Transition Defense in Basketball

Transition Defense in Basketball


Transition defense is an important part of any team defense in basketball, but it can sometimes be difficult to teach and organize. As a coach, you cannot control when it will happen, how it will happen, or how many players will be involved. You have to build daily habits with your team and hope that they can execute when presented with the situation.

At Florida International, we have some key components to our transition defense that we focus on. Hopefully, they will help you with your basketball team defense and get back in transition. 


Court Balance

A great question to ask yourself as a coach is, how many people are getting back when the shot goes up? For us, the number is two players. The point guard and shooting guard are getting back on every shot. If the one happens to shoot the ball, then the three-man will get back and vice versa. We drill this in practice to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Even when we dummy our offense, the correct people must get back after each shot.


Stopping the Ball

When a shot goes up for us, the two will sprint all the way into the backcourt. The point guard will run to just before half court. On the outlet pass, he is picking the ball handler up at the three-quarter court mark. We do not want the ball handler to get a full sprint start and believe that picking the ball up at that point on the floor will help. 


Turning the Ball Handler

We challenge our guards to turn the ball handler at least twice once they pick the ball up. The more times the ball handler is turned, the better. This allows for the other defensive players to sprint back and get set.


Keeping the Ball Handler on One Side of the Court

We also demand that our guards keep the ball handler on one side of the floor. This can be extremely difficult, but if you are going to be very good at transition defense in basketball, they must take on the challenge. If you keep the ball on one side of the floor, the players who are back can load up to help, and the last ones back can sprint to the weak side of the floor. The weak side of the floor is the longest pass and toughest one to make in this scenario.


Protecting the Basket

For us, the two-man will ideally be protecting the basket until the first big can get back. Once this happens, they are released to go back out to the perimeter. This requires great communication between the two. This leads nicely into the next point.


Matching up in Transition

Young players especially will want to run to their man and say they did their job. However, that is not the case in transition. This is where the communication habits you have instilled with your team really show. Are they talking about who is stopping the ball, who is taking the first pass, or who is protecting the basket? Every player must be talking and pointing, “A quiet team is a losing team!”



You will never execute a great transition defense in basketball if your team is not willing to give a great effort in getting back. Players must be willing to sprint back and get into a defensive position.



The transition defensive points listed above are generally for a team that has missed a shot and can have a somewhat normal court balance. As coaches, we dread being in the position defensively where we don’t have numbers because of a turnover or loose ball situation. So a great way to work on this is offensive advantage team basketball drills in practice. By doing these different basketball drills, you will prepare your team to battle in transition and help slow up the offensive attack until the rest of your defense can get set. 


3-on-2, 2-on-1

We do the 3-on-2, 2-on-1 transition basketball drill every day in practice; it is a staple of our transition defense. This is also great for both sides of the ball because it promotes taking care of the ball in transition and making good offensive reads on the run. These situations will happen in every game, so you HAVE to be willing to put the time in and practice it.

One of the big things that we work on is our stopping points. Who takes the first pass, and then what happens after that? The objective of the defense is to force as many passes as possible; this allows the rest of the team to get back in the play (if they are sprinting back).



The Fundamentals of Transition Defense in Basketball


The Fundamentals of Basketball Transition Defense

Vic Sfera contributed to this portion of the article.


“Getting back is to defense as taking care of the ball is to offense.” –Dick Bennett

I am fortunate enough to work for Coach Tony Bennett at the University of Virginia. This is a quote that I often hear Tony’s dad, legendary coach Dick Bennett, say regarding the importance of transition defense in basketball. Getting the defense back and set should be a non-negotiable and is one of the primary ways to eliminate losing (which must be done before winning can take place). As a basketball coach, this needs to be one of your primary focuses.


Keys to Basketball Transition Defense:


Value the Basketball: The best thing a team can do for its transition defense is to have “sureness” with the basketball offensively and get a high percentage shot. You cannot throw pick-sixes going the other way.


Sprint Back: As soon as the ball leaves a teammates’ fingertips for a shot, the guards who are assigned to get back on defense must fly back to the other end. The players assigned to offensive rebound must sprint back like their hair is on fire as soon as the opponent secures possession. All five guys must convert to defense as quickly as possible with little to no lag time on a turnover.


Set the Defense: Without this step, getting back will prove worthless. Build a wall around the paint…take easy baskets away first. Find and cover shooters next. Can build back out after protecting the paint.


Communication: Point and talk. Your team’s communication should be early, loud, and continuous. Communication wakes up a disengaged defender and catches mistakes before they happen.


Stop the Ball: Once we get back and set our defense (protecting the paint), we can build out to the ball. At a certain point (typically around the NBA 3pt line for us), the defender picking up the ball must engage the ball-handler and impede his progress with smart ball pressure.


Rotations: Can’t forget the weak side! The last guy back needs to sprint to the weak-side. Switch out of cross-matchups when possible. Communication is essential.


Consequences: If someone does not get back on defense when they are supposed to, there should be a consequence in store for them. Players must learn the importance of getting back and set. The bench is the most valuable disciplinarian.



Common Transition Basketball Defensive Mistakes:


Crashing the Glass When Not Assigned: Taking away easy baskets is more important than an occasional offensive rebound (fools’ gold).


“My Man:” Transition defense is about guarding their team, not a man. You don’t have a man in transition!


Gambles (Reaching or lunging): Often occurs when a player misses a shot or turns the ball over. No need for the home run play to get the ball back quickly…get back and be solid defensively.



Favorite Transition Basketball Drills:

Here are a few of my favorite basketball drills that you can use to work on your transition defense.

  • 5 on 0 to Transition Defense
  • Line Transition Drill
  • Cincinnati Transition Drill
  • “Change” to “Go” Drill

Transition Defense Drills (PDF)

When working on transition defense, your defensive basketball drills must simulate scramble and advantage/disadvantage situations!



Transition Defense in Basketball Conclusion

How efficient you are on the offensive end of the floor will determine how much time you spend playing transition defense during the course of a game. If you are making shots and executing your offense, you will most likely not have to play very much transition defense.

However, if you are struggling to shoot the ball or play against a team that really likes to run, you need to lock down in transition. Transition defense can win and lose you games. You must spend time mastering it and making sure that all of your players are on the same page when it comes to transition defense and everything else that goes into your basketball team defense.




2 Responses

  1. It is referring to a transition game where there are 3 offensive players attacking two defenders, and then immediately after the shot, the two defender become offensive players and attack the other way while the player who shot the ball (of the 3) must run back and play defense.

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