Can One Teach Defensive Fundamentals through Zone Defenses?

After commenting on zone defenses and pointing out some of the negative issues as well as reasons why zones are not bad for youth basketball, a coach observed that zones are a poor way to teach defensive fundamentals. In particular, the reason was that players only watch the ball in zone defense, but they learn to watch the man and the ball in man-to-man defense.

When I watch young children play, unfettered by rules and coaching, they tend to have great instincts. If a player drives to the basket, they go to the ball. They instinctively know to take away the biggest risks which are close to the basket.

However, as players learn to play defense properly, these same movements which were so instinctual and quick become labored and indecisive. Am I supposed to stay with my man or go to the ball? Do I rotate here or there? Coaches spend hours breaking down players’ natural instincts so that they can teach them the right way to play.

This season, I dispensed with the superfluous instruction and started with the players’ instincts. We did almost no specific defensive instruction. Instead, we started with a simple rule: No lay-ups or shots close to the basket. The second rule that we added quickly: Do not foul a shooter. Initially, we had a simple defensive philosophy: make teams make jump shots to score.

The problem with the way that we teach defense is that we start with specifics rather than the general philosophy. On the first day, we do the “Shell Drill” to teach players the proper positioning. The offense passes around the perimeter from spot to spot, and the defense moves into the right positions based on the ball and their man. Throughout, the coach emphasizes the importance of seeing both the man and the ball.

Now, no team plays offense like this. In fact, the only thing close to the initial shell drill is a bad zone offense. I would argue that it is easier for a defender to see man and ball when playing zone defense because (1) offenses stagnate against zones and (2) the defense always knows where to look to find his offensive player (his zone).

For young players learning to play who have a lot of information and stimuli to process, playing against even a decent man offense requires the defender to see a moving offensive player and the ball, something unlike the shell drill.

When I played, my teams spent hours on the shell drill every season starting in fifth grade. We worked on the proper help-side position. We worked on rotations if the ball handler dribbled baseline. We worked on defending cuts. The drills were clean and precise. For every possible question, there was specific answer. If A happens, do B.

Games, however, were messy. I did my picture-perfect closeout from the mid-line to a shooter, sprinting 2/3 of the way to the offensive player and then chopping my steps with my weight back as I was taught, and the shooter made the shot. I followed the directions perfectly, so my coach told me that I was too slow.

Next, I sprinted a little faster, waited a little longer to chop my steps, and the offensive player drove past me. Again, my coach said that I was too slow. I defended my player as he cut to the top, just as I had in the shell drill, but at the same moment, an offensive player drove baseline for a lay-up. Now, I was out of position. Somehow, I should have known that the offensive player was going to drive and ignored my player cutting toward the ball. Nothing happened like the shell drill. The shell drill supplied easy answers. Situations in games were more ambiguous.

Now when I play, I am usually the best defender on the court. I am no faster than when I was a teenager. However, I am not beholden to any specific rules. In every situation, I make the best possible decision and adjust accordingly. As a coach, I attempt to empower players to do the same. Our defensive success is not reducing all choices to one simple answer in practice, but learning to adjust and adapt to decisions.

Do players ball-watch in zone defenses?

Yes. They should. Players need to watch the ball in man defense too. When I play defense, I am generally aware of my player. I have a good idea where he is. However, if he makes a great cut, sometimes I am a step behind. However, I know where the ball is. I see the ball handler. I can read his eyes. I almost never get beaten with a backdoor pass – even if my player has beaten me, I can stick out my foot and defend the pass. If my player stands on the weak-side and I get caught in help defense, I know exactly where he is because I follow the flight of the ball. It does not matter if I know exactly where he is – the ball tells me where to go.

This is very much a zone approach to defense. However, as I wrote last week, every good man defense incorporates zone principles, and every good zone defense incorporates man principles. Unfortunately, I think many coaches generalize zone defense based on the worst possible examples and generalize man defense based on the best possible examples. In reality, they are very similar.

Can one teach good defensive fundamentals with a zone defense?

First, one must define “good defensive fundamentals”? I take a realist approach to defense rather than an idealist. Most coaches are idealists: their objective is to prevent ALL shots. As a realist, my objective is to force low efficiency shots. I do not believe that a defender can take away everything – any time a defender works to take away something, he opens something else. For instance, on a closeout, if I close out fast enough to contest the shot, I am susceptible to a drive. I cannot defend both perfectly. The battle is (1) choosing which is the better play for me as a defender and (2) the offensive player making the right decision based on my decision and possessing the skill to make the play that the decision dictates. If I know that my player cannot shoot, I defend the drive; in this instance, I force the shot, but he lacks the skill to take advantage. Therefore, I win the battle.

With young players, the defense usually wins the battle because few offensive players are complete players. If the defense plays the drive on all closeouts, whether in man defense or zone defense, the defense wins most battles as the offense takes a low-percentage shot, drives a congested lane or passes. As offensive players improve, the defender’s decision-making becomes more difficult, and thus more important.

What are the defensive fundamentals?

  1. Guard a yard. Defenders must be able to move laterally in both directions and keep a ball handler in front of them for two steps in each direction.
  2. Positioning. Defenders must know how they are supposed to defend a player. What area do they want to defend? Where is the help defense? Do you send to the sideline-baseline or to the middle?
  3. Closeout. Defenders must know how to cover as much distance as quickly as possible while remaining on balance and able to change directions. When covering more than 3 feet, the defender must decide whether to run at (and past) a shooter to force the drive or close out under control to prevent the drive.
  4. Defending the post. Defenders must know how to move their feet to stay in position and defend a pass from different angles.
  5. Defending a cutter. Defenders must know how to deny a cutter the ball while maintaining the balance to change directions.
  6. Boxing out. Possibly the most important part of defense, defenders close to the basket must box out to create more space to grab the rebound off missed shots.
  7. Matching up in transition. Players must know how to retreat quickly and match up in different situations where the offense has a numerical advantage.
  8. Help and recover. Defenders must be able to slow a ball handler to allow his defender to recover and then close out to their offensive player if a pass is made in their direction.

These are eight basic defensive skills. I am sure coaches could list 20 more (feel free to list more below). However, which of these skills cannot be taught through zone defense?

Team Defense

Even in man-to-man defense, teams play a lot of zone. Anytime a team doubles a post player, the other three defenders zone four offensive players. In transition, as long as the offense has a numerical advantage, the defense uses a zone. When a ball handler penetrates and beats his man, forcing help defense, the other defenders play a zone. Help defense is essentially zone defense.

When I coached professionally, our defensive philosophy was essentially to play man-to-man on the strong side and zone the weak side. We fronted the post and denied penetrating passes on the strong side. Our weak side defenders played the mid-line. We were most susceptible to a skip pass and open three-pointer or a high-post entry for a high-low to the post player. However, since we zoned the weak side, the top defender took the high-post which meant that we had a second defender to take away the quick high-low pass. The swing to the opposite side was wide open, so the bottom defender had to sprint at a shooter. However, we effectively took away the middle of the court and the basket.

Defensive Success

Ultimately, defensive success has little to do with the particular strategy (man or zone), especially at a youth level. Instead, the success starts with players playing hard. Hustle and effort can make up for a lot of mistakes defensively, especially with young players. Next, it requires some basketball smarts. If players know the general plan (no lay-ups, no free throws; force two-point jump shots), they can make educated decisions quickly and other players can adapt. Finally, defensive success requires toughness, mental and physical. Players have to be willing to use their bodies to box out, chuck cutters and take charges, but they also have to let it go if they do everything right and the offense still scores.

When teaching a man or zone, a coach can emphasize effort, hustle, smarts and toughness, so either strategy works for developing good defensive fundamentals.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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