Best Zone Defense Youth Basketball

Maria Garcia
• Monday, 21 December, 2020
• 13 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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(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)


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 youthbasketballdefense should prepare players for the next level. The perfect youthbasketballdefense should allow players to experience all components of defense.

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.

Traditional man-to-man defense is too hard to teach to young players. Instead, there needs to be a simpler progression before players attempt to master the man-to-man defense.

Jim Boone and other advocates of the Pack Line defense all believe that off-ball defenders cannot accomplish all three of these things effectively: The Pack Line teaches the four off-ball defenders where they must be on the floor to help their teammates.

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(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)

They’ll often even lose sight of where the basketball is on the court because their focus is on shutting down the player they’re defending. 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. The purpose of this article is to explain to you why the Pack Line defense is the best defense for 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 YouthBasketball 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. In the Pack Line, defense players must fight through screens exactly the same as man-to-man.

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(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)

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.

c. Zone defense doesn’t prepare players for the next level. 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. d. Zone defense doesn’t make basketball fun.

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.

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(Source: giantimagemanagement.com)

Use the Pack Line defense to teach the principles and basics of man-to-man defense and then when your players are capable, start introducing the denial aspect of man-to-man. We must sacrifice some complexity in the beginning to allow players to develop quicker.

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. There are a few different basketball variations of a basketballzonedefense, one constant, regardless of its structure is the zone’s advantage over a man-to-man defense.

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.

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(Source: giantimagemanagement.com)

This zone defense is great against teams that run a lot of ball screens and shoot the basketball at a high percentage. Final note, which I have discussed in this entire article, players have to communicate with each other and do not allow penetration into the lane when playing in a zone defense.

If all those are done properly this type of defense can be a very difficult task to overcome for even the most potent of offenses. This week we’re playing against a team that runs a tight 2-3 zone all game.

Obviously, that wasn’t my whole reply, but it was the overall thought of the email I sent back in response. I wrote a post on how to beat a 2-3 zone defense not too long ago, but admittedly, a lot of the strategies require that the defense is stepping out and respecting the outside shot (I’ll talk about this a lot throughout the article).

If the defense plays close to the ring at all times and doesn’t challenge the shot (like most youth teams do), these strategies become incredibly hard to implement. So I decided to create this post that shares with you why zone defense is effective in youth basketball, why coaches use it, how it’s hurting the game, and also to answer any arguments that coaches in favor of zone defense have.

I’ll mostly be referring to the 2-3 zone defense for this article since that is by far the most popular zone to play at a youth basketball level. Coaches use zone defense because it flats out works against young teams and players.

We all know that most of the points scored in youth basketball come from layups and shots taken from close to the ring. By implementing a zone defense, the defensive team packs the paint and takes away the driving lanes to the hoop.

Most of these youth athletes are simply not physically developed enough to make outside shots consistently. They lack the strength required to shoot the basketball properly.

Young players don’t have the strength to make this skip pass. When the offensive players aren’t physically strong enough to make this pass, it allows the defense to flood one side of the court without needing to worry about shooters on the other side.

Doing this makes it even more difficult for the offensive team to find gaps in the defense to penetrate. In my opinion, there are three main reasons why coaches implement a zone defense in youth basketball.

And, surprisingly for an article completely against zone defenses, they’re not all terrible reasons. I’ll openly admit that I had this exact feeling when I first started coaching.

Players look organized on the court, the zone is effective, the opposition struggles to score, etc. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in appearing like you’re a good coach when all you’re really doing is putting every player in the limited area that the opposition can shoot from and instructing them to stand there.

All coaches want to look like they’re having an impact on the game, but it’s important that we all keep in mind what’s best for your team’s long-term development. Whether they want to or not, some coaches do feel forced to use a zone defense just to stay competitive with the other teams in their league.

This reason I can understand, and it’s a decent argument in favor of playing zone defense. I think we call all agree that no youth basketball team should ever lose by any number close to 50 points.

But if you are forced to resort to this zone strategy just to stay competitive, one thing is very clear… I assure you that in a few years no one will care that you won the under 10s championship by implementing a zone defense and forcing the opponents to shoot from outside.

I’ve added a fourth reason, but completely agree with the first three and wanted to share my thoughts on them also. But there are many poor defensive habits that will also come with running a zone that players will also develop.

Quick note: If winning is your number one priority, this point will be incredibly hard for you to comprehend. By running a zone defense in youth basketball, you’re also doing a large disservice to the offensive team, too.

Do you really want an 8-year-old team chucking long-distance shots at the ring because they can’t get any closer so that you can win an 8-year-old basketball game? They won’t get to practice moving the basketball while being pressured, their cuts are useless because the paint is flooded with 5 defenders, setting screens to get open is pointless because the defense is leaving them open and waiting for them to shoot anyway, and there’s plenty of other lost opportunities for offensive development.

Again, similar to the point on defensive habits, I understand that the players will still learn and grow against a zone … but they won’t learn half as much that will prepare them for the future as they would if they were playing against a man-to-man defense. One of the most important tasks of a youth basketball coach is to prepare their players for the next level of basketball.

A player that is taught man-to-man defense when they’re young will have a much easier transition to playing zone defense than a player who plays zone defense exclusively at a young age will have transitioning to a man-to-man defense when they’re older. Another thing you’ll notice is that as the competition gets better and the players more skilled, the less zone defense you will see implemented.

This is because zone defense works great against young teams with no skill but struggles against players with a lot of basketball experience. So to give your players the best chance of success at the next level, it’s imperative that they’re competent playing man-to-man defense.

By playing a zone defense, you rob the players of all the fun that basketball should be providing them. We need to give all players a chance to fall in love with the game of basketball like we all did when we were young.

I’ve heard every argument in the book from coaches in favor of running zones. Instead, all 5 defenders will stand back in the key and wait for you to miss the outside, uncontested shot.

The coaches that preach that ‘the issue is zone offense, not zone defense ’, will often give you the following two pieces of advice… Most youth teams have no problem passing the basketball against a compact 2-3 zone.

The defense doesn’t particularly care how quickly or how well you move the basketball around the perimeter either. And there’s no chance your fantastic ball movement is going to penetrate the zone since all 5 defenders are inside the key and can basically touch hands if they all put their arms out.

I’ve heard numerous people advise youth coaches that they should start screening the zone and I still can’t see how it would benefit the offense. Maybe screening one of the top players to get an open shot on the wing would work, but the offense is definitely not going to get a layup out of it.

The problem with this argument is made obvious by this simple quote from the great Don Meyer. By teaching an extra defense to your players, you’re stealing time away from skill development or opportunities to work on other aspects of their game.

Do you really think implementing a zone defense is the best use of the limited time that you have with your players at practice each week? To me, this is a prime example of putting winning at a young age over future development.

I have a feeling a lot of coaches will cringe when reading this argument… I know I did when I first heard it. In fact, they’re probably a poor defender because their previous coach only ran a zone and didn’t focus on their future development too.

To me, this argument is used as an excuse to play zone defense when the coach wants to win. Let’s remember that many of the players either using or competing against the zone defense will be in their first a couple of years playing basketball competitively.

We’ve all heard those coaches that believe they can predict a players’ future at 8 years old. Basketball is littered with stories of late-blooming players who went on to have amazing professional carers.

Michael Jordan failed to make his high school varsity team as a sophomore and is now known as the best basketball player who ever lived. Hakeem Olajuwon didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 15 years old and is now regarded as one of the greatest centers to ever play the game.

Tim Duncan made the transition from swimming to basketball in high school and is now arguably the greatest power forward of all time. No coach can predict which players are going to fall in love with the sport and work their tails off to improve.

No coach can predict a player having a massive growth spurt in their later physical development. And this fact alone does not justify taking time away from other things the players could be working on instead.

Because remember, as players develop and reach higher levels of competition, they will play far more man-to-man defense. We need to give all players the opportunity to experience man-to-man defense so that they’re prepared when they get to the next level.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing and talking about all different types of zone defense. But these guides must be used age-appropriately, and I don’t recommend them for any coach before the high school level.

I haven’t done a great job of making this clear in the past and I will strive to do so much more diligently in the future. I agree wholeheartedly with Bob Bigelow’s opinion in my article on improving youth basketball (I encourage you to go and read his entire thoughts).

In other words; zones, presses, traps, box and ones, triangle and two’s, and any other variations our future Hall of Fame youth coaches can devise?” I wanted to address the arguments made by coaches in favor of zone defense.

By doing so, everyone will understand your reasoning behind not playing zone defense and will also be reassured that you have their child’s best interests at heart. But take comfort in knowing that in a few years, your players will be much better prepared to continue pursuing their basketball dreams.

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