Zone Fundamentals

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

I often hear questions like, "What's the best zone defense?" If there was a correct answer to that question, most teams would be running the "right" defense and a few oddballs would be running something different. When you look at teams across the country, or even across your own league, you find a myriad of defensive solutions that all work with some measure of success. You can't really say one defensive pattern is better than another until you take an analytical look at your team.

Key criteria are physical makeup (fast, slow, tall or short), experience, emotional level and in the short term, game situation. At the risk of stereotyping, if your team physically advantaged and operates at a high-charged emotional level, man to man coverage can be very effective. Even a team that isn't particularly blessed with speed or strength can sometimes smother an opponent using sheer determination. Or, if you're facing a hesitant, inexperienced team, chances are they won't cope with well with an aggressive man to man defense.

Zones defenses can be very effective when your team is compromised in some way. Perhaps certain players are in foul trouble and need some protection. Perhaps some of your players are inexperienced and get easily beaten in 1:1 confrontations. Staying close to home, forcing the offense to shoot long and then concentrating on blocking out for rebound can pay big dividends at a fairly low risk.

What are some reasons to play zone?

  1. If you are running a full court zone press, it may be convenient to have the players fall back into a similar configuration to avoid confusion. For instance, if your using the 2-2-1 full court press, its pretty natural to fall back into a 2-3 zone. This concept is great for the younger players. Another idea is to start with a half court press, say a 1-3-1 pattern and try to take advantage for traps near half court, and if they do not happen, just compress the zone pattern around the basket. Imagination is allowed. Some teams fall out of their press and go into a quick matchup man to man, just to give you an idea of the versatility available.
  2. When your big post player is in foul trouble, it may be wise to minimize defensive exposure. The zones allow nearby help.
  3. If your team is tired, they may get some relief playing zone defense. Its the defense of choice for older men playing in the recreational league for the sheer economy of energy. Ideally, you want to play just as hard at zone as man to man, but sometimes you may be forced to conserve strength.
  4. If you have several large people, a zone can look pretty intimidating. Teams may forego attempts to get inside and settle for outside shots.

What's the downside of playing zone defense?

  1. If your team is behind, it is hard to create turnovers with a zone, unless you extend it out far enough to pressure or trap the ball handlers, an action that has its own risks and consequences. Again, assuming you are losing at the moment, your patient opponent can consume a lot of your come back time choosing a good shot.
  2. If the offensive team is adept at getting your zone to shift from side to side, they will probably get several good looks from the outside. If they consistently shoot well from outside, the zone will not win the game for you.
  3. Inexperienced players can really hurt you in a zone if they get caught out of position. A common fault is for someone playing the back to focus on the ball rather than his place in the zone, and either leave his position or not pay attention to players moving in behind him. In such cases, the offense can sneak in for very easy baskets.
  4. Teams that always rely on zone defense sometimes neglect their man to man defensive skills. This will hinder players that move on to new teams and new levels. The team that doesn't develop its man to man game may not be able to make important defensive changes against stiff competition.

Tips for Playing Zone Defense

  1. Close the door. This is our watchword when playing zone. Offensive players constantly try to invade the zone by splitting the defenders. Have the defenders move together and close the path to the basket. Do not allow penetration. Practice this having 5 outside players on the perimeter trying to pass and penetrate. The defenders must slide-step quickly to close the door, then recover when the ball is passed.
  2. If a post player establishes position inside, play a man in front to discourage passes. Once the ball is inside the fort, so to speak, the post player will have a short shot with potential for fouls.
  3. If the offense succeeds in getting a pass inside, attempt to tie up the ball immediately. There may be a short window of opportunity while the post player decides what to do or sets up the move.
  4. If a player succeeds with a dribble penetration or a post player receives a pass, consider the quality of the shot about to be attempted. If the dribbler is off balance and desperate, do not help him out with a foul. If the post player is rushed over a possible 3 second lane violation, again, don't save him with a foul. Make the offense shoot a tough shot and focus on the rebound. See defensive skills - blocked shots.
  5. When the shot goes up, keep an eye on the offensive players and block out. Zone defense should offer a rebounding advantage. If you are getting out-rebounded within your zone, you have big problems.
  6. Practice clearing the ball quickly after a rebound. Short players should dribble out of danger then pass to their outlets. Tall players should protect the ball holding it high and pass quickly to the outlets. The two major faults following rebounds are when short players stop and cover up the ball (an easy jump ball) and when big players grab the rebound then bring the ball down to waist level while looking for a pass. Opportunistic defenders will grab such an offering in a heartbeat.
  7. Don't extend your zone defense too far from the basket. A realistic limit may be the three point line. Its an easily seen boundary. How well do your opponents actually shoot from that range? My shot charts show that, even at high school levels, the percentage is often lower that 33%, a figure to use as a baseline for three point effectiveness (see risk management). However, some team (or players) attain a reputation for remarkable shooting percentages and as a result, opponents reconfigure their defense to try an prevent three point shots. Why not make each team prove itself? Even the best of teams have off nights and certainly all players do. Further, the three point shot is a streaky beast at best. Just because a team hits three in a row doesn't mean your zone is a failure. It means that their average will catch up with them. Its rare that a team will stay hot on threes an entire game. The younger the team, the more erratic the shooting. If the guards become too extended trying to pressure the ball handlers, they will be unable to cover the area right behind them. If screened, they will not have nearby help.
  8. Stay in your place. Remind the players that they are responsible for a patch of real estate rather than a given player. Some people have a tendency to follow a cutter and leave their space wide open.
  9. Don't lunge for steals. It is tempting to jump out and try to snag a pass, but be aware of the ramifications. The move may leave a big hole in the defense that may be exploited for an easy shot. Its a good thing to pick off a pass, but at least get a deflection out of the effort.
  10. Watch for long passes. The time the offense is most vulnerable for an interception is when their spacing gets too wide. Unless the ball is traveling quickly, a defensive player can move a long way to grab a long pass. Another mistake to watch for is the cross court pass. Offensive players may see a quick, line-of-sight route to the weak side, but such a pass usually gives multiple defenders a chance to cut it off.
  11. Players must communicate. Let teammates know who is cutting through the zone, where screens are being set, where shooters are spotting up, etc. Chatter is good. Avoid surprises.