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<

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