A discussion of skill development with Stan Van Gundy

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What volleyball can teach us about zone defense

I play in a men’s league where virtually all of the teams, including mine, play zone defense. I never played zone defense at any level, as I played for strict man2man coaches. Also, this league isn’t very good. However, I noticed something when I entered the game for the first time. Our defense changed. Read more

The Zone Defense Myth

I am not a zone-defense coach, but I have defended zone defense several times (here, here, and here) because there are so many misconceptions about basketball and the way that the game is taught.

One criticism of zone defenses is that players ball-watch, whereas in man defense, players learn to watch the ball and the man.

I watched a college game tonight, and this argument is inaccurate. Players in a good zone defense constantly look and talk to make sure that their teammates are aware of the offensive players. In good man defenses, the players talk and see cutters too.

The issue is not man-defense vs. zone-defense, but good defense vs. bad defense or well-taught defense vs. poorly-taught defense.

Zone defense itself is not a culprit of ball watching, as good zone defenders are aware of cutters. Instead, it is poorly-taught defense.

However, perception is greater than reality. When we evaluate different aspects of basketball, we need more diligence. Rather than worry about man or zone, we need to encourage well-taught defensive fundamentals.

Player Development and Zone Defense in Summer Basketball

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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

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<

Is Zone Defense Bad for Youth Basketball?

Today I watched a video that vilified zone defenses and presses in youth basketball. Now, I am a man-to-man coach and played in man-to-man defense only leagues when I was young. However, as long as zone defenses are legal, I do not see why youth leagues should prohibit them or why coaches should be discouraged from employing them.

Before getting too deep into the argument, I suppose that I should frame the age groups. The video mentioned that zones should not be used before high school. Therefore, our conversation centers on u14s. Now, I do not even believe that players need to play organized basketball until they are 8 or 9. When players begin organized basketball, I believe that they should play 3v3 games, not 5v5 (more on this below), which is why I created the Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues. I do not see a need for 5v5 games until players are 10 years old or older, so the argument of zones or no zones has to do with the 10-14 year-old age group.

What is the argument against zones and presses?

Generally, coaches feel that zones and presses are lazy. Coaches imagine other coaches stationing five players in the key to force jump shots and protect the basket. Of course, this happens. I have heard of coaches who play a 2-3 zone defense and literally tell the bottom three defenders to stand on the block, in the middle of the key and on the block, respectively, and not to move. To prevent this type of lazy coaching, coaches vilify all zone defenses.

Of course, I also know coaches who play man-to-man defense and tell 1-2 players not to worry about their players (the weaker players) and concentrate solely on help defense. However, nobody suggests outlawing man defense because of this type of over-competitiveness.

Coaches believe that teams who play zone defense force young, unskilled players into outside shots which they cannot make consistently. They believe that presses benefit the biggest, strongest players who overwhelm young players who lack the strength to exploit the entire court.

To me, the answer is not to outlaw zone defenses. How does ignoring the problem (inconsistent shooting, lack of strength, lack of passing under pressure) help anyone?

The problem is one of spacing, which is easily fixed by reducing the number of players on the court. In top European soccer academies, players do not play full 11v11 games until they are 11 or 12-years-old. They start with small-sided games using a smaller field to encourage more touches for each player and to make the game more manageable.

In basketball, when a team employs a zone defense and packs in the defense against a youth team, it condenses the space. The offense cannot use the entire width of the court; well, it can use the entire width, but due to a lack of skill, the defense does not play the entire width. Of course, a team can do the same with man-to-man defense as well: if the coach knows that nobody on the opposition can shoot a three-pointer, his defender can back off several feet and play the passing lanes.

The answer is not strategy, but structure. Fewer players on the court opens more space for players to practice their skills. Fewer players on the court means more touches for each player.

The same is true for a press. Presses work against younger teams because players lack the strength to throw over top of the press. Therefore, the defense can shrink the court and put all five defenders in the back court. Of course, a team can do the same thing with a man defense too, especially with the press breaks that most teams employ. If using fewer players, there is plenty of space for offensive players, and the press cannot condense to space or overwhelm the offensive players.

Why is the argument against zones just semantics?

One cannot play good man-to-man team defense with understanding zone principles and one cannot play good zone defense without understanding man-to-man principles. For this reason, no youth teams play really good team defense.

Let’s look at a generic 2-3 zone defense (played well) versus a good man-to-man defense:

2-3 Zone

This is a very generic defense and a very generic play. However, in a basic 1-3-1 set against a 2-3 zone, the point passes to the wing and cuts to the corner. One of the top defenders (O1) takes the ball and the other (O2) takes the high post. The bottom outside defender (O3) takes the corner, the middle defender (O5) fronts the low post and the weak-side baseline defender (o4) helps in the middle of the key.

Man Defense

In the man-to-man example, the offense starts in the same 1-3-1 set and runs the point to the corner to create a strong-side triangle. The defense defends in the same manner as above, except different defenders defend different positions. O2 takes the wing; O1 follows the point to the corner; O4 fronts the low post; O5 takes the high post; and O3 helps in the middle of the key.

The basic difference between man-to-man and zone defenses is the way that the defense defends cutters (with or without screens). In man-to-man defense, defenders deny and follow cutters to a point and then deny or play help-side defense; in zone defenses, defenders follow and release the cutter to the next defender and then recover to their zone.

However, strong-side defense and weak-side defense remain largely the same. On the strong-side, someone defends the ball and a defender is responsible for a quick closeout to any perimeter players, while a defender typically denies any penetrating pass into the post (low or high), though some zones at the college level are designed to force mid-range jump shots, so they do not cover the high post too closely and concentrate more on the three-point line and low post, like many college man-to-man defenses.  On the weak-side, the defenders play with one foot in the key, two feet in the key or on the mid-line, depending on the amount of help defense.

Therefore, when the ball is passed to the wing, a player has essentially the same amount of time and space to execute a move against a good man-to-man defense as against a good zone defense.

Obviously, man and zone defenses and offenses can be far more complicated. However, if the argument is that the players are young, unskilled and inexperienced, would they be doing anything more than the most rudimentary cuts and rotations in man or zone? If a team has a sophisticated man or zone defense or offense with an u11 team, the coach probably is spending far too much time on strategy and not enough time developing general individual and team skills. Therefore, again, the problem is not zone vs. man, but strategy vs. skill development.

If man-to-man and zone defenses are so similar, what is the argument?

When coaches argue against zone defenses and presses at young ages, they make two arguments:

1) They argue against poorly taught or lazy defense, and they blame zones for this.

2) They argue against exploiting unskilled players.

Prohibiting zone defenses does not fix either of these problems. In fact, prohibiting zones could exacerbate the second problem. If zones are prohibited, it is tough to play good help defense. My team when I was young was often called for violations because we played help defense with a foot in the key, as most high school coaches teach. But, if outlawing zone defense, how do you differentiate between good help defense and zone defense?

Therefore, if you prohibit good help defense in the name of outlawing zone defense, the biggest, strongest player has a better opportunity to dominate single-handedly. The best player dribbles the ball up the court, beats his own defender and other help defenders are hamstrung or late because they are a step too far out of position because of the anti-zone defense rule. Therefore, he gets to the basket with ease and scores. On defense, it is easy to put the biggest, strongest player on the ball, teach the wings to deny everything hard and easily exploit weaker, unskilled players with man-to-man pressure.

As for the first problem, their issue is not with zones but poor teaching. I am also against poor teaching. However, I think that man defense can be as overwhelming and poorly taught as zones.

To fix these issues, we need to do two things:

1) Employ more age-appropriate games for young players;

2) Examine teaching methods of zone and man defenses without viewing zones as a four-letter word.

In the first case, if players are unskilled or lack the strength to play against a zone defense, they probably lack the skill and strength to play against man defense as well. The problem is not the defense, but the space. Young, inexperienced and unskilled players need more space and time to execute their skills. Therefore, these players should not play 5v5 leagues, regardless of the defense. Criticizing zones does not get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is a need to create more space and time for players and to get each player more touches so that every player can develop his skills so he has confidence when he moves to a 5v5 game, regardless of defense.

In the second case, we need those who oversee leagues to act more in a role of “coaching the coaches” than just administrating. League directors should assist coaches and encourage good teaching techniques. Zone defense is not the enemy – poor teaching is the enemy. We need to remember the difference. It is possible to play great zone defense and teach players many useful skills that they can transfer from season to season regardless of the defense that their next coach employs.

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

Creating a Defensive Strategy or Principles

I never played on a team that played zone defense, and I developed with the mindset that teams only play zone defense if they do not think that they can guard the opponent man-to-man.

However, as I began to coach, I realized that man-defense and zone-defense are very similar. When I coached in a professional women’s league in Sweden, we upset one of the top-ranked teams in the last game before the All-Star teams were announced. The Swedish National Team coach was in attendance. Our opponent had four players who were likely to make the All-Star Game (one played at LSU and the other at Miami). We won by 20+ points and held them below 50 points (averaged over 70ppg). After the game, their coach told them that their performance cost them an All-Star selection. Actually, it probably cost them one spot, as we received two selections, and they had three players represented even though we swept them on the season by double-digits in both games.

At the All-Star Game (I was the Head Coach and these players were on my team), we went out to dinner on the night before the game and the players asked me what type of defense we played against them. They guessed that it was a triangle-and-two and then a 2-3-zone. We played man-to-man defense. However, to me, every good man defense is a zone defense, and every good zone defense is a man defense.

At that level, I scouted opponents and game-planned our defense to take away our opponents’ strengths. That was our second time facing them, and we always defended better in the second game because I had a chance to scout based on the first game, whereas I did not always get to see an opponent live or on tape before our first meeting. Against this team, we fronted their strong post player and sagged off their forward who was not an outside shooting threat. They typically had a strong-side triangle or high-low involving their three best players, so we defended those three tightly and used the other two to play lots of help defense, daring their two weaker players to shoot.

At the high school level, my strategy is far more general. This season, rather than starting with specifics of rotations and movements and slides, I started with a general philosophy: force low-percentage shots.

When I played, we never had a general philosophy. The unstated goal, of course, was not to allow the opponent to score. During my J.V. season, our coach’s goal was 50 points allowed, and we ran a sprint for every point over 50 that we allowed.

There is no defense to prevent the opponent from shooting or to generate a steal on every possession. Therefore, as a coach, I am conceding that our opponent will shoot. My goal defensively is to dictate where the shots are taken.

To force low-percentage shots, we strove to do three things: prevent lay-ups, limit free throws and eliminate catch-and-shoot three-pointers. We never practiced weak-side rotations. However, we practiced contesting a lay-up in transition without fouling. We did not practice a traditional closeout; however, we practiced running at a shooter and forcing the drive.

While we defended a man, we really defended areas of the court. We defended the paint, meaning that off-ball defenders were prepared to help if someone had a lane to the basket even though we never worked on the proper rotations or the exact spot to stand (we never did the shell drill in the entire season). We defended the lane to the basket.

On the ball, the first goal was to eliminate the catch-and-shoot three-pointer, even if it meant giving up the drive. If our on-ball defender had good defensive position, she played the lane to the basket, not just the player. If the offensive player started to drive, our defender’s goal was not to stop her on her first dribble, but to keep her out of the paint. These are different goals.

If the opponent took one hard dribble and stopped for a 16-foot pull-up jump shot, we played good defense. We believed that a team could not beat us with two-point jump shots because we would make a couple three-pointers and shoot a lot of free throws. Even a good shooting team (50%) from the mid-range area would not beat us without making some three-pointers and free throws.

All of these thoughts and strategies crystallized as I played in my 4v4 men’s league game last night. We play a 2-2 zone and as experienced players, we rotate and cover the ground pretty well. We were playing a bigger, slower team and we started off slowly, as they passed the ball around the perimeter and into the high post and forced us to chase.

Rather than allow them to walk the ball up court, I extended into the back court. I did not guard the man, but I guarded a lane. I forced the ball away from the area of the court that I left open. If they tried to pass over my head, I forced a lob pass, which gave me time to recover, or I stole the pass. By extending the defense, we gave up some open shots. However, these shots were typically runners from 15-feet or angled 18-foot jump shots. More important, these shots were taken when we had 3-4 defenders, while they had 2-3 offensive players.

On the first couple possessions, we gave up several offensive rebounds that led to most of their early points. Once we extended the defense, their rebounds diminished. While it appeared that we gave up open shots, we created advantages for our defense. They took hurried 18-foot jump shots which increased the pace (our advantage) and limited their offensive rebound opportunities. Sure, they made a couple jump shots, but they were the shots that we (I) could live with because they shot a low percentage and we easily compensated for the made shots with a couple steals for lay-ups.

Most coaches spend a lot of time on specifics with the approach to eliminate all shots or create turnovers on every possession. However, what if you do not create the turnover? What if the other team gets open shots? Are they the shots that you want to give up or the shots that they want to take? Do your players know the difference? Do your players know your defensive philosophy? Is the philosophy realistic?

When creating a defensive strategy, you cannot plan only for the best possible outcome (steal for a breakaway lay-up) but also have to plan for the worst possible outcome (2v1 fast break vs a press or an open shot vs a half-court defense). When your players know how to react in these situations and defend with a purpose, then you have a tough defensive team regardless of the original strategy (man, zone, press).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League<

Zone Defense and Player Development

Many coaches feel that youth teams should not be allowed to play zone defense. They believe that man-to-man defense increases player development. The perception is that zones are lazy.

It is true that zones can take advantage of young players’ lack of strength to shoot three-pointers and throw skip passes. However, for players this young, I advocate 3v3 play, rather than full-court 5v5 games.

As for player development, I do not understand the dislike of zones. I do not spend a lot of time with help defense and rotations with my high school team. Instead, I use general directions: no shots close to the basket and no wide open, catch-and-shoot three-pointers.

However, as I played in a 4v4 men’s league tonight (and played zone because one of our players was sore from painting his house all day), I realized that any team that can play a four-man zone understands help defense and rotations. As we talked about the game afterward, we were surprised at how well we rotated and covered for each other. We played with awareness and talked on defense.

If players practice in 4v4 or 5v4 situations, and play zone defense, they practice the same type of defensive rotations required to play great team defense. They develop help-defense skills and learn to help and rotate in a live situation rather than memorizing certain rotations in a shell drill and trying to apply those lessons to a game situation.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching,
Playmakers Basketball Development League

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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