Written by Dymetrius Ware

I had a conversation with a coach who told me he hated zone defense.  He felt it was a lazy man’s way of coaching.  He continued saying, “He had never coached or played for a zone defensive team, as well.”  In this short article, I’m hoping to convince those who don’t play zones defense, as part of their defensive make up, why they should consider it.

Now before I begin this endeavor, I must emphasize one important aspect of my zone philosophy.

I don’t support playing zone for grade school and middle school basketball programs.

I feel teaching basic man-to-man defense is the best way to develop young ballplayers. I must confess I have always tried to find more than one way to solve a problem, it’s in my DNA. So when I started coaching little league basketball for the church my wife and in-laws attended – already had 10 years coaching little league baseball – I wanted to play man-to-man. After a couple of practices, I notice my team was going to be playing at a disadvantage. We were slow and not very good, most of the teams we were going to play were a little faster and had better ball-handlers than my team. I did have a couple of players who were big for their size and one quick guard. This leads to the first of three persuasive reasons why you should and always have at least one zone defense in your toolbox.

1. Zone Defense Gives You Another Tool

Like any good plumber, you should always have the right tools to get the job done. This requires you to have more than one way to solve a problem. Which may require a different type of thinking than you have used in the past.

Zone defense give you another tool in your tool box to use against your opponents.  

There are multiple types of zone defenses in basketball. Please indulge me for those who already know what a zone is; I don’t want to assume, especially young coaches just getting their foot wet in the game. Each defensive player is given an area (“zone”) to cover within the half court or full court, not a person. The most common zone you will see is the 2-3 zone. This defense deploys two guards up-front and three defenders in the back.


Zone defenses:

  1. It can make scoring very difficult for a team that does not have high-percentage shooting from the field.
  2. It can allow you to be more aggressive in a confined space or within a given area on the floor.
  3. If played correctly it will stop dribble drive penetration, which in my opinion is the most dangerous aspect of a good offensive basketball team.
  4. The one thing that most young coaches don’t think about is how it will help protect their players from foul trouble. Especially, if you have a very short bench.

With different types of zones, you can use quick athletes or you can use slower athletes as well. I love to play a 3-2 zone when I have teams with two or more bigs or active wing players. Finally, it has the advantage of slowing the game down as well, forcing the offense to move the ball constantly, which can use time off the shooting clock or game clock.

2. Opponents Have to Use Time to Prepare in Practice

There are so many tools a coach has at his or her disposal. In today’s game, you have video, you have traveling scouts, you have local television, cable television, video scouting services.

When a team is preparing to play you and they know you only play one type of defense – in my mind – this gives your opponent a slight advantage. The coach has to work on attacking only one aspect of your game. If your team is just a man-to-man team, the week or two times opponents have to practice will be used preparing to attack that one system. I would suggest most team are used to playing man-to-man in practices. However, if you run multiple defenses, some man, some 2-3 zone, sprinkle in some 1-3-1 zone as well; the opposing coach now has to use more time in practices for a defensive system you may or may not use. No coach wants to look like they have not prepared their team.

In one of my experiences coaching college, I played a team a few years ago and we knew going into the game we would “Box & 1” them the entire game. A very good team, yet the best player was their point guard and top 3-point shooter.  The head coach had not even thought about the possibility of doing this.  During the game coach made some in-game adjustments, in the end we won with the coach and the team looking unprepared. Guess what? Two weeks later, we are preparing for the second game. I knew the coach would make some adjustments and be ready for us; we would not surprise them in the return game. Nope! No adjustment, and yes, we won!

3. Give Your Opponent Something to Worry About

The third and most important reason you should consider using zones in your game plan.  

We play the games to win!

Like any good General, you need to have options that will lead you to victory. Options allow you to confuse your opponents by giving them different types of looks. Zones provide that unknown, such as after a timeout. Zones allow you to keep playing your best player who has 3 or 4 fouls with less than 5 minutes left in the contest. You have so many options when dispatching a zone during a game: you can trap at the top of the key, you can trap in the corners, you can extend the zone full-court, or even three-quarter court. It is reasonable to believe that any strategy that helps in securing a victory for your team should and would be deployed.In closing teaching and using zones requires that you teach the fundamentals of man-to-man defense first. The proper way to closeout. How to force the ball handler to the baseline, in some cases how to force them to the middle. How to go over and under screens. By incorporating zones into your defensive playbook it does not take away from your man concepts; it builds on those concepts to give you an advantage for the reason we play the game, victory!



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