(English) FIBA recommends that zone defence is not allowed until players reach the age of 15. Zone defence certainly is an important aspect of basketball and young players need to be instructed in how to play zone defence.

However, to ensure the development of good offensive and defensive fundamentals, young players should first be instructed in the principles of “man to man” defence.

Zone defence is a form of team defence where each player becomes responsible for defending both an area of the court, and any opponent who may be in that area. When five players work together in a zone it can become a very formidable defence.

Zone defences are primarily designed to protect the area near the basket. This essentially means that the offensive team will be forced to take lower percentage, perimeter shots”. There are a number of common zone defence alignments, such as:

(English) 2-3 or 2-1-2

(English) 1-2-2 or 3-2

(English) 1-3-1

(English) In a zone defence one player may be responsible for guarding a number of players, or may not have anyone in their area at all. For example, the following defensive assignments would probably apply, if the defence were in zone:

  • x1 would guard 1 or 2 if they receive the ball
  • x3 would guard 3 if they receive the ball
  • x2 would guard 4 or 5 if they receive the ball
  • x4 and x5 have no particular defensive responsibility

(English) It would be particularly obvious that x4 is not guarding a specific player if 4 were to cut and x4 stayed in the same position.

We will come back to the importance of offensive movement in determining if a zone defence is being played.

(English) Where a “no zone defence” rule is applied, the onus is with the offensive team to pass the ball and move so that it is demonstrated that the defence are playing zone. The benefit of any doubt is given to the defence as the rule is not to penalize:

  • Players that make a mistake in “man to man” (for example lose sight of their opponent incorrectly “rotate”);
  • Players that are tired or lazy in playing “man to man”.

The rule is also only concerned with playing man to man principles in the quarter court (effectively the three point line). Teams can play any defence they want on the full court. Just because a player or a number of players run back to their defensive key does not make it a zone defence.

Teams may trap in the quarter court and may stay in a “zone” alignment for one pass, after which all players must resume man to man positions. For example, on the trap, 2 players are on the ball and the remaining 3 players may rotate to protect the basket. As 3 players are now guarding 4, they need to “zone” for a short time.

The Xs and Os of Proving a Zone Defence

Moving a Split Line Defender

A basic principle of man to man defence is that the closer the player you are guarding is to the ball, the closer to them you need to be. Conversely, the further away they are from the ball, the further away you can be.

(English) When players are on the weakside (opposite to the ball) a man to man defender will adopt a split line (or “help” line) position – in the middle of the court. In the diagram below, both x4 and x5 are playing on the split line.

(English) Below are some examples of situations, where it might look like the defence is playing zone, but the offence has not yet done enough to “prove” zone.

(English) When 3 has the ball, x5 can adopt a “split line” position in the middle of the key. If the ball is passed to 4, x5 can maintain this split line position.

If the ball stays on one side and 5 stays still, x5 is adhering to man-to-man principles even though they are just staying in the middle of the key.

(English) Having 5 cut from low to high can be a useful way to prove a zone. However, the timing of the cut is important. If 4 has already started to drive to the basket, x5 can rotate to help and not react to the cut by 5.

(English) Similarly, moving the ball from one side of the court to another can be effective to establish that it is a zone defence.

However, if 5 also cuts from one side to another, x5 can maintain a “split line” position in the middle of the key although x5 should make some movement in reaction to the cut (e.g. bump the cutter).

(English) To prove a defender is playing zone defence, specific movement from the offence is required. Here are some ways to do it:


Cut to the ballside

When 5 cuts to the ballside, x5 should react and cannot stay on the split line.

(English) Importantly, x5 may adopt various defensive positions, depending upon the team:

  • Behind the post (blue);
  • Fronting the post (red);
  • “Side Front” (green).

If x5 stayed on the split (black line) it would appear that the defence is playing zone.


Move to the perimeter – ballside

If the offensive player cuts to a post position, it may still be difficult to determine what defence x5 is playing as many teams guard a post player from behind.

By moving to the perimeter, x5 must leave the key – they do not have to be in a denial position, but they must be outside the key.


Cutting from low to high

Having a player cut above the foul line forces the defender to step away from in front of the basket. Although the defender may stay on the split line.

(English) If the offensive player cuts as high as the top of the circle, the defender must clearly react to the cut and would be expected to be at least at the free throw line.


Trail High in Transition

Quite commonly, a team’s centre (x5) will run to the basket once their team has lost possession. Coaches will often say that this player is playing zone defence, but that is not necessarily the case.

Particularly, if the player they are guarding also runs straight down the court into a post position, then x5 can stay in the key!

(English) However, if 5 “trails” the break and stays high then once the ball reaches the wing, x5 must move away from the basket.


Reverse the Ball

Reversing the ball from one side of the court to the other requires all defenders to move. This movement can help to identify who each defender is guarding (and whether or not they are playing a zone defence).


Pass and Cut

If the person passing the ball then makes a strong cut to the basket, it will quickly be obvious if their defender does not follow them.

Here if x1 stays at the top of the key after 1 “passes and cuts”, it would indicate x1 may be playing a zone.


Overload the Ball Side

Having players cut to the ballside, requires the defence to adjust.

For example, if x4 was to stay where they are, it would not be apparent who they were defending!