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Tips to combat zone defense

This is an excerpt from Basketball Offenses & Plays by Kenneth Atkins.

In zone offenses, certain principles hold true regardless of the precise motion displayed on the court. Coaches should emphasize the following topics when teaching players to combat zone defenses.

Proper Spacing
Proper spacing is essential. Offensive players must maintain a comfortable distance between each other to ensure that one defender is not able to guard two offensive players. The general rule is that players should be at least 12 to 15 feet apart, especially on the perimeter. Players working within the interior of the zone may decrease the distance to 10 feet.

Player Positioning
Player positioning against zones is important. Players dash to areas of borderline responsibility between two defenders. They attack the gaps in a zone to cause hesitancy in coverage or cause both defenders to move to cover the pass receiver. Either scenario is advantageous for the offense.

Player Patience
The team must exhibit patience. Players make the zone defenders work by forcing them to move and cover as much area as possible. Players usually throw five or more passes during each possession. Sometimes long-range shots that materialize early in a possession will need to be bypassed in order to make an effort to send the ball to the interior. The squad does not play tentatively. They are aggressive yet patient.

Attacking the Interior
Players attack the interior of the zone. This approach allows players on the perimeter to get open as the defense becomes more concerned with collapsing and shutting down the inside. Attacking the inside also creates greater risk of foul trouble for post defenders. Players on the periphery should look inside consistently. The high-post region is equally important as the area immediately in the vicinity of the basket.

Moving the Ball
Players move the basketball. They change sides quickly and frequently. They do not hold the ball too long, and they keep their eyes on the interior. When a player receives the ball on the periphery, he or she takes a quick glance toward the basket. Passing around the perimeter of the zone forces the zone to move.

Using Skip Passes
Players should not hesitate to use skip passes. They do not fear throwing cross-court passes to change sides of the floor. Skip passes produce quick changes for the defense, switching players from helpside to ballside and vice versa. A low-post player on the side to which the skip pass is completed tries to seal the defender who has ballside low post or middle responsibility while the ball is in transit. The offensive post player initiates contact and seals the targeted defender by facing the foul lane and physically bumping the defender. The post player pivots on the foot that provides leverage against the defender (usually the baseline foot) and opens to the ball. The post player maintains a wide base while sitting on the defender’s thighs and moves his or her feet to continue the position advantage. Players should throw the skip pass overhead with two hands. The passer must read the weakside defenders to make sure that they are not decoying and looking to intercept the toss. A good counter is the ball fake. See the following discussion of using ball fakes.

Using Ball Fakes
Players use ball fakes against zones. They fake a pass in one direction and then look to throw the opposite direction. All types of passes can be fakes. A ball fake is effective because it makes the zone move when it should not. Making a zone defender move to cover when he or she is not supposed to is a big plus for the offense. Coaches should emphasize this important concept.

This is an excerpt from Basketball Offenses & Plays.