Defenses (Man-to-Man and Zone)

Basic Man-to-Man Defense

Players are often unsure of how far they should be from player they are guarding who is in possession of the ball.  It is very important for defenders to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the player they are guarding.  So, while some coaches often ask their defensive players to “stick to your player like glue,” there are situations where this is not good advice.  It is important for coaches and defenders to understand the players strengths they are guarding.  If the player they are guarding is not a good “driver” but rather a good “shooter,” then the player should be guarded closely.  Conversely, if the offensive player is a poor jump shooter but very quick going to the basket, then the defense should give the offensive player some room in order to prevent the drive (i.e., preventing the situation of getting 'beat off the dribble').

Steering: Taking Away an Offensive Player's Strength

“Steering” an offensive player means to “force” a player to use their weaker hand to dribble!  Players will tend to want to dribble with their strong hand whenever possible.  A defensive player should force the player to dribble with their weak hand so as to put the offensive player into an uncomfortable position, which will create turnovers, disrupt an offensive flow, and force the player to pick up the ball.


 Talking on Defense

It is very important for defenders to “talk” to each other during the game.  For example, players are encouraged to call for 'help,' alert their teammates to a 'cutter,' let their teammates know what a 'shot' is taken, and so forth.  During defensive drills, coaches are advised to have their players call 'ball' when guarding the ball, 'deny' if the defensive player is one pass away from the ball and they are denying the pass, and 'help' if they are in help position since they are more than one pass away from the ball.

Boxing Out

Man-to-Man defense demands that every defensive player on the court boxes out the player that they are guarding.  It is also very important that players yell out “shot” when the player they are guarding takes the shot!  Boxing out is the responsibility of every player, not just the post players (forwards and centers).  



Switching (helping) typically occurs when the offense has deployed a screen/pick.  Switching on defense occurs when an offensive player sets a screen on a defender, and the defenders can see what is about to occur, and react quickly enough to communicate the “switch” in terms of defenders changing who they are guarding.  The defender who is guarding a player that is getting ready to screen another defender yells out “switch.”  The defender that gets screened yells out “help” and the defenders automatically switch players who they are guarding.  Switching is a controversial part of man-to-man defense.  Some coaches prefer and teach their players not to switch at all, while other coaches prefer to switch every time two offensive players cross.  For those who prefer not to switch, some prefer the defensive player being screened fight to get 'over the top' and stay with their offensive player, some prefer to player being screened to slide between the screener and the other defensive player, while the more modern approach is for the defensive player being screened to go behind both the screener and the person guarding the screener (i.e., 4 deep), recognizing that most offensive players will not be able to stop directly behind the screen and pull up for a jump shot.  


Taking a Charge

One of the most underrated skills of a defensive player is “taking the charge.” A “charge” (officially a 'player control foul') is when an offensive player runs into a defensive player that has established position on defense. The term “taking the charge” is meant for the defender. It is a difficult skill to master as the defender must be set in advance of the offensive player making contact, and it takes a lot of mental toughness for a young player to put themselves in a position to get “run over” by an offensive player running full speed at them.


Basic Points of a Man-to-Man Defense 

Ball Side/Help Side

Ball Side: This term refers to the side that the ball is on, which is typically the side that the majority of players are on.  The diagram below shows that X3, X5, X4, and X1 are all defenders on the “Ball Side” of the court. Note that 'Ball Side' is referred to as “strong side” when discussing zone defenses.

Help Side: This term refers to the side away from the ball, which is typically the side that has the least number of players.  The diagram shows that only X2 is the only defender on the “Help Side” of the court. Note that 'Help Side' is referred to as “weak side” when referring to zone defenses.



 On the Line / Up the Line

The second step in learning good man-to-man defense is to understand the On the Line / Up the Line positions.




Imaginary Passing Lanes (Lines)

A key element of “On the Line / Up the Line” is the concept of the “imaginary passing lanes.”  These are lines for any path that a pass can travel between two offensive players.  Players need to “see” these imaginary lines between the offensive players to understand and play proper man-to-man defense.



On the Line: This term refers to that part of a defenders body that will be on the passing lane. Coaches use different approaches: Some coaches teach players to put their left or right hand on the passing lane.  Some coaches teach players to put their head on the passing lane.  Some coaches teach players to put their body on the passing lane. The most common is probably putting your hands in the passing lane, which we will assume is being used below.

Up the Line: This term refers to how far a defenders body will be on the passing line. How far up the line is usually up to the coach.  Many coaches position their players about 3-4 feet up the line from the player that they are guarding.  Coaches should adjust the distance a defender should play up the line vs. the skills of the defender (speed, quickness, etc).


The Shell Drill: Putting it all Together

 The “Shell Drill” is an excellent drill used to practice the principles of man-to-man defense.  The “Shell Drill” is usually practiced with 4 players on defense and 4 players on offense for very young players and 5 players for slightly older players. The drill consists of placing the offensive players at the standard 5 positions of a man-to-man offense and slowly having adults/coaches play the offensive positions and move the ball around slowly from player to player, while ensuring that the defensive players assume that proper positions while always calling 'ball,' 'deny,' or 'help' depending on whether they are guarding the ball, are one pass away from the player with the ball, or are more than one player away from the player with the ball.  The main teaching point about the Shell Drill is to make sure that your players understand the basic principles first, so start slowly, one pass at a time and make sure the players are going where they are supposed to go.  Then, pick it up a little at medium speed, and finally run the drill at “game speed” (which is the goal of the drill).

Zone Defense 

There are several reasons to use a zone defense, but one of the main reasons would be that you your team does not match up well in a man-to-man defense with the other team.  Typically, this is the case if the other team is much quicker than your team and/or if your team is much taller/stronger than your opponent.  Other reasons include, but are not limited to, the following.

1. Zone defenses are easier to learn and execute than man-to-man defense.  However, it is very important to note that executing a zone defense well is much more difficult than being able to execute a man-to-man defense well.  Further, executing a zone defense well typically requires serious expertise in the particulars of the zone defense on the part of the coaching staff.

2. There are many types of zone defenses available for different situations.

3. A change of pace.  Even if your team executes good man-to-man defense, utilizing a zone defense at times can change the tempo of the game or take the other team out of their rhythm.

4. Many zone defenses incorporate “traps” in the corners or at half court.  This can be an excellent way to catch your opponent off guard and create some turnovers.

5. Junk Defenses are another form of zone defense that is highly effective when executed properly. What is so awesome about junk defenses is that coaches really do not practice plays vs. junk defenses, so it can really throw off the momentum of the game.


Coaches must teach players to understand that when playing a zone defense, they are playing an area on the court and are responsible for that area.  If a defender strays too far from their area, it will leave a hole in the defense, which will provide the opponent with easy scoring opportunities.  As always, players must keep an eye on the ball at all times and understand where to move within the area of the court that they are responsible for.  Every player in a zone defense should move each time the ball is passed.  In addition, players must take special care when a shot goes up to find a player to box out.  It is very easy for players to simply go after the ball, in which case the offensive team has a big opportunity for put-backs (rebound/shot).

Basic Zone: Teaching Points

1. Coaches should encourage lots of talking on defense.  This helps the defense to work as one unit rather than as individual players.

2. Players should be reminded that if they are tired and need a break while on the court, that they can rest a little while on offense, but that they can never rest on defense.

3. As the saying goes, 'offense puts people in the seats and defense wins games.'  Nothing could be more true.  Your team's offense will have peaks and valleys, good days and bad, but your defense can and should always be solid.  A good defense should keep your team in games and provide the foundation for team.

4. Players should attack when on defense and not simply react.  It is important that coaches stress that defenses can dictate pace of play and the type of play that is on the court.

5. Many coaches agree that they prefer to run a zone defense when the other team has the opportunity to inbound the basketball at their own basket.  Given the opportunity, it is typically a bad idea to play man-to-man when the other team has the ball at their basket, as this provides the opponent with many easy scoring opportunities.  


Defensive Numbering System

Using a basic numbering system for defensive positions can be very beneficial for the players. It will help the players remember where to stand (what position they are going in for), and will also help you during your substitutions during the game.

  •  X1 is the point guard.
  • X2 is the shooting guard.  This should be a quick player with good anticipation.
  • X3 is the small forward/off guard.  This player needs to be tough and aggressive.  They need to be able to 'front' the post player on some defenses.
  • X4 is the forward.  This is a tough, aggressive player who is a good rebounder.
  • X5 is the center.  This player should dominate the middle of the lane.  This should be your best shot blocker and rebounder.


Basic Zone Defenses

There are two basic sets used with zone defenses.

  1. Odd front zones describe a zone with 1 guard at the top of the zone.  Typical zones of this type are 1-2-2 and 1-3-1 zones.
  2. Even front zones describe a zone with 2 guards at the top of the zone.  Typical zones of this type are a 2-1-2 or 2-3 or 2-2-1 zone.  

For younger players, a basic 2-3 zone tends to be the easiest to grasp.  Coaches are able to teach basic defensive movement (as the ball moves) and rebounding structure, as well as providing opportunities for trapping the ball at the top of the key and in the corners.  It also provides opportunities to double team the ball when in the post.  Further, assuming that the opponent attacks the seams, it gives the coaches an opportunity to teach players to be aggressive and not allow players to penetrate and to have confidence that your fellow teammates will be in their proper positions to allow you to recover once the player with the ball makes a pass.  

The 2-3 Zone Defense

The 2-3 zone defense is probably the most common zone defense deployed. It has the advantage of protecting the inside and keeps your best rebounders  inside. It's weakness is that it can be beaten by good outside shooting, with open areas on the wings, point and high post. 

Some coaches utilize a 2-3 zone against less-athletic teams as it should force the offense to shoot from outside, while keeping the 3-second area (i.e., the 'paint') protected and your key rebounders inside. It is true that less athletic teams may have more success with this defense as it tends to shut down dribble-penetration and the inside post game. It usually requires the offense to be more patient in getting a good shot, and thus it gives the defensive team a way to help control the tempo of the game. 

Further, if your team has good, quick athletes, the 2-3 zone can also be used in a much more aggressive fashion than is typically considered.  Such a defense can trap the ball, create turnovers, and get the defensive team into transition, running a fast break the other way.  You can aggressively trap the corners, wings, and occasionally the point guard.  However, in order to effectively utilize an aggressive 2-3 defense, you need to make sure that you have quick athletic players.  That can not be emphasized enough. Below are situations, with and without trapping. Study the diagrams below to understand the how the zone shifts, or moves.

One might think of the 3 players as being on a string.  That is, when one of the defensive forwards moves to guard an opponent in the corner, the center (middle person in the 3-person line) must slide over to defend the low post that was vacated by the forward who moved out.  If the center does not get there in time, the offense might get an easy pass into the low post and an easy shot.

The traditional 2-3 zone is shown in the figures below, along with proper positioning for when the ball is in a variety of positions on the court.

Ball on the wing: As shown in diagram B, the outside (top) defender on the ball-side will cover the wing. The exception is on the skip pass from wing to the opposite wing, where the low outside defender will initially run out and defend until the top defender can get there.  Once the top defender arrive, the low defender will drop back down low. This is also the case on a very quick ball-reversal, as shown in diagram F.

Trapping the Wing.  If you have quick athletes, you can try this defensive stunt. See the diagram to the left. X1 will pick the O1 up high and try to force O1 to dribble to the side of the defensive call. (Use 'Fist-2' to denote the offensive right side and 'Fist-3' to denote the offensive left side.) We start the opposite low defender X3 in the middle almost under the basket, so they can quickly rotate to the right block. X4 can start 'cheating up' toward the wing. X2 lets the pass go to O2. Then X2 and X4 quickly close-out on O2 and double-team. X1 denies the pass back to O1, X5 denies the high post pass, and X3 denies the pass to the block.

It's 'one trap and out'. If the offense breaks the trap or passes out successfully, then you can drop back into your standard
 2-3 zone.

Ball in the corner, or short-corner.  As shown in diagram D, the outside low defender on the ball-side will cover the corner and short-corner. It's imperative that the middle X5 defender quickly drop to the ball-side block area to prevent a inside pass there. Here, X2 denies the pass back to the wing (their best shooter) while X1 covers the ball-side elbow (high post). Depending on the offense's strengths, one may instead have X2 sag inside the paint to help prevent O4 from dribble-penetrating (arrow).

As shown in diagram C, the corner is a trapping opportunity if you have the quickness to do it. In addition to the outside low defender (X4) coming out, the top ball-side defender (X2) will sprint down and trap the corner. X1 will deny the pass back to the wing and X3 covers the elbow (high post). The long skip pass to the opposite wing is covered by quick reversal with X3 sprinting over and X1 dropping to the high post (diagram G)

Pass into the high post. As shown in diagram E, you can have your X5 defender come up to defend this (like a 2-1-2 zone now). However, the defense must be alert for the underneath cutter in the paint. Your X3 and X4 defenders may have to cheat into the paint when X5 moves high.

Defending the point. Defending the point is always problematic. If you know that their O2 guard is their best shooter, then have X1 defend the point at first and allow X2 to sag toward their good shooter. And just the opposite applies if O3 is their best shooter. At first you may decide to defend the point loosely, but if their O1 starts hitting some shots, you've got to get pressure there. Never let their point split the X1 and X2 defenders and dribble penetrate the middle. X1 and X2 really have to move quickly and work hard, and work together in order to cover the point and both wings, and give help in the high-post.

Trapping the point.  Diagram H below shows an aggressive 'surprise' trap on the point guard. X1 and X2 run out and trap O1 as soon as O1 brings the ball across half-court. X3 and X4 run out and deny the pass to the wing. This is a gamble, and you may get an interception or a turnover, especially if the offensive set is a 3-out, 2-in (no high post). But this is not something you would do all the time, as it is obvious from the diagram that you could get beaten by a quick pass from O1 to the high-post (free-throw line). 

Covering the skip pass. Covering the skip pass from wing to wing has been discussed above, as shown in diagram F. A skip pass from wing to opposite corner would be covered by the ball-side low outside defender.

Covering the skip pass from the corner to the opposite wing depends on whether or not you have double-teamed the corner as in diagram C. In the usual single-coverage, a skip pass from the corner to the opposite wing is covered by the opposite low outside defender (X3) who has back-side responsibility. Sometimes, a quick athletic X3 can anticipate the skip pass, jump out and intercept it and initiate a fast break. For example, in diagram F, as the ball is passed from the right corner to the left wing, X3 covers the receiver until X1 can rotate over, and then X3 will drop back down low. If the skip goes from the corner to the point, X1 should cover this, as shown in diagram F.

If you have double-teamed the corner, as shown in diagram C, a long effective skip pass is less likely, but in this case would be covered as follows (see Diagram G):
1. A pass from right corner to left corner or wing is covered with the X3 defender.
2. A pass from right corner to the point is covered by X1.

Players sometimes think playing a 2-3 zone defense is easier than a man-to-man defense, but in fact, to play good zone defense, you have to work much harder than playing a man-to-man defense.