Player Development and Zone Defense in Summer Basketball

I think differently than most. Sometimes, my viewpoint gets me in trouble. This weekend, I engaged Hoopgurlz in a discussion of zone defense via twitter because of a post it made:

HG: In a game between elite athletes, we cannot be more imaginative than a zone defense? Can’t we just let the kids play each other?

Why do we not want good athletes to be good, smart basketball players too? Why do we only want players to play in a style that fits their strengths? Shouldn’t players develop their weaknesses or other parts of their games in order to perform well regardless of the style of play, defense, or offensive system?

I replied to the post with a link to two recent articles (I am not a zone coach. I just do not understand why people de-value it to such an extent):

Why does every1 hate zone defense? Are zones bad? http://tiny.cc/0hss5 Can you teach fundamentals w/zone? http://tiny.cc/mqkek

As I read through the tweets from HG and others, I realized that the disagreement about zones centers around the way that we envision basketball.

Most people, it appears, break down the game into two subsets: skills and strategy. For these people, skills are the technical skills like shooting, ball handling and passing, whereas strategy encompasses nearly everything else.

HG: Are club coaches teaching skills or tactics? Also these are exposure events and Nike Nationals uses shot clocks.

Now, I do not know why exposure events should have different rules than other games. HG covered the Nike Nationals and reported on scores like the games were important and outcomes mattered. It referred to the tournament as the “unofficial club championship.” I have no idea why a shot clock should matter to a discussion of man-defense versus zone-defense.

I hope that club coaches teach skills and strategy. Strategy is part of the game. I break down skills into four areas: Psychological, Technical, Tactical and Athletic. I hope that club coaches develop all four areas, not just one area.

I have no problem with zones because the skills required to play successfully against a zone are worth developing. Others dislike zones because they feel that the only way to play against a zone is to memorize a zone offense (strategy) and if you’re practicing strategy, it takes time away from skill development.

HG: We never said we hated zones. We just don’t think it has much of a place in club ball. Club teams practice 2x a week. They’re supposed to teach zone offenses? Our stand has nothing to do with whether you can teach or evaluate individual defensive principles with zones.

Now, this is interesting because Hoopgurlz’s first response to me was:

HG: lots of college coaches hate the zones, too – they say it doesn’t show if they can defend at next level. We agree with them.

This brings up an important point: what is the point of these games? Hoopgurlz covered the games, the “unofficial club championship” like they mattered, but this comment seems to suggest that they exist solely for the purposes of the college coaches’ evaluations? Do these games matter or are they purely showcases? Should high school players spend their entire summers traveling the country simply to showcase for college coaches?

I disagree with their premise. I can evaluate players in a zone defense and see if they can play at the next level. Furthermore, playing against a zone defense often reveals more about a player’s offensive skill set, in these environments, than playing against man-defense, as I responded via tweet:

watching players vs zones can tell a lot about IQ, spatial awareness, creativity, court vision, etc. that may be lost in m2m

As for practice time, most high school teams practice three times per week. Is the extra practice session per week the one where coaches should teach zone offenses?

The players at Nike Nationals are experienced, elite players whereas many high school coaches have inexperienced and unskilled players. With which group should we worry more about the amount of time devoted to skill development rather than strategy?

In the games that I watched last week, teams had multiple out-of-bounds plays and press breaks: if they have time to install these, don’t they have time to practice against zone defenses?

If the issue is that teams do not have enough practice time, the problem is the game to practice ratio, not zone defenses. Tennessee Flight won the Nike Nationals led by a player from Southern California; Cal Storm was arguably California’s best representative and featured players from Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado. If these teams gather players from around the country, how much do they actually practice anyway? Shouldn’t this be the issue?

Some of the teams likely played 20+ games in July without a real practice; blaming zones for the lack of skill development seems to miss the point.

During July, many people tweeted about the poor play at these and other tournaments. Among the comments were complaints about selfish play, too much dribbling, lack of passing, poor effort on defense, poor shot selection, bad shooting and more. Now, which of those tend to occur more against man defenses than zones?

For the past couple of years, many have complained about the poor skill development (again, focused primarily on technical skills) compared to International players. Right or wrong, many characterize the International game as featuring more zone defense (I don’t know, as when I played and coached in Europe, I did not see any more zone than here).

What skills does a zone defense force an offense to emphasize?  Passing, shooting, and player movement. What skills do the most prevalent man offenses in club basketball (dribble-drive-motion) emphasize? Dribbling and shooting lay-ups.

If players do not move without the ball, do not pass well, and do not shoot well, they will not play well against a zone defense. Because players struggle with these skills, should we vilify zones?

Maybe we should force these teams to play zone defense so teams cannot rely on one player bullying her way to the rim, taking a bad shot, and playing volleyball for the offensive rebound!

Again, the central argument comes down to the way that we view basketball. If you view basketball as skills and strategy, and view strategy primarily as plays, I see how a zone as well as presses require more strategy.

However, if you view skills as comprising four different areas, learning to play against a zone is just another area of skill development, like learning to run a pick-and-roll, learning to set screens, learning to shoot a floater, or learning to throw a post-entry pass.

Playing against a zone does not require added strategy; instead, it requires an understanding of where and how to attack, as well as some simple principles. For instance, just as I teach players to follow behind a dribbler who penetrates toward the baseline against a man-defense, I teach players to fill the area vacated by dribble penetration against a zone. It is essentially the same skill, and, to me, it is a skill.

For me, strategy is the game adjustments that you make based on your team’s skills and strengths. For instance, when to call a timeout; when to play zone; when to foul late in the game; etc.

Strategy, in this sense, is unimportant until players have developed their skills to a reasonable level. With my junior varsity girls’, we never worried about these type of issues for the entire season; my only focus was athletic, technical, tactical and psychological skill development.

At the professional level, I incorporated strategy in every practice. I ended every practice with a situational game so players knew how to play when up 3 with 12 seconds to go or down 5 with 31 seconds. At this level, strategy is very important, as players at that level should have mastered the basic skills.

The elite club level incorporates skill development with some strategy, as it is important for players to learn how to manage game situations. Because these players have gone through the three learning stages with most of their skills, practice drills can incorporate multiple elements – like a shooting drill that incorporates the pick-and-roll action or shooting off a flare screen as one would receive against a basic 2-3 zone. These drills refine the technical skills and introduce and develop the basic tactical skills, which then can be incorporated into small-sided games or practice scrimmages to develop the full open skills, which involve the decision-making component.

This type of practice requires a different approach than the normal block practice environment. This is how I think about the game, so zones present another skill to develop. For those who see the game in terms of skills and strategy, I understand their difference of opinion.

However, rather than blame zones for the lack of skill development, we should examine the game to practice ratio and possibly broaden our definitions of skills to incorporate all the various basketball skills and not just a certain aspect of the game.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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