Zone Offense Concepts
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
In this post, we took a look at how we attack Zone Defenses using our 'Gaps' and 'Ball Screen' Concepts.
I think it is safe to say that the majority of coaches' practice plans revolve around the build-up to a team's man-to-man offense, with their zone offensive scheme pushed to the back burner. This is a trap that I generally try to avoid. Given our two-week preseason and the likelihood that we will see zone defense early in the season, I think it becomes essential that we work on our zone offensive concepts right away. Two seasons ago (2018-19) we only zone defense on approximately 15% of our possessions. This past season (2019-20) that number jumped back up to about 35% of our total possessions. The vast majority of our zone possessions came against either 23 or 32 Zones, with the occasional 131 and Box & 1 sprinkled in.
The main thing I attempt to do with my zone offense is to keep it simple. In my opinion, having a few simple concepts that your players can use to read the defense will be more beneficial than implementing a bunch of Zone-Specific set plays. There are two main zone concepts that we are going to discuss in this post. One of them is our Gaps approach, which centers on Spacing, Ball Movement, and on occasion Drive & Space Reactions. The other is Head Tap, which is a high ball screen designed to bring two defenders to the basketball creating a small advantage on the first pass. We will also discuss a few options we have used in the past to incorporate off-ball screening as a means to pin "wing defenders" in certain zones.
The main zone offense concept that we are going to use is simply called 'Gaps'. This is a fairly common concept that will use great spacing, ball movement, and subtle adjustments to create advantages. We are going to position ourselves in the gaps of the zone defense and then attack those gaps with passing or dribble penetration.
Gaps Concept -
The first layer that we are going to teach in zone offense is gap alignment. We would like our offensive players to always align themselves in the gaps of a zone defense. We are trying to occupy the attention of two defenders at once with our spacing.
Given that the 23 Zone is the most common zone that we see I drew the diagram to reflect the gaps in that particular defense.
Middle & Short Corner
Once our players are comfortable with our gap spacing versus an even fronted zone we would show our players how those gaps change when we are facing an odd fronted zone (131, 32). The concept of Gap Spacing is really simple but is perhaps the most critical for creating good shots versus zone defenses.
"Teaching Points" -
Get into the "Gaps" of whatever Zone Defense is Presented
Use Ball Speed & Spacing to Create Advantages
Use the Threat of High Low Action
Make Two Players Guard One
"Dribble Drive Reaction" -
The second layer to teaching zone offense is the reaction to dribble penetration. Outside of moving the basketball with great spacing & ball movement, the best way to breakdown a zone defense is to penetrate those gaps with the dribble.
Dribble penetration is almost always going to come from the perimeter. So we need to teach not only our perimeter players how to react but our inside players as well. In general, we want all players to move away from the drive and into a scoring window.
"Teaching Points" -
Inside Players - Circle Away From the Ball
Inside Players - Seal Off Defenders from Helping Down
Perimeter Players - Move into a Window
Perimeter Players - Get Defensive Balance
The use of the ball screen is something that can be called or something that happens organically. Our signal for this during the game would be to simply tap our heads. That motion from the ball handler signals that we are moving from gaps into the spread ball screen. With the ball screen concept, the positioning of players in the gaps of the defense stays consistent but the role of the 5-Man now moves towards screening one of the top defenders.
Ball Screen Zone Offense
"Inside Ball Screen" -
The majority of screens that are set versus zone defenses will be of this variety. The Inside Ball Screen will be set with your back to the middle of the court. After setting the ball screen we would like the screener to 'short roll' to the middle of the defense.
The goal of the ball screen is simply to draw two defenders to the basketball. From there it is up to the players off the basketball to use great spacing and passing to create a good shot.
"Outside Ball Screen" -
This version of the ball screen will be set with your backside to a sideline. Often time this ball screen will draw the wing defenders to the basketball, creating opportunities for the wing and baseline players.
"Teaching Points" -
Basketball - Eyes on the Help Defenders
Screener - The goal is to screen the 'back pocket' of the defender
Screener - We want to force the defender over the screen
Screener - If the defender goes under the screen, set the screen again
Basketball - Make Two Guard One
Off Ball Players - Constantly Readjust your Gap Spacing
The Box & 1 defense is not something that we see every season. Generally speaking, this defense is going to employed when you have an incredibly gifted player or perhaps a good scorer with a weak supporting cast. Over the past two seasons, we have seen a decent amount of this strategy as a means to combat our most talented player. In 2019-20 we graduated one of the best players in our school's history (Jack O'Neill, #5) who led our league in scoring for two straight years. Taking him away was most certainly the first priority of each team's scouting report and on a number of occasions, the Box & 1 defense was employed to do that. In this section, I wanted to take a look at some of the strategies that we used to combat this.
Box & 1 Strategies -
"Spread Ball Screen"
As we discussed in the previous section we simply used our ball screen action to get the ball in the hands of our best players immediately.
In this tactic, we moved the "boxed player" to the point guard position and allowed him to create a two-on-one scenario immediately. We are hoping that:
A Shot is Created
A Quick Pass Creates an Advantage
If your "boxed player" has some ability in the post then using four out spacing and isolating him in the paint can be an effective tactic. Keep in mind that the entire focus of the defense is on this player and the help defenders will be an issue.
Teaching Points -
Use the Quick Swings & Skip Passes to move the help
Don't Fight the Defender, Look for Lobs & Pins on the Skip Pass
Encourage your perimeter players to attack the extended closeouts with the dribble
One more complicated action that we put in place was a staggered baseline screen to free the "boxed player". We would exchange on the backside to get our 5/4 men as the screeners, and then run him off of their screens to the corner.
This was an action we originally used versus teams that were face guarding our best player in man to man defenses, then found it to be useful versus the Box & 1 as well.
Look to the Cutter First
Screeners Flash to the Ball
Work the Backside of the Floor is nothing appears.
"Motion Strong Action" -
One thing that we had a lot of success with later in the season is simply running our man to man offense versus the Box & 1. In fact, early in the season we really struggled versus a team that employed this strategy. When we played them again later in the season we made the adjustment to simply use our man-to-man offense and create advantages through it. We simply flowed into our Motion Strong Action, which uses a staggered down screen for a cutter. We would be able to free up our "boxed player" with the staggered screen or use our second cutting off of the stagger to create an initial advantage.