Key teaching points for Basketball Zone Defense

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As someone who has played, studied, written about, and coached zone defense, here are some key teaching points to work into your program.  Some of these points are critical for any type of defense, but some are specific to zone play.

  • Talk-I probably do not need to elaborate on this point.  Teaching teams to talk is one of the greatest challenges in coaching.  In a zone, teammates need to be aware of cutters, screens, shot attempts
  • Defensive Stance-Zone defenses require a great deal of sliding, closing out, and bump downs.  All Five Defenders need to be moving on airtime by jumping to the ball.  If players are coming out of their stances, they must be tired and need to come out.
  • Square up the ball-Offenses often try to get players and the ball into gaps, which brings two defenders toward the ball.  The effectiveness of zone defenses will increase dramatically if one defender can be on the ball.
  • Contest all shots-There needs to be a hand up in the shooters face on every shot.
  • Close out and Run Shooters off the line-Scouting reports will identify the shooters who cannot get clean looks.  Because of defensive rotations, sometimes the defender will need to close out aggressively on the shooter and will be vulnerable to a drive.  If the close out defender cannot stop dribble penetration, they should close out in a way that forces the offense to where the closest help is located.
  • Know who is always covering the basket on each rotation-Players on the help side need to be ready to flood the lane and protect the ball.
  • Ball Pressure-A tremendous advantage of zone defense is that the on-ball defender knows where their help is located.  Unless there is a player that the scouting report says to slough off of, get in the offensive player’s bubble.
  • Active hands and feet-Because offenses tend to pass more often against zones, active hands and feet can work for deflections and to keep the ball out of the middle.  Make sure players are mirroring the ball and can kick the ball (players often use the wrap around bounce pass).
  • Teach your big middle defender to maintain defensive verticality and take charges on dribble penetration-When seams occur, dribblers can often get to the rim from the perimeter.  Because of positioning, the big man is often the helper right behind the on-ball defender.
  • Get triangular rebounding and helpside defender on the defensive backboard-One of the most common knocks is defensive rebounding out of the zone.  While always getting a body on an offensive player may be tough, securing rebounding positions in front of the rim and blocks MUST happen (with thumbs in ears to be ready to rebound).  There will often be a 1 on 2 disadvantage on the helpside block, which makes obtaining this block position much more critical.  The helpside perimeter plays needs to attack the glass to remedy this 1 on 2 disadvantage.
  • “Down” all ball screens-Because of the importance of keeping the ball out of the middle, this is a key tactic with the increased use of ball screens against zone.  The defender needs to jump to the middle and push the dribbler toward the sideline.
  • Attack the ball on the baseline and flood the lane-Offenses often look to attack zones along the baseline and short corner.

If changing to a zone defense during a game, coaches need to fight the urge to change back to a man-to-man defense if they give up a three or an offensive rebound and put back.  Offenses score against every defense, coaches need to know why the breakdown occurred and make the appropriate adjustment.

Because of my experience with zone defenses, I have come up with a defense I call the BALL MATCH UP ZONE DEFENSE.  Read more about it here.

I hope these tips will help your zone defense.  You can follow me on Twitter or email at  Thank you for reading and have a great day.


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