Right-Brain Thinking Against Zones

This article originally appeared in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 4.5.

Zones stymie many teams and players. Generally, teams and players who attack man2man defenses stand around and play passively against zone defenses. There is no real reason to explain the passivity. Zones require a different strategy than man2man, but good defenses combine man-defense and zone defense on each possession.

I thrived against zones because I was a good shooter. However, more than spot-up shooting ability, I found holes in the zone. I visualized the open space or how I could create open space for myself or a teammate. Now, when I play pick-up games, I am frustrated that players rarely see the game or the developing play as I do.

My team struggles with zones because we do not visualize how a cut, pass or pass fake will move the defense. Playing against a zone requires some basic tactical skill and understanding. We use three general skills: dribble and replace; flare screen and skip pass; and a long diagonal cut followed by a short cut into the space. More importantly, I focus on understanding the defense  to create a 2v1 somewhere on the court.

As a player, if I know the defenders’ zones, and I can move one away from his area, I know that there is an open area if a teammate fills that space. When all five offensive players have the same understanding, zones are easier to play against.

If we have the ball in the corner with a player in the short corner, the ball handler dribbles toward the wing. Usually, the defender stays with the ball, meaning the baseline defender in the 2-3 zone is now on the wing. The girl in the short corner fills the corner. On the pass back to the corner, we have an open shot or an open lane – we forced the baseline defender to defend two players in one zone.

If the player penetrates baseline, the middle player in the zone has to rotate to stop the ball. We flash a cutter from the high post on a dive to the rim. Again, we have forced one defender to defend two people. If he stops the ball, a short pass to the cutter should result in a lay-up. If he does not stop the ball, the ball handler has a shot.

The key is understanding the spatial relationships. I have a very analytical team – nearly every player excels in mathematics. We are very left-brained. Consequently, we struggle to visualize space. We lack a creative element. The least mathematically inclined – the two players who lean most heavily toward kinesthetic learners – see space and attack the gaps better than the others.

My players crave more structure, as they are used to plays that occur in a specific sequential order: Pass A leads to Cut B which leads to Pass C which leads to Shot D.

I want them to see space and attack gaps. My approach costs us in some games, but junior varsity is a developmental level and I want them to learn to adapt to different situations. I want them to see the openings in the zone without having to run a play for them to see the openings.

I see the openings and gaps from the sideline; however, rather than design play after play to exploit these gaps, my goal is to get these left-brain thinkers to move beyond their comfort zones and use their creativity and some right-brain thinking to visualize the play developing.

Our biggest problem, ironically, is a poor understanding of angles and relationships between teammates and defenders. For instance, we run an on-ball screen against the zone; our primary purpose is to create a 2v1 in the high post or on one side. However, often the screener is open rolling to the basket if we pass before she reaches the middle defender. Tonight, rather than rolling across the front of the defender, we rolled down the lane-line, which allowed the middle defender to steal a pass. We do not understand the angle that we need as a passer and a cutter. We see open space, but we do not account for the defenders. If there is a line between the two nearest defenders, the pass receiver needs to get to the ball side of the line; by rolling down the lane-line, our player moved behind this line, and the middle defender had a better angle to the pass than our player. If she rolled across the face of the defender, it would be like playing against a man defense when the defense switches.

A similar mistake is in the corner. On a quick reversal, we caught the baseline defender running at the wing with a player in the corner. If the wing drew the defender and passed to the corner, the corner player would have an open lane to the basket. Instead, our player in the corner would take off on backdoor cuts, moving behind the defender closing out to the wing and eliminating any passing angle.

These mistakes are a combination of problems. First, we need more confidence with the ball, especially under pressure. We work on no-dribble passing drills every day to work on pivoting and passing to moving targets while under pressure. Second, we need a greater tactical understanding of where the open spot is and how to get the ball to that player. We need to understand how to exploit open space.

This is a challenge because we are unaccustomed to this process. Against man defense, we excel – we know exactly where to go and how to react. Zone defenses provide more grey areas. At this level, the ball handler generally has an A or B decision against man: (A) use the screen and go to the basket or (B) if they switch, pass to the roller. Zones complicate decision-making. Coaches cannot teach in absolutes, which is why many struggle to coach against zone defenses. Players have to be able to think and find space.

As coaches, we need to prepare players to play against zones. I start with transition, as any transition situation uses the same principles as a zone, offensively and defensively. In 3v2 and 4v3 situations, it is easier to see the openings, the space and the angles. Now as the season nears a conclusion, I want the players to see and feel the space and angles in 5v5 play just as they do in a 3v2 break. However, this takes patience and practice to develop.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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