Best Zone Offense For Youth Basketball

James Lee
• Monday, 30 November, 2020
• 10 min read

WIN MORE GAMES with offenses, defenses, plays, drills, fundamentals, strategy, animations, video, Playbook download, youth section... unique, mobile ready. My 7th graders were really having difficulty playing against the 2-3 zone, which we seem to be running into frequently in youth tournaments.

drills basketball pregame game players ready effective prepare during
(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)


I dedicated an entire practice session to learning how to beat this defense in a simple way that young players could understand. I used some visuals and made it interactive for them, instead of me just talking. First, we gathered around a table out on the floor.

I let the kids set up the board and helped them with placing the defense in a 2-3 zone. So every time they would position the offense, I would then move the defense, and then they would have to find the gaps again.

Amazingly, the kids came up with the same offensive scheme that I had devised, and it is diagrammed in the drawings below. Now, on the court, I used hula hoops and some old car floor mats that I threw down in the gaps, so they could see where to move to.

One caution: players could trip and injure themselves with these objects on the floor, so we just used them in “walk through” ball rotations, not up to speed. Dribble only to penetrate a gap, or improve a passing angle, or to get out of trouble.

Offensive rebounding is very important since the zone defenders do not have clear-cut box-out assignments (as in a man-to-man). Now study the diagrams below, and at the end I will give you just a few simple rules.

defense youth zone players should teach press educate source
(Source: www.breakthroughbasketball.com)

One tip: your high post O4 might initially be positioned along the lane, and then as the point guard brings the ball into the forecourt, O4 flash cuts to the high post at the free-throw line. Make sure the wings are high and wide, so that the point-to-wing pass is not easily intercepted.

Each move is to fill a gap in the zone where you can get open for a pass and shot. If the ball is passed to the corner, O4 cuts hard down to the low block for the bounce pass from O5 (diagram B), and O3 moves to the free-throw line area because if O4 does not get the ball, then O3 is often wide open (diagram C).

Here's an option where we can attack the zone straight up the middle, by passing, not dribbling. O1 will try to dribble between (split) the two outside defenders right up the middle and will pull up for a shot just inside the free throw line.

The diagrams below show red circles that should be filled when the ball is in that location. Run the baseline and always be in ball-side short corner when ball is on the wing.

When the ball is at the high post, duck under the zone into the paint for the pass down low. Look to penetrate from the wing, and make good passing decisions, avoid unnecessary dribbling.

basketball motion offense drills youth shooting drill ball
(Source: online-basketball-drills.com)

Look for the shot, and when the high post is at the elbow, the opposite wing drops into the gap on the weak-side. Keep the ball moving, with little dribbling, except to penetrate or open a passing lane.

Look for an opportunity to dribble and split the two top defenders, and if they collapse, dish out to either wing. Responsible for staying back (on top) to prevent the fast break.

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. 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. But if it gives your team the best chance to win at the end of the day in youth sports then that’s what counts for the most part.

However, as I mentioned in the beginning developing kids skills and techniques is the MOST important. We believe that teaching zone principles will help you the most in the long-run and need to be emphasized.

basketball tempo transition running game drills
(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)

However, there are definitely times during games where you just need a zone play to get a good look at the basket. Some coaches also prefer to use their best zone plays when they first see a zone defense during a game.

The rationale is that if they execute a couple of zone plays right from the beginning, the opposing coach may quickly pull their team out of the zone defense. Jamie Dixon popularized this play to beat Syracuse's zone defense.

This formation is effective because it places your team in the gaps of the zone and forces the defense out of their ideal positions. When a player receives the basketball on the perimeter, there will often be a clear lane to the basket in front of them that they can attack.

Being in the gaps of the defense can also confuse them as to who should guard the basketball which can lead to open players all over the floor. If a player receives the basketball and finds themselves with an open lane to the basket in front of them, they should immediately attack the gap.

Players will find that, with good spacing, the quicker the basketball is passed around the more gaps will present themselves in the defense. Pass fakes are super effective against a zone because the defense is always anticipating the next move they need to make.

basketball rebounding drill drills step holding jumping solve woes trouble onto having hand
(Source: www.online-basketball-drills.com)

Often a single defender will have the difficult task of guarding two offensive players in their area. When a pass fake is made, the defender will usually anticipate where they need to rotate to next and start leaning towards their next assignment.

This slight movement can lead to open lanes and the defenders taking valuable time to get back into the correct position. Make sure your players have been taught how to correctly fake a pass without coming off-balance so that they can explode to the ring if the defense goes for it.

Nearly every time I watch a team play against a zone they put their center at the free-throw line in this position without even considering other options. The worst thing you can do against a zone is hold the basketball and allow the defense to fully recover and establish their ideal positions.

In order to beat a zone, you must keep the defenders moving and scrambling to recover. This is achieved by quick passing of the basketball, good spacing between players, and constantly looking for gaps in the defense that can be exploited.

Explain to your players that when they have possession they have a maximum of one second to decide whether to pass, shoot, or dribble. Keep in mind that the highest percentage shots you will get against a zone occur after one or two ball reversals when the defense is starting to break down and the defenders are fatigued.

basketball mj scorer jordan michael
(Source: basketballhq.com)

If the basketball is caught in the short corner, the offensive player has many options to attack the zone … Shot fake and attack the rim for an easy basket or a foul.

When the low zone defenders step up to help on dribble penetration, a simple drop-down pass to the baseline player will often result in an easy score. One benefit of the opposing team running a zone is that the offense has the ability to decide the matchups on the court.

When coaching against a 2-3 zone, identify the weak links and target these defenders by forcing them to match up against your best offensive players. As this matchup favors the offense, your guard can blow past them every time and get into the paint where they can score or create a shot their teammates.

I’ve included some plays that use screening in the report you can download for free below. A great way to consistently get high-percentage shots against a zone is to overload one side of the court.

This strategy exploits the fact that in a zone defense each defender has a specific area of the court to guard. As long as the three players have spaced themselves out along the three-point line, the two defenders will struggle to challenge the shooters while also preventing dribble penetration.

This is a difficult task for the zone defenders so there are frequent offensive rebound opportunities (especially from the weak-side) as long as you send players to the glass, and they’re relentless in pursuit of the ball. If your team gains an early lead in the game, consider holding the basketball near half-court so that the defense is forced to discard their 2-3 zone and come out and play you man-to-man.

It’s a great idea to give your team some experience and confidence when competing against a 2-3 zone prior to coming up against it during a game. Assign a few 10-15 minute blocks in your practices early in the season to teach your players the strategies in this article that you think will work best for your team.

Your players will enjoy changing things up at practice, and it will give them confidence when they face a 2-3 zone during a game. It doesn’t matter how well you execute overloading the zone, how often the basketball into the hands of your best passer at the free throw line, or how good your spacing is if your players don’t knock down their shots.

When the basketball is passed inside, it forces the defense to collapse and will result in wide-open jump shots for your team. If you’re serious about being prepared, I encourage you to read my article on the 2-3 zone defense to completely understand its strengths and weaknesses.

Here are 3 important criteria I came up with off the top of my head that are imperative when designing a youth basketball defense: The perfect youth basketball defense should prepare players for the next level.

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.

While this might not sound like much, don’t underestimate the significance of this difference. 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. It must be constantly emphasized that each player must ‘guard their yard’.

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.

• 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.

In the Pack Line, defense players guard everywhere on the floor. A zone hinders the offensive team’s development too.

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. 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.

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