Beating the Junk Zone Defenses

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at


Some of the more common questions received by the Coach's Notebook and seen in various coaching bulletin boards concern tactics to use against "junk" zone defensive formations. The questions usually pertain to the 1-3-1, Box and 1 and Triangle & 2 zones. These defensive configurations can appear confusing even to an experienced team if they are being seen for the first time. For more information on conventional defenses, please see the articles, "Basic Man to Man", "Pressure Man to Man", and "Basic Zone".

The thing to remember is that all zones are compromises. To compromise means that one is willing to give up something in order to gain something else. People play zones to protect or hide players, or to constrain the defensive extension. What is given up is the individual responsibility inherent in a man to man defense. Zone responsibilities are about guarding an area rather than a particular player.

Junk zone defenses are often labeled as gimmicks. They are attempts to recover some of the advantages lost in the compromise of playing zone, so the junk defense is more like a hybrid of both zone and man to man. An optimistic coach will claim that the benefit is attaining the best of both worlds. I prefer to think that the junk defense is actually a compromise of a compromise, and therefore a weakened dilution of the basic zone defense.

Discussed in this article are the 1-3-1, Box and 1 and Triangle & 2 zones. If you run into a new variation, take minute and sketch it out on paper. The principles applied here will work against other formations. You may need to align the players a little differently to start the offense.

Fundamental Ways to Beat a Zone

To beat the gimmick defense, you must understand how to play against a zone. Breaking down a zone defense can be summed up in a few simple steps:

  1. Push the ball up the court as quickly as you can and still control the action. If the offense beats the defense down the floor, the zone will not have time to set up and open shots may present themselves with nothing more than fundamental two man plays.
  2. Place players in open areas. If the defense has two guards on top, counter with three. For example, the defense shows a 2-3 zone, you counter with a classic 1-2-2 with a point guard, two wings and two posts.  If the defense has three people out front, like in a 3-2, counter with 2-1-2 where you have a post man on the free throw line.
  3. Overload the zone. Just because the defensive players are guarding areas doesn't mean the offensive players must play in certain areas. Put four players on one side of the floor. The zone will not have adequate coverage on that strong side.
  4. If the zone is set up, make the defense MOVE. There are two basic ways to do this. One, attempt to drive between two defensive players. They will be forced to close the gap. For a moment you will have two defenders on the ball. Someone nearby will be open. Two, use short, quick passes. The defense will not be able to keep up as the ball moves from side to side. If you have an overload situation, someone will soon be open for a shot.


Beating a 1-3-1 Zone
The advantage to a 1-3-1 zone is that it puts defensive players exactly where most teams like to position their offensive players. The point guard and two wings are immediately covered. Imagine the chagrin of a young team that has spent several practices learning a conventional offensive play only to meet this pattern. The counter is to bring two guards to the top instead of one, as in diagram #1. Now the imbalance on top is in favor of the offense. Notice that the defense is weak covering the baseline.

In diagram #2, the ball handler B1 drives left to pass safely to player B2. B4 moves to the right shoulder. Here the overload is developing.

(Diagram #3) B2 drives into the defense, causing it to close in front (Y1 and Y2). B4 is in position to screen. Now B2 drives left ,using the screen and passes to B3. B2 may also shoot at this point or pass to B4. It depends on the opening the defense gives up.

In diagram #4, the zone is clearly overloaded. B1 moves the weak side. Note: B2 must be ready to protect against a fast break! There is no one to guard B3 who has an open shot. B5 is coming across the key. Y5 has 3 offensive players to worry about. The green arrows show pass options if someone jumps out to defend the open shot.


Beating the Box and 1
The Box and 1 will devote a defender to your best scorer (B1). The other four opponents will play zone, usually in a box formation (diagram #1). B1 will need to best both his man and the zone to get a drive at the basket.

What happens, though, if B1 becomes a post player? In diagram #2, B5 has moved to the high post and B1 is on the block.

Now, according to the rules the defense has imposed on itself, Both Y1 and Y4 are defending B1 (diagram #3). When B2 drives, forcing Y2 to pick him up, B3 is wide open for the pass.

In diagram #4, B3 has excellent angles to pass to B4 or B5 as well as an open shot from the wing.

Beating the Triangle and 2
The Triangle and 2 can have a very confusing look. There is a defender (Y1 and Y2) dedicated to each of your two main scoring threats (B1 and B2). The other defenders play a three man zone - hence the triangle (in green) in diagram #1. To drive to the basket, B1 and B2 will need to beat their dedicated defender and penetrate the zone.

The strategy is to force a dedicated defender AND an area defender into guarding the same player. With the Triangle and 2, we can do this twice at the same time. B3 kicks out and receives the ball. (diagram #2). B1 and B2 go down to the blocks.

In diagram #3, you see how the rules of the Triangle and 2 are starting to work against it.

When B4 and B5 move out to the wing positions, the rules force both Y1 (guarding B1) and Y4 (guarding the low post area) to guard B1. Y2 and Y5 are guarding B2. B4 and B5 are entirely open.

B3, B4 and B5 will get all the shots they want. All they need to do now, is make them. B1 and B2 need to realize how important their role is. Hopefully their teammates will make their shots and B1 and B2 can return to their normal styles.