Zones, Presses, and Youth Basketball Questions

One of the most asked questions that I receive is about zones and presses. Should they be allowed in youth basketball? The question is not as simplistic as many suggest. Read more

Why are Zones and Presses Bad for Youth Basketball?

As a follow-up to the last article defending one’s right to play zone defense, I decided to explain further the negatives involved with zones and presses at young ages.

Full-Court Press

Against a full-court press, I teach players Diamond Spacing: the passer needs an option up the court, behind the ball and on a diagonal (splitting a trap). The fifth player spreads out the defense on the opposite side or preferably down court to draw a defender.

When the defense traps, D3 and D4 have to choose who to deny or they zone the three passing options and attempt to read the passer’s eyes. However, against youth teams where the passer lacks the strength and skill to make a 40-foot pass, D5 can rotate into the frontcourt and the defense can deny all three pass receivers. This is the problem. There is nowhere for a fourth offensive player to cut to create an open passing lane, as his presence simply congests the court even more. If younger players play a small-sided games, even 4v4, the press breaks down to an extent. Now, if the defense traps the ball, two defenders zone three offensive players, leaving an open passing lane for the offense.

Zone Defense

The same holds true for zone defenses. In any good zone defense or man defense for that matter, an inability to throw a good, strong skip pass allows the defense to clog the paint without giving up anything. Generally-speaking, whenever a defense takes away something, they give up something else. So, if a defense takes away the paint, they give up open jump shots. However, with younger players, they lack the strength and skill to take advantage of the openings that the zone defense prevents. The skip pass is too slow to create the desired wide open shot.

In this generic set, two offensive players (O1 and O3) are isolated on the weak side against one defender (D3). A quick skip pass should lead to an open shot for O3, or if D3 runs at O3 on the catch, O1 should be wide open for his shot.

However, if the offense cannot make the skip pass, or if the offense has to step inside the three-point line to shoot and therefore condensing the space, then the defenders can close out in time to take away the open shot. They defend the paint, but also have the time to defend the shot. At higher levels, teams have to pick their poison: overplay and take away the paint and give up the open three-pointer or vice versa. The ball moves too quickly to take away both.

Again, a small-sided game of 3v3 or 4v4 in the half-court makes it more difficult for the defense to take away the paint and the shot, even when the offense needs to step inside the three-point line. A 2-2 zone or a 1-3 zone would give away far too much space, so in a sense, teams would be forced to play man-defense in a small-sided league. Either way, players would have more space and time to execute their skills (passing, ball handling, shooting, finishing, reading the defense) than when playing 5v5.

As I wrote previously, when players possess the experience and skills to play full-court 5v5 games, there is no reason to prevent zones or presses to hide players’ weaknesses. However, with young players, these are the reasons against zones and presses, though the problems are remedied more easily by playing more age-appropriate small-sided games than instituting artificial rules to manipulate coaches into doing things a certain way.

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

Pressing and Skill Development in Youth Basketball

On another site, coaches discussed the merit of a no-press rule for pre-high school players with many different suggestions. The argument against pressing was the lack of skill development to handle the press (something that continues to the high school level).

This is true. But, I do not understand how it is true.

Now, at younger ages, when players cannot throw the ball the length of the court, teams can cheat and put five defenders in the back court to take away space and make it more difficult to break the press. For this reason, when I coached u9 boys and u10 girls, we used our bigger players to break the press because the smaller guards lacked the strength to throw over the top and relieve the pressure.

At younger ages, I understand the struggles to break the press to a certain degree. However, the discussion centered largely around 6th – 8th graders.

When I played, our league only allowed man2man defense. However, teams could use a zone press in the back court, so many teams pressed. We ran two different presses. I played point guard and I never felt overwhelmed by pressure. We had players who could dribble with both hands with their eyes up and players who could pass the ball, and we generally had no more trouble with a press than with half-court defense (incidentally, in our recent blowout victories, we’ve given up more points with our press than our half-court defense, as most teams cannot get off a good shot against half-court man defense).

I never played organized basketball until 5th grade, and we played only 20-24 games per season from 5th – 8th grade. However, we were able to handle a press. Today, children start organized basketball at 6-years-old and cannot handle a press by 8th grade. What is wrong with this picture? Why the rush to organized basketball if skill development appears to be receding, not improving?

There are reasons to explain this: defenses are  more sophisticated, children are more athletic, etc. However, at the high school level, we run one press and teams struggle against it. When I was in 6th grade, we ran two different presses plus played full-court man, so my high school team is less sophisticated than my 6th grade team.

I am not a huge proponent of pressing at early ages because the defense is ahead of the offense, and it does hurt some players’ confidence and make for some uneven contests. Of course, I also believe young players should play 3v3 and not 5v5 for the same reasons – younger less experienced players need more space to make moves and play the game and 3v3 offers the space and more touches for all players, not just the star.

Also, some teams that press spend all their time practicing their press, engaging in the Peak by Friday mentality rather than preparing their players, teaching them how to play and developing well-rounded skills.

However, the coaches who complain about the pressing teams need to focus more on developing their players’ skills. Now, in tournaments, sometimes there is a big discrepancy in ability levels. Playing half-court defense does little to solve these discrepancies. If competitive balance is the goal, tournament directors and coaches need to do a better job of creating more equitable competitive levels. Once within the same ability level, coaches need to teach skills so players can handle a press.

In our last game, our opponent called timeout and went to a 2-2-1 press, a press that we have not faced or practiced against all season. I had to get two players’ attention because they had set up in our half-court offense. Once I told them to look down court, they filled the right spots. We broke the press with four passes and two dribbles and finished with a lay-up and a 15-foot jump shot. Our opponent quickly took off the press.

We were not bigger and faster than the other team. We work on passing, cutting and pivoting every day in practice in general drills so that players can adapt to any defense. We talk about spacing and angles every day because most of the top teams rely on presses to win at this level. We are prepared for a press because we develop these fundamental skills in every single practice (in our first scrimmage in October, we could barely get the ball across half-court against a press because we had practiced only 4-5 times before we scrimmaged a top team).

I have mixed feeling about the no-press rule. However, if the argument is that we cannot press because it impedes fundamental development, as some argued, I disagree. With beginners and very young/small players (who should be playing 3v3 anyway), I would disallow a press. However, by 8th grade, players should have enough strength to handle a press if they have developed their fundamentals.

The argument should not be whether or not to press, but how to eliminate the Peak by Friday mentality in the league, whether a team presses or not.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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