This article was written by Basketball HQ co-founder Kyle Ohman
Whether you are like Syracuse and use a zone for the majority of your defense, or use it sparingly depending on the style of the game, it is important that you are able to master the different keys to zone defense. A well executed zone can cause a lot of problems for an offense if run correctly, but the key word is correctly.
The goal of this article is to provide you with 12 keys that you can focus on when it comes to running your zone defense. And, whether you are a first year coach just looking to get started or a veteran coach, there are some great reminders in here and maybe some areas that need to be reemphasized with your team.
The first thing that we need to get clear (and make sure that our players know) is that playing a zone does not mean you get to relax or take it easy on defense. Too many players have the mindset that in zone defense you don't have to work as hard as man to man (woman to woman), and this is just not true!
In fact most of the time you are going to have to work even harder depending on the style of the zone. So the first thing that you need to do is rid your team of the mindset that zones are a chance to "take a break" on defense. Burn into your players that this is an opportunity to compete and put some real defensive pressure on the other team.
Even if it is a soft zone it puts pressure on the other team when the shot clock is ticking low and the ball continues to pass aimlessly from player to player around the perimter before a bad shot is eventually put up.
When running a zone it can be easy for players to fall into the mindset of not fully being responsible for different defensive situations. A lot of times a good zone is going to require two players to work together to keep the ball out of the paint, take away a shooter, etc. and sometimes players can lose their sense of ownership with the situation.
In man to man there is being in the gap, help, and so on, but to certain point a player is individually responsible for making sure their man (woman) doesn't score. It is important when coaching zone defense that you get all 5 players to buy into being responsible and working together as one unit.
Every player needs to be responsible and held accountable for their job in the zone, and if something breaks down or there is a scramble it comes down to competing and fighting to get a stop. There can be no excuses are finger pointing in a great defensive zone.
No Straight Line Passes
Getting into a little bit more of the technique of executing a great zone defense, it is extremely important to take away straight line passes through the zone and even on the perimeter if possible. The only straight line passes (depending on the aggressiveness of the zone) should be out towards half court. One of my coaches in college (Liberty University) always used to say, "two straight line passes beats a zone" and that is something that has been burned into my mind.
The goal of a zone (non trapping) is to keep the ball slowly and casually moving around the perimeter until the offense puts up a contested shot. This requires that the passes be looping passes so that the defense can recover and closeout from player to player. If the ball gets entered into the post on a straight line, and then is immediately fired across the court to an open player, the defense does not have time to rotate from one side of the floor to the other. The defense must force the pass to be a looping pass so that the defender can close out while the ball is in the air.
Forcing looping passes comes down to ball pressure, defensive positioning, active hands, and rotations. All are important when it comes to forcing the offense to throw a pass over top of the zone rather than through it on a straight line.
Active hands help to prevent straight line passes, but they also offer so many other benefits to a zone defense; and guess what? It is something that every team can do regardless of size, athleticism, or skill! It is simply a conscious choice that needs to be made and then hammered into a mindset on every play.
We have all seen the difference in watching a game when the offenses is able to run their offense and it seems like they are not even worried about the defense. In these types of situations the offense carves up the defense and really there is no chance for the defense to get stops.
Contrarily to that, we have all seen when an offense is rattled and second guessing every pass and it seems like they are always a second late on making a pass or turning the ball over. THIS IS WHAT ACTIVE HANDS DOES.
It is not gambling and getting caught out of position, it is simply having active hands mirroring the ball on the passer and then active hands in the passing lanes. If you want to have a great zone defense you better be willing to preach active hands everyday and make sure that your team is doing it on every possession.
No Straight Line Penetration
Paint touches kill a defense. They kill man to man defenses and they kill zone defenses. Something that has to be pounded into your players is no straight line penetrations. This part of zone defense touches back into man to man defense because it requires an on the ball defender to square up the ball handlers and make sure that there is no way they are getting by them, and it also requires that the players next to them are in the gap discouraging penetration.
Penetration equals the same thing as a straight line pass. If a ball handler is able to get into the paint and then kick the ball out to a shooter, it is over. This equals two straight line passes and that means death to the zone. Defensive players must be able to sit down and guard the ball, and the players behind them need to be ready to stunt, recover, and rotate. All five players guarding the ball together as one unit.
Don't Get Screened
Screens create havoc against a zone defense. Unless you are purposely bumping off an offensive player to another defender in the zone, you don't ever want to allow yourself to get screened or sealed in. There are all kinds of different screens that the offense will use against a zone, but the most common ones are ball screens and seal in screens.
Ball screens are used to try and create a numbers disadvantage at the top of the key or wing area for the top defenders. The goal of the offense is to find a corner to turn or force a defender to step up to take the drive and then swing the ball around the key till an open player is found. Guarding ball screens in a zone comes down to communication and being able to bump and rotate as a unit.
It is up to you on strategy when it comes to guarding the initial ball screen. If the ball handler is a poor shooter you can go under and it saves you a huge headache. However, if the ball handler is a shooter you pretty much have two choices. You can either fight over top of the screen and have the next defender in line show until the defender can get back in position to guard the ball, or you can bump the offensive player off to the next defender.
Seal in screens are a great offensive weapon to use against a zone defense, and it is something that takes a lot of communication and defensive fluidity to maneuver. What the offense is going to try and do is get the ball moving to one side of the floor, maybe have a couple of cutting actions, and then have the ball swing quickly to the other side of the floor where a post player will be trying to seal in the bottom defender so that a shooter is open for a shot. Sometimes this comes in the form of a baseline runner that runs back and forth across the baseline as the ball moves while having two post players try to screen in the bottom defenders.
There are two big keys to guarding these types of screening actions. The first is DON'T GET SCREENED IN, and the second which is equally as important is, DON'T LEAVE EARLY. Obviously it makes sense to not get screened in and give up an open shot for a shooter, but why not wait out there for them? The reason why is because it leaves the middle defender exposed.
If the bottom outside defender leaves too early, the bottom screener will be open for an entry pass or deep duck in and there is nothing the middle defender can do. The best thing to do as a bottom outside defender is sit on top of the bottom screener and then leave when the ball is in the air. Don't move until the ball is in the air, this goes back to making the offense throw looping passes.
If the bottom screener starts to get too high, you are going to want to rotate down behind them, but make sure that you are able to fight through the screen when the pass is in the air.
Nothing and I mean NOTHING in a zone defense works without communication and having everyone on the same page. Communication is something that every great defense maximizes. Every player on the court should be communicating at all times. Whether it is calling out being on the ball, being in the gap, calling out a cutter, calling out a screen, etc. it needs to be clear and efficient communication.
Every player should be loud, but the absolute loudest and most important communicator needs to be the bottom defender. They are able to see everything that is going on and are the anchor of the defense. This is an important position in the zone and they need to lead the defense and help make it easier for the other defenders on the perimeter.
Regardless of the type of zone that you run it is important that all five players are working as one unit and moving together and rotating. If not, there will be breakdowns that lead to straight line passes and straight line drives, and as we already know this equals death for a zone. Players need to know where each defender is going to be and what everyone's responsibility is in every situation.
This comes down to first having the correct game plan put together for each type of offensive action that your zone may encounter, and then secondly drilling and practicing it until it is communicated and ran smoothly every time.
Whether it is when a player should bump over, who is picking up the ball, what to do on a ball screen, scouting report defense on a specific player, etc. it is important that every defender knows what is required of them in every sittuation. Once they know what is required, you are able to hold them accountable.
No Free Cuts
One of the best ways to score against a zone defense is player movement. If you get the zone defense shifting and having to rotate because of hard cuts as an offense you are usually going to end up with something pretty good. So it makes sense as a zone defense to make sure that there are no free cuts through the zone. Defensive players need to legally block cutting angles and force the cutter to go above or behind (depending on what the defender wants them to do).
This will not only help take away scoring cuts to the basket, but it will also disrupt the timing of ball movement. If you can force the cutter off of their intended cut, the passer will be stuck waiting for them to get free to receive the ball. This allows for the whole defense to be able to already be in position. It is extremely important that you do not allow free cuts through the zone.
Finish the Play
This goes for any defense that you may play, but when it comes to zone defense it becomes a little bit more tricky because each player doesn't have a specific offensive player to box out. Zone defenses sometimes fall into the trap of turning and watching as the shot goes up, and this spells disaster for finishing the play with a defensive rebound. So make sure that each of your players knows their responsibility when it comes to rebounding out of the zone.
If you look at the numbers, most misses from the wing tend to bounce long off of the rim. So maybe you will want to send extra players to the weak side to rebound. Another great idea is having the point guard cover the nail hole (the nail that is in the center of the free throw line on every wood court) and grab any long rebounds that bounce out to the free throw line.
Whatever your rebounding strategy is, make sure that everyone on the team knows what they are supposed to be doing, and then make sure they are competing their tails off on the boards.
Not all zones are going to be used for the same reason. Some zones are used to slow down the offense, and some are used to speed them up with trapping and gambling. It is important that you and your team know exactly what you are trying to accomplish with each zone that you are running. You don't want one player out gambling in passing lanes while the rest are playing a soft zone. Every player needs to be on the same page and know exactly what you are trying to accomplish.
A great thing about zone strategy is that if you have put in the time developing it in practice you can change up different rules about the zone. For example, you could play a soft zone for 3 or 4 possessions and then give some kind of signal to your team that they are going to trap on the first penetrating pass or when the ball crosses half court. This allows for organized gambles that usually can come up with a couple of turnovers a game, and also keep the offense guessing.
The better coached your team is the more changing you will be able to do when it comes to strategy. It is important that you make sure your team is well drilled though on everything you are trying to run, or it will lead to breakdowns and easy offensive buckets.
Anticipating Verse Reacting
There are a lot of important keys when it comes to running an effective zone, but anticipation has to be up there near the top for sure. In fact, it is usually the difference between getting stops and always being a half second late on a rotation and giving up an open shot.
Players need to understand exactly what their job is in the zone without any doubt. Once they are able to do this, then they are able to start anticipating what the offense is doing. However, if players are always worrying about being in the right position, where to rotate, etc. they will always be reacting to the offense and will always be too slow.
Teach your players to be thinkers while they are playing zone defense and you will see a difference as much as night and day. You only are able to do this once your players are confident in themselves and where they should be in every situation of zone defense.
Outside of the NBA where there is defensive 3 seconds and zone is pretty much non existent, I believe that every team should have a zone defense in their arsenal. Even if it is just used to throw a different look at the other team when they are on an offensive roll, it is important to have something. Hopefully these keys will help you run your zone and maximize its defensive impact.