There are a number of alignments that can be used in zone defence, however, it is recommended that players are initially taught a 2-1-2 or 2-3 alignment. The reasons for preferring these alignments are:

1. They are very simple and players can learn the basic movements (“zone slides”) quickly;

2. They have the same structure (four outside players) as is recommended for developing “man to man” defence, and is also used in teaching “motion offence”;

3. They are the most common alignments used by teams.

Key Points

When zone defence is introduced, players must understand that playing according to this strategy does not mean making less effort or having less individual responsibility. Unfortunately, many teams are poorly instructed in zone defence which results in less effort from team members.

The role of the coach is to teach the basic movements (“slides”) of the zone and to clearly point out the specific responsibilities for each position within the zone defence. Each player should understand the principles for each position.

In whatever zone defence a coach wants to use, the coach must clearly point out:

  • Who defends the player with the ball (and what are the movements of defenders on each pass);
  • Who is responsible to stop penetration by the dribbler;
  • When do players “help and recover” and when do they “help”;
  • What rotation is made when a player “helps” – who “helps the helper”;
  • Who is responsible for stopping passes into the keyway;
  • Who to “box out” – given that they do not have a direct individual opponent.

These questions also need to be answered in relation to “man to man” defence, although some are answered simply because players have direct opponents.

Initial Alignment

The guards at the front of the zone must determine who will pick up the ball. Here, x1 defends the ball. Whichever forward is behind the defender guarding the ball must also move slightly forward, since the likelihood is that if the ball is passed to their side the forward will need to move to the ball.

The coach should determine the “pick up line”, which determines whether it is the guard (from the front of the zone) or the forward (from the rear of the zone) should defend a perimeter player that has the ball.

4 receives the ball above the “pick up line”, x2 moves to defend them. x1 rotates back to the foul line and must deny any pass to a high post player.

Because 2 is above the “pick up line”, it is the responsibility of x1 to defend them when they have the ball. However, with x1 defending the ball, it is a long close-out for them to move to defend 2 as the ball is passed.

Accordingly, x3 initially rotates to defend 2 and as they move to the wing, x5 “helps the helper” and moves toward 5 who is in the low post. This is why x3 “hedged” toward the wing when x1 first moved to defend 1.

However, once x1 gets to the wing, x3 moves back to their position as does x4 and x5.

x2 also moves across the keyway to stop any pass to the high post.

x3 and x1 could double team the wing if they wish. x2 and x5 are in help positions – denying any passes into the keyway.

When the ball is with a perimeter player below the imaginary line, the forward defends the ball and other players balance – generally, with two players on the side of the keyway and two players on the “split line”.

x1 denies a pass to the high post.

x5 could front the low post player, subject to the team’s defensive scheme.

When the ball is passed back to the guard, it may be defended:

If the back defender (x3) was guarding the perimeter player, then the front defender (x1) defends the ball;

If the front defender (x1) is defending the wing, then the other front defender (x2) moves to guard the ball. In this situation, the front defenders may swap sides.

Other key principles for the zone defence:

  • Defenders must learn to anticipate the next offensive pass, and move as soon as the ball leaves the hands of the passer to get to their next position as the ball is caught (this is the same in “man to man” defence);
  • Defenders must keep sight of both the player with the ball as well as the offensive player who might be their next responsibility;
  • Defenders should keep their arms “ up and active” to interfere with the “passing lanes”;
  • “It’s only wrong if you don’t bring your team mates along”! Regardless of zone movements taught by the coach, and whether or not they are executed correctly – if the players communicate to their team mates what they are doing, the zone can continue to be effective by moving in a coordinated fashion;
  • When a shot is taken, each player must look and find an opponent to “box out”;
  • As a general principle, whoever is closest to the ball moves to guard it;
  • Defender’s should “front” any low post player that is on the ball side.

Practicing Movements of Zone Defence

Players 2 and 3 move above and below the “pick up line”, however they cannot shoot or dribble if below the line (as the guards would not have responsibility to guard them).

Offence must have at least 4 passes before shooting.

Player 4 must stay above the “pick up line”, and one of the defenders must be in a position to interfere with any attempted pass.

The two defenders move as per their zone responsibilities. When the ball is below the “pick up line”, the defenders do not defend it, but move to their required position.

The offence cannot score from below the “pick up line”.

The activity can then be done with the four “outside” defenders working together to defend the ball.

Initially, the offence score if they get the ball into the keyway (either by pass or dribble penetration). Progress to fully contested.

Defending Penetration

On any dribble penetration, whoever is the closest defender rotates to stop that penetration.

Here x2 rotates to stop the dribbler. On a pass to 3, x4 initially rotates to defend even though 3 is above the “pick up line” and should be defended by either x2 or x1.

As x2 is defending the dribbler, x1 rotates across to 3, pushing x4 back down.

Defending Post Players

A pass to a high post player (Player 4) must be pressured by either x1 or x2. They do not have to fully front, but should at least have an arm in front of the post player.

x3 moves to deny any pass to the low post player, which is important to ensure that x3 can rotate to the perimeter as required.

Avoiding Screens

A common offensive tactic against a zone defence is to screen the “outside” of the zone.

Defenders should adjust their position so that they can move past any screen, before the ball is passed.

Another key is for the “weak-side” defenders to keep vision of both the ball and any players that are in their area of the court.

This is best achieved by adopting an “open stance” as when playing “man to man” defence.

Half Court Zone Defend Penetration
Half Court Zone Defend Dribble