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How to Score Points Against a Zone Defense

November 15, 2017


When I was a younger player and the opposing team went into zone defense I only had one thought - launch it. Am I right? Often as young players we believe the best way to attack the zone is to beat it from the outside. 


I'm going to cover some simple strategies on scoring against a zone defense that are used on different levels of basketball throughout the world.


First, remember that at any time someone can get off a 3 point shot. Truly, if you want to come down and shoot up the first 3 pointer possible you can. But what is the point of offense. The point of offense is to get the best shot possible. On every offensive possession it should be the goal. Oftentimes, as simple as it seems, this is forgotten.


Second, let's realize what type of zone they are playing. Many teams employ different types of zone defense.


You have the basic 2-3 zone, 1-3-1 zone, 1-2-2 zone, 3-2 zone and so forth. As a young point guard growing up I knew that a key part of my job was recognizing the defense so players could be in spots that the defense wasn't. Again, this may seem rather basic but the simple things are often forgotten.


Third, each zone has gaps. A gap is an area where the defenders don't cover. The reason most young coaches believe you shoot outside against a zone is because the area outside typically isn't covered very well. Again, we know that shot is available at any time. I'll show you how to get a wide open shot against the zone compared to a halfway covered shot. This is done by attacking gaps.

Let's focus on the 2-3 zone as it is the most common zone you will see. The gaps in the 2-3 are everywhere. Each gap causes defensive confusion. If I attack the 2-3 in the middle from the top I will be forcing 1-3 people to guard me. By going down the middle the chances are high that both men from the top will cover me as well as the middle of the zone defense taking a step toward me as well. This creates shots all over the court for my teammates. I can kick it to either wing. If the middle defender doesn't come up on me I can simply pull up and shoot a short jump shot. What is the key again? The key is to get the best shot possible.


If a wing player attacks from a side gap the same effect can be seen but from a different angle. A defender from the bottom will come up to stop the ball and a defender from the top will come up to stop the ball. Anytime I can create a situation where two or three defenders are guarding one player someone had better get an open shot. When the wing player drives I like to have my opposite side post player get in front or seal off his defender. He does this by getting in front of him and using his position to stop him from getting between himself and the basket.


By sealing his defender he has created an excellent scoring chance. One thing needs to take place. The wing player must get the middle defender to commit. When he commits to stop the ball the weak side post player should get an easy bounce pass for a lay up. If that player is unable to seal his defender then he will pick his man instead. When the wing player drives hard to the middle it creates either a shot or a kick out to the opposite wing for an open 3 pointer.


As you can see, like a 2-3, the gaps are everywhere and that's where the weak spots are in the zone. The weak spots in the 1-3-1 are the baseline and right under basket. I will often tell coaches that once a 1-3-1 or a 1-2-2 is recognized to bring up a second player to the top. This creates the first match-up problem.


One defender can't guard two players. In any good defense the wings will bluff and recover until the other defenders get in their designated spots. That's why coaches will continually yell to move the ball against a zone. The defense is shifting so much that if you move the ball quick enough a gap will open up and an easy shot will follow. Nothing kills on offense more than standing still. Add to that, standing still with the ball.


I'm often asked why Jim Boeheim runs strictly zone defense when it seems zone is easier to score against. Boeheim does a couple things very well. He recruits athletic long wings to play defense. Recently he had a player named Hakim Warrick who is now a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. Warrick is long and athletic and can cover some ground. As a wing defender in a zone he could make up some space to make up for gaps in the zone. As Bill Self from Kansas says, the key to being a good coach is to get good players. Boeheim gets the right guys for his defense.


But for me I'll take a solid point guard, a good wing player and solid post and I will be able to get any shot against a zone that I want.


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