If you’ve tuned into the most recent NCAA tourney you will have seen a number of teams deploy zone defenses. Some of those teams have been “regulars” in their use of zone defense over time, others have used the strategy in more recent years. Some use it for a few possessions, some use it for the entirety of the game. The perceived increased usage of zones begs the question: why are teams using it more frequently? Furthermore, does this trend validate teams who use zones across all levels?
Many coaches at all levels are not fans of zone defense. At the youth levels, many agree that kids often times don’t possess the necessary skills to combat the zone defense (skip passes, perimeter shooting, etc.). Within that group of people some will adamantly say zone defense is the most detrimental strategy to youth development. Other coaches think it’s a lazy tactic used by coaches who can’t teach man to man. Some will tell you that man vs man is “the way the game is meant to be played”. As I look around on social media, these notions have become common narratives, but as always, before we blindly accept these narratives, it’s important to question everything and take a deeper look.
If you would’ve asked me in the past what I thought about zone defense- I would’ve advocated against it. In my last few years coaching 8th grade we’ve played no zone on any possession & this season we’ve probably played it on less than 5% of all possessions. I’m better at teaching man to man defense & I do think at the younger levels it establishes defensive fundamentals that are crucial as levels increase (moving your feet to keep a player in front, body positioning off the ball, competitive mindset, communication standards- among others). However, I really have begun to grow tired of the argument that zone defense is killing youth basketball and basketball in general. Many coaches have started to use this as a cop-out because they rely so heavily on their set plays against man to man defense and don’t develop the skills of players and concepts within a team to have a legitimate zone attack. We play against teams in 8th grade (and I see this at many levels below too) that barely look at the hoop for 2+ minutes on a possession, run set plays every time down the court with the coach joy-sticking every kid around the court like a video game and then yelling commands when and who can shoot. I’ll take a team playing zone defense over that ANY day of the week.
Now, if you’re a youth level coach and your primary strategy is zone defense (unless the hoops are lower and the 3- point line is moved in-(argument for another day)) on most possessions, I do question your intention to “develop” players. Especially teams below 7th grade. From my perspective, soft “pack everyone in” zones or diamond traps is a “win-now at all costs” strategy. Again, many kids physically aren’t ready to perform some of the skills it requires to beat these tactics and there are several coaches who neglect teaching crucial defensive principles to take advantage of this fact. When teams get older and players get stronger, things such as selling out on the ball, leaving kids wide open, and having no concept of off-ball positioning or rotation can negatively impact a player’s and a team’s defensive ability.
When teams get to high school and above- I believe any defense scheme goes. There are times I’m actually surprised teams don’t play more zone simply because most opposing teams have a high reliance on their man offense. It’s all they practice and every player is reliant on it- throwing a zone at a team can greatly disrupt the rhythm of their offense. On the flip side, great offensive teams can also pick apart zones quickly and create confidence for their offense especially if the zone has poor principles and rotations. I often say to all my players that we should be “salivating” when we see zones. Our offensive foundation is built on player development, and in my opinion, a team who has players that can pass, handle, and shoot can beat a zone with some simple concepts. As mentioned, however, many teams don’t have a bunch of skilled players and heavily rely on the pattern of their man offense or solely on one player so their zone attack becomes anything but admirable. My question to these coaches who hate zones and their offense is similar to what I just described is why shouldn’t a team disrupt your offense? Why shouldn’t they take your best player away and make someone else beat them?
Lastly, many college teams are going to more zone because their offense has gone more position-less. A team with several long, tall, skilled offensive players is more apt to play a zone because of matchup issues (and potential foul trouble) they may incur on the defensive end. They can use their length defensively to cover a large area of the floor and avoid matchup problems in space with smaller quicker players. Then on offense, they can more easily exploit their mismatches for better scoring opportunities. For people who say “they’re going to have to play man in the pro game”- that’s a bridge most don’t have to cross. And if a player has that ability, I’m okay with a pro coach needing to spend extra time with a player on their defensive concepts- it’s their job that they’re paid very well for.
My final, concluding thoughts are this:
At the youth levels, if kids are physically unable to make diagonal skips and shoot from the perimeter- coaches should avoid going to zones. It’s important to teach solid man principles at young ages- those principles translate to all types of defense as players increase levels.
The bottom line and above all, if you’re a coach that hates zone defense, then develop your players and your zone offense spacing so they can pick it to pieces, in which case you will not have to deal with it any longer 🙂