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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.

  • Point

  • Two Wings

  • 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

"Post Up"

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

"Baseline Stagger"

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.

Progression -

  • 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.

On occasion, we may use a set play versus zone defenses. I think 32 Zones can be especially problematic if there are good sized players at the bottom of those zones. I have found myself over the years being more inclined to use set actions versus odd fronted zones than I have versus even front ones. In general, I find that players are much better at positioning themselves in the gaps of those defenses. Here are two examples of set actions that we have used versus zones.

Set Actions -

"Pin" -

Pin Action can be used versus 23 or 32 zones. What we are trying to do is use an inside ball screen to open a gap between two defenders, and then slide a perimeter player into that gap.

This could certainly be something that perimeter players saw organically as well.

Progression -

  • Ball is Passed on the Perimeter

  • The Inside Ball Screen is Set

  • The Opposite Wing Player slides into the Middle

  • They look for "Under & Opposite" Options if not shot is there

"Pop Action" -

This is one of my favorite actions to run out of dead balls. It's an action that I saw Tom Izzo run in a clinic and thought I fit well with our four out motion spacing. This is primarily something we have used versus man-to-man defenses but can be effective versus Box & 1 and 32 Zones as well.

We named the play "Pop" to remind our 5-Man to pop out to begin the action. Essentially we are trying to pin the bottom defender of the zone and run a cutter to the backside corner off of a pin screen.

Progression -

  • Ball is Entered to the Wing

  • 5-Man Pops Out to Receive Pass

  • Backside Players Exchange on the Initial Pass

  • Slot to Slot Pass is Made

  • 1 Man Runs off the Baseline Pin Screen

  • Thinking 1) Shot/Drive First, 2) Post Entry Second

Concluding Thoughts -

Although we put a lot of content together in this post I think it's important to keep your zone offense concepts simple. Adding zone-specific sets into your playbook will add depth to your offense and can steal you a basket or two over the course of the game. However, the majority of successful zone offense possessions are going to come from your players' ability to find gaps, move the basketball, and extend advantages into quality shots. Teaching players how to align themselves in gaps, react to dribble penetration, and how to move the ball out of a ball screen is enough to have a successful zone offense. If we can do that and find a few ways to get our best players high value touches on top of that we are in business.

Recommended Zone Offense Clinic Notes:

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