Many teams when facing a zone defence resort to shooting from the outside and this is a significant part of the reason why FIBA recommends that children do not play zone defence until the age of 14.

However, a well constructed offence against a zone should create:

  • Opportunities for penetration off the dribble;
  • Shots inside the key and both high and low post play;
  • Opportunities to shoot from the perimeter.

Below is a 1-3-1 offensive alignment that can achieve this.

Initial Alignment

The 1-3-1 alignment is commonly seen. Against a zone it is particularly important for a player to be in a baseline position – behind the zone defenders.

If defenders “ball watch” it will often provide an opportunity for 4 to cut.

On Ball Screen

The high post can set a screen for 1.

As 1 dribbles, 4 moves to the opposite corner and the strong side wing player also sinks to the corner.

The high post player steps into the key, but allow 1 room to penetrate.

Whichever side that 1 dribbles has two players and the opposite side (“weak” side) has 2 perimeter players and the high post player.

This creates opportunities for the two perimeter players to have a 2x1 opportunity against one of the “frontline” defenders (e.g. 2 and 4 against x3).

Pass to the Wing

Many zone defences will defend a pass to the wing by having a frontline player rotate. By having Player 4 move to the corner, this can now create a 2x1 situation.

5 can also seal the high post defender or cut into the key to receive a pass. If x3 has moved to the perimeter, 5 can seal x5 rather than just cutting into space.

If the ball is passed to the corner, this provides an opportunity to pass the ball to 5 as they dive to the basket, sealing either x3 (as they rotate back to the key) or x4.

Passing the ball to the corner also provides the opportunity for 4 to penetrate, in which case 5 should delay their cut.

When the ball is in the corner, 2 can also cut to the basket to receive a pass. This is particularly effective if:

  • The zone denies the pass back to the wing (x3);
  • The post player establishes a low post position.

Other zones have the guard (x2) move to defend the pass to the wing. However the same 2x1 situation can still be created by:

  • Passing to the wing
  • The baseline player moving to the opposite corner
  • “skip” passing the ball to the opposite wing

2 and 4 are in a 2x1 situation against x3.

Young players may lack the strength to throw an effective “skip pass”. Instead the ball can be reversed by passing to 1 who passes to the wing. 5 can screen the defender at the foul line to force x3 to rotate to the wing.

5 may also screen x1 to make the skip pass (if players have the strength to throw it).

A third and similar way to create the 2x1 opportunity (at any time) is for the high post player to screen the guard on the pass to the wing forcing a frontline player to rotate and defend the wing player.

Pass to the High Post

The High Post will often be defended by one of the frontline players when they receive a pass. The perimeter players should move to the corners and wing.

The zone is effectively in”man to man” now, with each player responsible for one offensive player. Anytime a player moves to “help” against the high post player, the high post player can pass to that offensive player. For example, if x3 helps, pass to 4.

Screening or Freezing Rotating Defender

Another effective tactic can be to screen the defender that would normally rotate to defend the ball.

As 3 passes to 1, a screen on x2 forces x1 to be involved - any dribble should look to penetrate past x1. If x1 commits to 1, a pass to 2 creates a 2x1. If x1 slides across to 2, 1 can penetrate into the key.

A ball screen on x2, forces x1 to defend penetration from 2.

A pass to 1, forces a rotation by x4 and a further pass to 3 would create a “scramble” as x5 rotated to the corner.

Here, x4 has a long close-out which presents an opportunity for 1 to penetrate, as well as 5 cutting (or “rolling”) to the basket after screening for 2.

1 can also pass the ball to 3 in the corner, who may have the opportunity to shoot or drive. 5 still dives to the basket.

Swing Cutters

“Reversing” the ball (passing from one side to the other) can create opportunities to penetrate or get an open shot.

Here as 2 cuts to the basket, 4 passes to 1, who reverses the ball to Player 3. Player 2 follows through to the corner.

Alternatively, 4 could pass to 2 and then “Swing” or cut through to the opposite corner. The cut is often most effective, if they pause in the key and then sprint to the corner.

There are many offences designed to be played against zone defences, and some coaches will create a specific offence for each different zone that they may encounter.

It is recommended, when coaching young people, to have an offensive approach that is more versatile and can be utilized against both zone defence and man to man.

Against Zone
Against Zone passing