lands otherwise traveling may be called. Switching pivot feet is not allowed.

  • When standing still, a player may not take a step without a dribble before the pivot foot is released.

  • A player catching their own airball is considered a travel. The ball must hit the backboard, rim, or touch another player.

  • It is considered traveling to jump up and down with the ball. The player must release the ball on the way up, and catch it again on the way down.

  • Players may not take two steps after a jump stop.

  • If a player trips and falls down on the court, they may not slide, roll, or move on the floor with the ball.

  • Players may not pass the ball to themselves via a rebound off the backboard. Only within the motion of a layup or slam dunk.

This YouTube video gives a really good, clear explanation of the situation. It shows why so many fans and commentators are actually mistaken about traveling.

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