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Playing against zone defense

By American Sport Education Program (ASEP)

Acquiring the Appropriate Knowledge
To help ensure your team’s success in playing against zone defense, you and your players must know about the following:

You and your players need to know several main rules related to playing against zone defense:


  • An offensive player cannot be in the lane for longer than 3 seconds. This rule is more crucial against the zone because offensive players tend to stand around more when playing against a zone defense.
  • An offensive player who has the ball may not dribble or hold the ball for longer than 5 seconds when being closely guarded. Offensive teammates need to be aware of this and make a flash cut to get open if the dribbler cannot get rid of the ball.
  • The offensive team must advance the ball into the frontcourt within a 10-second time limit. A full-court zone defense may make this difficult for the offense to do.
  • Help defenders who work to stop the drive must be aware of rules about charges. Offensive players driving through gaps in the zone must not charge into help defenders who have established a stationary position.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Opponents
You and your players must account for the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to know how to play against zone defense properly. Consider the following about your opponents:


  • How big is the opponent? If the defense has a size advantage, offensive players must be diligent about being quick in their attack and making crisp and accurate passes in an effort to avoid steals. Offensive players should also use more fakes to get the hands of the defenders moving in the opposite direction of their passes.
  • How quickly does the zone shift? If the zone shifts quickly from one pass to another, offensive players may want to use pass fakes to force the zone to shift without the pass. This will allow them to effectively set up their passes by getting the zone to react to the pass fake.
  • Is the opponent’s strength in the middle of the zone or on the perimeter? Offensive players should attack the weaknesses of the zone depending on what the defenders cover best. If the zone is weak in the middle or a mismatch can occur in the lane (e.g., the defender in the middle of the zone is small), the offense must be ready to take advantage of this by passing the ball into the post.

Besides being aware of your opponent’s abilities, you and your players need to know about your own team’s strengths and weaknesses. Teach your players to be aware of the following when playing against zone defense:


  • Who is your best baseline shooter? This player should work to get open for passes along the baseline because the baseline is a very good shooting area against a zone defense. A player on the baseline is often outside of the defenders’ vision, and the defenders will react more slowly to the ball if they cannot see the player at all times.
  • Are your players effective at getting into the gaps in the zone on shots? One of the best methods for getting offensive rebounds is by getting into the gaps as the shot goes up. When playing zone defense, the opponent may have a difficult time blocking out because the defenders are not responsible for a specific player.
  • Does your team have a strong inside presence with good post players? If so, this will be one advantage to getting the ball inside against a zone defense.
  • Does your team have a good perimeter shooting game? If the offense has wing players who can shoot the ball well, this will make the zone defense cover farther out than the defenders would like. Bigger gaps open up in the zone when the defenders are drawn out to cover the wing shooters.

Decision-Making Guidelines
When deciding how to gain the best advantage when playing against zone defense, you and your players should consider the previous information as well as the following guidelines:


  • If the zone shifts hard to the ball side, so that four defenders are on the same side of the court as the ball, the skip pass will be open. If this happens, offensive players should look to the opposite wing, because the defender on the help side of the floor will be covering the low-post area for a possible rebound.
  • Offensive players should be aware of which defender covers the wing when the ball gets reversed from one wing to the opposite wing. If the back defensive player who normally covers the post comes out to cover the wing player who receives the ball on the reverse pass, this will leave only two defenders to cover the post areas, and the offense should get the ball inside to the post player, who should be open on the block.
  • If the zone defense uses traps, quick ball movement is important. In many zone defenses, the defenders will trap the ball in different areas of the floor. When this occurs, the offensive player must make the pass before the trap is complete. If the ball is passed quickly—quicker than the zone defenders can move—offensive players will be open for shots.
  • Offensive players should attack gaps in the zone with the dribble to draw two defenders to the ball. This will leave one of the dribbler’s teammates open for a shot in an area vacated by one of the defenders.
  • If the defenders in the back line of the zone step up, a cutter on the baseline—usually a player who goes from ball side to ball side as the ball is passed from one wing to the other wing—should stay behind the zone so that the player is out of the defenders’ vision. When this offensive player is out of the defenders’ vision, this makes it easier for the player to get open for passes by making cuts from behind the zone to an open area.
  • The high-post area is a key to attacking the zone defense. If the offense can get the ball to the high-post area, this will put pressure on the defenders because the high-post player has many options for passes or a shot. If the ball enters the high-post area, the center defender may come out of the lane to cover the high-post area. If this happens, the offense should pass the ball to the baseline area and then into the lane area that the post defender vacated.
  • In a zone defense, the guards will sometimes come out above the three-point line to pressure the ball. This leaves the high-post area wide open for a pass. As mentioned, the high post is a very good place for the offense to get the ball because it is in the middle of the court and provides good passing angles.
  • When the ball goes into the post player, the best place for other players to spot up for a pass from the post is the wing area on either side of the floor. The defenders in a zone defense tend to help when the ball goes to the post, and this leaves the wing areas open for passes.

This is an excerpt from Coaching Basketball Technical and Tactical Skills.

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