Best Youth Zone Defense

Bob Roberts
• Friday, 06 November, 2020
• 11 min read

In order for the zone defense to work properly each defensive player must hustle at all times to beat their opponents to the other end of the floor. If you have a bigger, slower team the zone defense allows you to put your “Big” around the basket while your “Smalls” stay out on the perimeter.

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A classic example of when to use a zone defense can probably be best demonstrated when the Dallas Mavericks played the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, in this scenario LeBron James didn’t find his perimeter jump shot and the entire team struggled, which resulted in an NBA Finals loss for the Miami Heat.

The perfect youth basketball defense should prepare players for the next level. The perfect youth basketball defense should be easy to learn.

The Pack Line defense is a variation of a man-to-man defense that involves players sagging closer to the basket instead of cutting off passing lanes. It was created by Dick Bennett of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay, University of Wisconsin, and Washington State.

The Pack Line defense is already used by many youth basketball coaches as well as high school teams and some of the best college basketball teams in America. There are certain ‘rules’ when running the Pack Line defense such as not allowing players to drive baseline or three-quarter fronting the post, but these aren’t set in stone and can be done in a man-to-man too.

But the small differences that do exist are important and make defense much simpler to teach than Traditional man-to-man defense is too hard to teach to young players.

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The Pack Line teaches the four off-ball defenders where they must be on the floor to help their teammates. It makes defense much easier for youth players to understand.

Quick Note: Just because there’s help doesn’t remove the responsibility of the on-ball defender to guard their player one-on-one. I’ve already written a full coaching guide to the Pack Line defense, so I’m not going to go into detail in this post.

There are two frequent arguments used by coaches who are against the Pack Line defense in youth basketball: The only coaches who will say this are those that aren’t aware of how the Pack Line defense works.

I’m going to share with you the 4 reasons why zone defense is terrible for youth basketball that I wrote about in my ‘ ZoneDefense is Terrible For Youth Basketball’ blog post, and why the same is not true for the Pack Line defense. • In a zone, defense players guard an area by standing and watching the basketball.

In the Pack Line, defense players have a direct opponent and must be constantly adjusting their off-ball position. • In a zone defense, there are minimal opportunities to defend a ball screen.

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In the Pack Line, defense players must fight through screens exactly the same as man-to-man. In the Pack Line, defense players guard everywhere on the floor.

Most zones in youth basketball will pack the paint with defenders and force their opponent to shoot long shots from the outside. A zone doesn’t prepare players for the next level because of all the poor defensive habits they pick up and because they don’t experience enough components of defense.

As we’ve just talked about, in the Pack Line defense players don’t pick up these bad habits, and they do experience all components of defense. Zone defense isn’t fun in basketball because players have minimal chance of scoring because they’re forced to shoot long-distance shots.

They’ll be playing very similar to a man-to-man defense (except easier to learn). The defense will make mistakes and the offensive team will be able to move the basketball around and take advantage of them.

Let’s start off by remembering that the only difference from a traditional man-to-man defense and the Pack Line is the defender one-pass away. We must sacrifice some complexity in the beginning to allow players to develop quicker.

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The Pack Line defense is the best defense for youth basketball. It doesn’t matter about the height of your team, how athletic they, or any other excuse that coaches find to run a different defense.

Due to simplicity and promoting team basketball, the Pack Line defense is the only defense I’ll be recommending for youth basketball from now on. This is often used late in the game to protect your team from giving up an easy basket or lay up.

Having three big men down low in the box enables your team to better secure rebounds in late game situations. If you talk to any coach, they will tell you that any zone defense takes great communication and constant chatter between the players.

This defense is highly effective, by having your guards constantly rotate at the top and having your players’ hands up and fully extended gives the offense a cluttered and stressful environment. Any zone defense has a weakness if the offense can get the ball into the middle of the paint where the defense is susceptible to a mid range jumper.

If the basketball enters the middle of the paint, the defense is forced to adjust by protecting the rim, providing the offense with a kick out. If the young players are aware of their zone responsibilities, it is very hard to be successful against a quality opponent running the 3-2.

This zone defense is great against teams that run a lot of ball screens and shoot the basketball at a high percentage. If ran correctly it alleviates almost any threat and relies on the theory of defending your area.

First, we commend all youth coaches for taking up such an important role in developing children! In the grand scheme of things, what defense or offense you pick doesn't matter in regard to how we develop the children's character on the teams that we coach.

At times, you may not win as many games at first, but I guarantee you start winning more games by the 7th and 8th grade as long as the man to man defense principles are properly taught. And the chances of those players making their high school teams will be dramatically higher.

The feeling of seeing players succeeding at higher levels, because of the foundation you set as a coach is so much more rewarding than winning a few more games at the youth level that you and the players will forget about after a few years. We hope that you read the entire article and share your thoughts below even if you disagree with our points.

We want this to be a community where we debate things in a positive, constructive way and come to a better understanding of these issues. Under the current system in the U.S., most coaches get the unnecessary burden of having to teach skills, zone offense, man offense, press breakers, and defense with limited practice time.

Even at the high school level, it takes me at least 10 to 20 practices getting a good base to handle these situations. If we are concerned with the long-term development of youth basketball players, they should not even be playing 5v5 with the same rules as high school and NBA teams.

This is something that I've seen youth expert Bob Bigelow and many other great coaches preach for years. Not to mention, we introduce the game to kids before they are taught how to move efficiently.

As Bob Bigelow likes to say, Adapt the game to fit the kids. Even the NBA & USA Basketball put out guidelines that eliminate the use of zone defenses before the age of 12.

So they barely have any time to educate themselves on how to teach basketball to youth players. So what happens is that a coach hears from a colleague, faces a zone defense, or sees another team playing zone.

Next, the coach implements the zone defense and realizes it only takes a few minutes a day to practice. Players have not practiced enough yet to develop the proper ball handling skills to beat zone defenses and break presses.

Players are not strong enough to throw passes far enough and crisp enough to beat a zone. Players have not developed the cognitive skills necessary to recognize situations quickly and react in the appropriate time needed.

Somebody who has to move all over the floor using many movement patterns or a defender in a zone whom only has to guard in a 7×7 feet box. Well, as a person that studies athletic development both as a hobby and as a basketball coach, I can tell you that even aggressive zone defenses do NOT develop athleticism the way man to man defense does.

(And by the way, these “big” players probably need to work on foot coordination and athleticism more than anyone). They rarely have to move quickly, get down in low stance, or transition from shuffle to cross over defensive movements.

This changing from run, to shuffle, to cross over, is incredible for athletic development. And let's pretend that you even rotate your big guys to the front of the zone trapping to develop their athleticism, you still won't develop the same athleticism as playing man to man defense.

So you have to move faster, work harder and smarter, and react quicker to keep the ball in front of you or out of the middle of the court. Not to mention, the zone at the youth level usually forms bad habits.

Bottom line, this argument alone would deter me away from zone defenses, because of my background and belief that athleticism is so important not only in the game of basketball, but in all sports. Since we're talking about Coach Marshall, I figure we'd also mention that even Al does not allow his youth teams to play zone defense.

Player A shuffle back and forth between two spots and only learns to defend on one part of the floor. Now if Player B heads to a program that plays zone defense, they will be a very effective defender.

Because youth players have not developed their coordination, strength, basketball skills, and general athleticism, defensive habits such as swarming the ball and lunging out of position for the steal every time will benefit them on the scoreboard. In a zone defense, they also tend to just watch the ball, and they can still be successful in regard to wins and losses at the youth level.

As these youth players get older, all of a sudden these bad defensive habits get exposed because kids are bigger, stronger, more coordinated, and more skilled. Now, the kids with bad defensive habits are cut from teams, get less playing time, and in the extreme case, could even lose out on scholarship opportunities.

Now, if you're at a school that doesn't cut, you just end up with a poor team and this hurts the player's chance of getting recruited. After players have spent most of their youth basketball career using poor defensive fundamentals, it's very difficult to break the bad habits.

You can ask Syracuse's Jim Botham who is known for running a very successful 2-3 zonedefense, and he will tell you the same thing. But it is a rarity at this age level for coaches to teach the proper defensive fundamentals with zone defense.

And I still don't believe zone defenses are age-appropriate for youth teams for the same reasons mentioned above. On average, players are too weak and uncoordinated to execute the offensive principles that beat zone defenses.

We shorten the mound, and we don't let players take leads off of first base until they reach a certain age. Baseball modifies the game for youth, not the other way around like the current basketball system.

It's senseless for both teams to play a game where you win or lose by 40+ points. Unless you can see the future, I don't believe anybody can truly figure out who is going to develop into a good basketball player or not.

Sometimes, passion and hard work for something will take players a lot further than somebody who is a little more naturally talented. Believe it or not, in this start earlier and do-more-at-younger-age era, it's not what you do prior to puberty that counts, it's what you do post-puberty that's going to make the biggest difference in your basketball development.

Maybe the team has lost at all levels from varsity to youth for a long time. You would still need to make sure proper defensive principles and basketball skills are being worked on in every practice.

This one doesn't really bother me as much as long as the team doesn't get in the habit of playing zone defense every game. I prefer to try a sagging / pack-line type defense to counter the more athletic teams.

Kids also may need to learn how to drive a car, learn calculus, and learn how to raise a family and communicate with their spouse, but we're not going to throw them the keys and have them get in LA rush hour at age 10, we're not going to teach them calculus before they understand basic math, geometry, and algebra, and we're definitely not going to tell our 12-year-old kid to go start a family. Presses and zones are advanced basketball strategies and need to be saved for the older age groups.

I wouldn't advise this until the kids are 12 or 13, but if coaches got together before a game during the second half of the season and said let's work on playing against a 2-3 zone defense during the 2nd quarter, I believe the benefits would be outstanding. That way, you could introduce zone offensive principles when the kids are ready and work on them in a game environment.

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