Fundamental Defensive Skills

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


Defense is built from the feet up. Aside from poor conditioning, improper footwork is the most common cause for weak defense. Conversely, a defender that can move quickly in front of an offensive dribbler to block progress can quietly and efficiently shut down that player. Its enjoyable to watch good defensive positioning at work. Sometimes dribblers are repeatedly herded to the sidelines and forced to pass and never realize why it keeps happening. Or, offensive players become frustrated because they are not getting their customary shots and it is simply because the defender won't permit them to drive to the basket. There is nothing flashy about good, quick footwork. The defense rarely gets credit for it. The ball handler is usually criticized for not getting open.

The key is being able to move laterally as quickly and as energy-efficiently as possible. Make no mistake, footwork is hard work. But done properly, the defense will not get by without drawing a charging foul. Here are some tips:

  1. Remember that the primary mission is to simply impede the dribbler's progress. Stealing the ball is nice, but has two significant risks. One is drawing a foul. The second is lunging out of position which allows the dribbler to get by. If the dribbler can't drive, then the only other options are to settle for a less advantageous shot, or give up the basketball with a pass.
  2. Have the players lean forward slightly, knees bent, with weight on the balls of the feet. If the body weight is resting on the heels, the tendency is to move backwards. If the player is standing too straight, adjustment time will be slow. With the knees bent, the muscles are loaded and ready to fire.
  3. Never cross the feet. Use a slide step. One foot moves in the direction desired, then the second slides to meet it, not cross behind or in front of it.
  4. Eyes should focus on the body - preferably the belly button area. The reason is that the dribbler won't go anywhere without the belly button and I have yet to see a good belly button fake. If the defender watches the ball or the dribbler's eyes, a good ballhandler will be able to misdirect the defense.
  5. Keep the palms up. When the palms are down, players have a tendency to slap down at the ball and draw a foul. The dribble can be disrupted cleanly with the palms up with lower risk.
  6. If the defender is too slow and the offensive player drives by, do not compound the problem by reaching out to the side or sticking out a knee or a hip to obstruct the dribbler. The result is a foul.

Conditioning suggestions:

  1. Build up strength with drills that exercise the lower legs. Daily routines that feature hopping front and back, side to side.
  2. For a short distance, like across the key, have the players slide step from one boundary to the other as fast as possible for a timed period.
  3. Have players zig zag the length of the court using the side step. Be sure they alternate the lead foot periodically.
  4. Match players up one on one. Within a confined lane (~12 feet), have the dribbler attempt to get around the defender.
  5. Have the players play defense with their hands behind their backs using only body position to stop the ball.


Anticipation is a very valuable, though intangible, contribution a player can offer. Some players are in a reactive mode throughout the game and are manipulated by the whims of the offense, yet others seem to be able to predict what the offense is about to do and take advantage of the foresight. Offensive players can be pretty predictable, after all they have the same objective of scoring that your team does and there aren't all that many ways to put the ball in the basket (see fundamental offensive plays).  Experienced players have seen certain situations hundreds of times and should be encouraged to use that experience to force a turnover.

A coach can stimulate anticipation in a couple ways. One is to run a formal defensive pattern, such as a full court defensive zone press. In that situation, the defense is taking initiative (at substantial risk) to pressure the offense into predictable solutions while advancing the ball up the floor. By implementing traps in certain locations and forcing passes through a limited number of passing lanes, the defense can successfully gamble.

Another way to predict an opponent's response is to study previous games they have played. Usually teams run similar plays throughout the season and even over the years. If you are willing to do the homework, its possible to anticipate a team's movement through its offensive set and take advantage of them.


Defensively, two players may cover a single ball handler. These situations are called traps. Traps are most effective when the two defenders cover two sides of the offensive player.

A basic fault is when the two defenders stand side-by-side. When that happens, they're just a single wide-body. If they gang up front and back, the ball handler turns from one into the other. Also, when the defenders are side-by-side, there is often indecision when the ball handler attempts to "split the defenders" by driving between them. If neither commits to stopping the dribbler, then the offense will effectively eliminate two players from the defense for a moment while they are behind the ball and guarding no one.

Another important tip is to use the half court line and the out-of-bound perimeter to inhibit the opponent. If the ball handler is hapless enough to get caught in the corners, he can be completely surrounded with just two defenders. However, I now teach that one is enough if the man is caught in the corner - cut off the passing escapes. Usually, the offensive player will attempt to pass over the defenders or will force a weak cross-court pass, inviting an interception.

Here are some trapping rules that will help:

  1. Only trap in the back court, like during full court pressing situations. You have time to recover when the traps are beaten.
  2. Trap when the ball handler turns his back to the basket. He won't see the second defender coming.
  3. Do not trap when the ball goes into the extreme corner. The reason is that one player should be able contain the ball handler sufficiently to force a bad pass. Its more important that all the receivers are covered.
  4. Do not trap at mid-court. Pressure and pass prevention at mid-court are great, but traps will get you into trouble when playing good teams. They will draw two players to the ball then pass and you will spend the rest of the possession rotating to cover the open man. How may times do you see mid-court traps force a turnover? How many times do you see teams draw a double team then pass to an open man and get an easy basket? To me the math is simple. I do not advocate traps at mid-court, even when you are desperate. Now, that said, will mid-court traps work against experienced players? Yes! But then, everything works against inexperienced players.

The better answer is to pressure the ball handler and vigorously protect the passing lanes. The ball handler is not really under pressure unless there is no one to pass to. When defenders one pass away from the ball sag back, the dribbler has an easy escape route, but if his teammates are all covered, he will make riskier choices. Concentrate on pass denial - it really works. The biggest danger is back door cuts, so you need to have players two passes from the ball sag into the key to help.

Shot Blocking

Shot blocking is the last line of defense. All else has failed. The defense did not induce a turnover and the offense has achieved the chance to shoot. At this point, the ensuing result is literally in the hands of the shooter. Will he/she make the shot or not? The defensive player must make a critical decision in this situation. The important question is - how likely is this particular shot to go in the basket? The answer depends upon the difficulty of the shot for the player shooting the ball. Difficulty factors include shot location, execution, defensive presence, fatigue, emotional pressure, shooter talent and experience taking this shot. If the shot is very difficult or poorly executed, the defensive priority is not to block the shot, but to position for a rebound because the shot will probably miss. Do not bail out the foolish shooter with a personal foul. If the shot is well executed and in a good location, again - do not foul. Most shooters make less than 50% of their shots from the floor, even in practice. Only when the defensive advantage is great, i.e. short shooter vs tall/jumper defender, should the block be attempted.

Advanced players will improve their shot blocking abilities and learn to minimize the risk of a foul. The best block is when the ball is slapped well after the shot, and directed into defensive possession. Young players are infatuated with rejecting a shot with a block, and they pay for it continuously. The two most common outcomes of a blocked shot are a personal foul or the ball is blocked out of bounds. If the ball goes out of bounds, then the shooter's team retains possession, so what was gained?

The Intimidation Factor is inherent in big guys. It is enough for them to just be visible. Use the plane of verticality and force the shooter to make a high arcing shot at a basket that is hard to see. There is a factor called big brother ruination. If a older taller player dominates a younger, smaller player in daily one on one play, the smaller player usually develops bad shooting habits.

Stigmatism of being blocked. Inexperienced players are embarrassed if their shot is blocked. They spend hours developing moves that avoid a block attempt. However, their shooting percentage goes down accordingly. The experienced player realizes that blocked shots are part of competitive play and only mean that the attempt was made when the defense had the advantage. The experienced player also knows that the block attempt is risky for the defender but poses little risk to the shooter. Nonetheless, the lure of making a big shot blocking play is irresistible to some. Such players may deliberately choose poor defensive positioning and give the shooter an opportunity, hoping to block the shot. Deliberately playing poor defense for personal glory is not acceptable.

Sending a Message. Sometimes a player will drive to the basket and attempt a lay-up, only to have the shot rejected with great authority and creates a commotion among the audience and trash talk among the players. The strategy of the mind game dictates that the shooter will be intimidated and will either forego another attempt or fail to concentrate on future shots. If your opponent is inexperienced enough to fall for such antics, then a blocked shot early in the game may have significant value. The likely outcome, though, is that the habitual shot blocker will spend much of the game on the bench due to foul trouble.