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Basketball Offense - Zone Offense

By Dr. James Gels, from the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook... lots of great basketball stuff. Come on - join today.
Zone defenses create special problems for the offense. Plays and sets designed to be successful against man-to-man coverage often run into problems against zones. You must have a "zone offense(s)" in your offensive arsenal to counteract zone defenses. We use two zone offenses, called "zone 1" and "zone 2". These are designed to be used against a zone with a two-guard defensive front ("zone 1"), and a zone with a one-guard defensive front ("zone 2").

General pointers in attacking any zone defense.

1. Beat the defense up the floor.

If it is your team's offensive style, fast-break and push the ball up the floor as quickly as possible, before the defensive zone can get set.

2. Full-court press on defense

This favors a "transition type", wide-open, up-tempo game. A slow-down, half-court game allows the zone defense to be more effective.

3. Analyze the zone

What kind of zone set are you facing, 2-3, 1-2-2, etc? Then set your offense accordingly.

If the defense shows a two-guard front (e.g. 2-1-2 or 2-3 zone), use a one-guard set, with a point guard, in order to "split" the two outside defenders.

Example sets to use are: 1-3-1, 1-2-2, "3-out, 2-in", or 1-4 offense. See Diagram A. See 2-3 Zone Offense.

zone offense, vs a 2-guard defensive front zone offense, vs a 1-guard defensive front

Just the opposite applies if the defense shows a one-guard front (e.g. 1-3-1, or 1-2-2 zone). In this case, use a two-guard set to "flank" the single outside defender.

Example sets to use are: 2-1-2, 2-3, 2-2-1, 4-out 1-in offense. See Diagram B.
See 1-2-2 Zone Offense and 1-3-1 Zone Offense.

Watch to see if the defense keeps switching its defensive set, and be ready to call out your offensive counter-move from the bench. Some defenses will keep changing on you, and you can't call a time-out every time!

Fran Fraschilla discusses recognizing zones (from his DVD "AAU Coaching Boys Basketball Series: Zone Offense and Specials":

4. Patience

Be patient on offense, but take the first open, good percentage shot. Make sure your best shooters are getting their shots. It's always easy to just settle for outside shots against zones. But you still must get the ball inside. We have a rule that (except in transition), before any outside shot goes up, we must have one post touch first (either low or high post).

5. Offensive rebounding

Crash the offensive boards as a zone defense often does not have clear-cut box-out assignments, and extra, high-percentage shots can be gotten off the offensive rebound.

6. Maintain good spacing

Stretch the zone with a pass to a wing or corner, and then skip pass to the opposite side. Don't get "bunched up" Players should move into the gaps and passing lanes in the zone (see Diagram C). "Overload" zones by flooding areas of the zone with more offensive players than it can cover.

7. Attack the gaps, but avoid unnecessary dribbling

Unnecessary dribbling allows the defense time to adjust or reset. However, guards and wings should look to dribble-penetrate the gaps in the zone (Diagram C), and look to dish off inside.

zone offense, attacking the gaps

Another good option is the "penetrate and pitch back"... when someone dribble-penetrates, the next perimeter player over rotates into the spot vacated by the dribbler. Now, as the dribbler sucks that perimeter defender inside, he/she can stop, pivot and pass back out to where he/she came from, which will be wide open for the 3-point shot.

8. You must get the ball inside

Get the ball inside for high-percentage shots. It's OK to take the outside jumper or three-pointer, but don't settle for the outside shot on every possession (see pointer #4 above). You must find a way to get inside to be successful. You must be able to get those important "points in the paint".

Having success inside will cause problems for the defense, may result in their getting into foul trouble, and will open up your outside shot when the defense collapses inside. When the ball goes inside, if it is well-defended, go "inside-out" with a quick pass out for a wide-open three-pointer.

9. Use crisp passing

And use the "skip" pass from corner to opposite wing, and wing to opposite corner. Look for the lob pass to the baseline and back-door. Passers should use ball-fakes, where they fake a shot or fake an overhead pass in one direction to get the zone to move, then pass in the opposite direction. Reverse the ball from side to side a few times and the zone often falls apart and gets out of position.

10. Screen the zone

Set screens against the zone, both inside and outside. Players should make cuts into the open areas, and look to the weak-side, or "back-door". You can design and use set plays against zones (2-3 Zone Offense Plays), often taking advantage of screening either the backside of the zone (followed by a skip pass), or screening inside.

I like the "pin and skip"... e.g. vs the 2-3 zone, using a 1-3-1 set, we get the ball to a wing. Then the baseline post player, instead of cutting to the ball-side, stays opposite and back-screens (pin-screens) the weakside low defender, as the ball is skip-passed over from the wing to the weakside corner for a wide open 3-pointer. If the low outside defender slips around the screen and runs to the ball, a quick pass inside to the post is usually there. See "Screening the Zone".

11. Triple-threat position on the perimeter

Make sure your players receive the ball in "triple-threat" position, ready to shoot, look inside and pass, or penetrate. Don't allow perimeter players the bad habit of catching and dribbling. Unless there is a gap for a quick attack to the hoop, players should receive the pass in triple-threat position.

12. One last strategy:

If you have the lead and the opponent switches to zone defense, and if you are not confident that you can beat their zone, you can refuse to play against it. Instead, you go into a "4-corners" delay offense. Since you have the lead, they will have to eventually come out a play you man-to-man. Of course, this strategy won't work if there is an offensive shot clock rule. Also, if your forte is a fast-breaking style, going to a delay game may be the worst thing you can do!

For specific offenses against specific zone defenses see the following pages:

Helpful DVD's

Bob Knight: Encyclopedia of Zone Offense

Bob Knight: Encyclopedia of Zone Offense
with Bob Knight, former head coach at Texas Tech and Indiana University; 4X National Coach of the Year.

Price: $119.99

Coach Izzo teaches his 1-3-1 set for attacking zone defenses

Tom Izzo: The 1-3-1 Zone Offense
with Tom Izzo, Michigan State University Men's Basketball Head Coach.
Price: $39.99

Coach Self teaches how to attack zone defenses

Bill Self: "Basic" and "Motion" 3-Out 2-In Zone Offenses
with Bill Self, University of Kansas Head Coach.
Price: $39.99

Coach Boeheim teaches zone offense

Jim Boeheim's Complete Guide to Zone Offense
with Jim Boeheim, Head Coach, Syracuse University.
Price: $39.99

Coach K teaches how to attack zone defenses

Mike Krzyzewski: Duke Basketball Attacking the Zone
with Mike Krzyzewski "Coach K", Duke University Head Men's Basketball Coach

Price: $44.99

Geno Auriemma: The Simplified Zone Offense

Geno Auriemma: The Simplified Zone Offense
Head Women's Coach UConn, 11 times NCAA Women's Basketball National Championships; 8 times National "Coach of the Year"
Price: $39.99

The Dribble Drive Zone Offense

The Dribble Drive Zone Offense
with Jerry Petitgoue, Cuba City HS (WI) Head Boys Basketball Coach, 3 times Wisconsin State Championships.
Price: $39.99

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