Why 2v2 is better than 1v1

I always have played a lot of one-on-one with my teams, as I tend to see the game as a number of one-on-one battles. However, as I re-wrote the curriculums for the Playmakers Basketball Development League and began to plan for the up-coming season, I realized two-on-two is the optimal starting point.

One-on-one is great for practicing individual moves and finishing. In many ways, one-on-one is the foundation of basketball, as there are courts across the world where two guys (usually) are playing one-on-one. From a development perspective, I prefer two-on-two.

Two-on-two is the smallest possible game that incorporates all the skills in basketball. There really is no skill in a five-on-five game that cannot be performed in two-on-two. There are shooting, dribbling, passing, defense, screens, hand-offs, cuts, and more. In two-on-two, there are no off-the-ball screens, but two offensive players can run pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs. These are screens.

Offensively, I have a very basic philosophy: disorganize the defense. By disorganizing the defense, we want to create a two-on-one. Once we have the two-on-one, we have to make the right decision, and we should have an open shot. Since the goal is to create two-on-one situations, I want to practice these situations. I view these situations – whether in transition or the half court – as the foundation of offense.

In one-on-one, there are few decisions to make. The offense has to read the defender and decide when to shoot, and the defender has to read the offensive player and stay between the offensive player and the basket. In two-on-two, there is the threat of a help defender and the possibility for a pass for the ball handler; the non-ball-handler has to move, find space, and occupy his or her defender. The defense has to decide whether or not to help, and the on-ball defender has to worry about the potential for a screen. Whereas many possessions may end up as one-on-one situations, the players have to think beyond one-on-one: the ball handler has to account for a second defender and his or her teammate on a drive rather than concentrating solely on beating one defender for a lay-up. Introducing this element begins the players’ learning of decision making in these situations in a way that one-on-one cannot replicate.

Beyond my general offensive philosophy, two-on-two is great for beginners to practice skills and learn to make simple decisions. I use a lot of offensive advantage games; with one-on-one, there are only a few ways to create the advantage. With two-on-two, there are many more ways to manipulate the environment to give the offense a slight advantage.

As our season kicks off, the focus will be two-on-two situations – full court transition, half-court transition, help-and-recover situations, closeout situations, etc. As we improve in our shot creation and decision-making in these situations, we will expand and add players. As players are added, the goal is to continue to create those two-on-one situations. What tactic can three offensive players use to create a two-on-one? What tactic can four or five players use? This is the foundation of general offensive basketball before worrying about any sets, strategy, tactics, or anything else.

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

22 thoughts on “Why 2v2 is better than 1v1

  • I believe in keeping 1v1 drills for the sake of developing the mentality of always being a threat to score. A lot of kids will look to pass every time there’s a 2v1 situation. Rather than simply tell them to be more aggressive, it’s better to train that aggression with 1v1 drills before putting more players on the court.

  • I’ll keep 1v1 drills too. However, I’ll play more 2v2 than 1v1. One reason is because of exactly what you said: players want to pass in 2v1. However, how do they learn to finish in those situations if they are playing 1v1. I think you can train that aggression in 2v2 drills (or even 5v5). I saw yesterday the beginning of a transformation in one of our guys and we’ve only done one 1v1 drill so far this season. In 4v4, 5v5, etc., he’s starting to develop a more aggressive mindset because I’ve yelled at him so many times to shoot the ball!

  • I see what you mean. In my practices, I don’t necessarily advocate one over the other. I see 1-Player, 2-Player, and 3-Player Actions as separate categories and try to train them equally to train the changing dynamics of play. We always start out with a 1v1 drill. In particular, I want them to be aggressive on the catch from 1)the low post, 2)the high post, and 3)the swing or skip pass. I let them know that I expect them to attack when in those positions or, when not in those positions, to move the ball and look to get it there. I try to simulate those situations by setting up with designated passers and the player’s defender in the correct help position at the starting point before the ball is passed. If anything, I might do slightly less 2v2 drills since there are certain 2-Player Actions, such as the dribble-at, that really require 3 players to train.

  • I really should edit those “score” spots to take out the high post and replace it with the kick-out pass. I have my players flash to the high post when the perimeter pass is not available, thus I want the high post to first look for the overplayed receiver cutting backdoor.

  • Thanks Brian for another excellent article. I also prefer 2v2 as perhaps my favorite teaching tool.

    I find, and maybe this says more about my coaching limitations than anything else, that I can really focus my teaching in 2v2. i will normally play a cut throat defence version (where the winning team becomes the new defence) and an offense version where the winning team stays goes to offense and the next pair comes on from the baseline as the new defense.
    Again this might say more about me but i find I need a specific coaching emphasis to maximise teaching – hence I pretty much coach the Offense or Defense specifically depending on which version we are running.
    To add to the excellent comments by Paul in regards to kids tending to pass too often in a 2v1 situation can i offer a suggestion.
    In our 2v2 practice we have what we call a ‘surrender turnover’. If any player passes off without first engaging/attacking their defender we call a turnover (which means team Off). This has helped us immeasurably I feel in developing an attack 1on1 philosophy. The only exception we make is if the pass is for a wide open layup.


  • Russell:
    That’s a nice addition. I did something similar late in the season with my team in 4v4 and 5v5 scrimmages/cut throat. If you caught with nobody on you, you had to shoot – no thinking. If you had one player on you, you had to drive. If you had two players, you had to pass. I was trying to work on our defense of being able to contain the dribble and help quicker when we got beat, but I also wanted to work on being more aggressive. We would pass for no reason.

    Thanks for the comment.


  • thanks for the encouragement,

    I must have read a million clinic notes (and been to quite a few) by now. I don’t think i’ve seen anything put better to develop an agressive attitude on offensive than what i found in Blitz Basketball. I might be paraphrasing, as i don’t have it in front of me now, but my recollection is : no defender = shoot, 1 defender = attack, 2 defenders = pass.

    For our guards i use the exact same phrase with under 18 boys as i do with u14 girls : if you draw the help defense look to pass where the help came from.

    Both those are in my view simple and effective .

    If i could pose a separate question : We nearly always are restricted half court for practice. can i ask yours (and others views) on whether when playing 2v2 (or 3v3) half court whether you think that on a defensive stop a better option is Pass back to the coach then go to offense or You need to get the ball to half court to become the new offense is more beneficial to developing transitional mindset. I can see merits in both


  • Russell:
    I generally pass out to the coach. However, that is one of the things that I am thinking of changing because I focus so much on transition defense. I want to start to change up how drills end rather than always having them end at the end of an offensive possession. I like the idea of having to get the ball to half court and then maybe passing to a coach to check while the next team runs in on defense or something like that. It is something that I plan to play with next season.

  • I love both 1 on 1 as well as 2 on 2 setups. 1 on 1 especially has a place in my book because of the way it can be used to teach 1 on 1 defensive skills as well. Can’t rely on help at all, you and you alone are accountable for the way you play D.

    My favorite game is a 2 on 2 on 2 on 2 variation. Fast paced, great to improve passing & catching on the run (even though only partly with a cognitive element), while staying aggressive all the time. My boys (U16) love it so much, I even use it as an incentive/reward for good team performances etc. despite a certain conditioning element of the game.


    – 8 players minimum, 1 ball.
    – 2 offensive players start underneath the basket, 2 defensive players, defending full court. The other remaining players wait at the 4 spots outside the 3 point lines extended. (see diagram)
    – for the first attack, we play a regular 2 on 2 full court game
    – as soon as the offensive team scores or the defense stops the ball the real game begins: the defense (players 1 and 2 in the diagram) immediately(!) passes the ball to one of the two players (5 or 6) waiting outside the sideline (you can have them step them into the court to make it more real, though => outlet pass). The player who caught the ball (here: 5) and his counterpart (6) on the other sideline now play 2 on 2 against the 2 former offensive players (3 and 4), who try to defend full court. Former defensive players (1 and 2) step off the court, waiting at the sideline.
    – before the new offensive team is allowed to score, they have to pass the ball to one of the two players waiting outside the sideline (7 and 8) on the other half of the court.
    – the ball is then passed back to either one of the two offensive players (often, if the player on the weakside (6) has ran the court well, he will be free for a skip pass (from 7), which usually ends up in a lot of cheering and yahoos everywhere… : )). The ball is now live for a regular 2 on 2, but we usually set a time limit of 6-7 seconds, so the players stay in a scorer mindset and at the same time get used to shotclock situations.
    – After a score/stop, the game continues as described
    – play to a certain amount of points (we usually go for 6-7), teams count on their own. We normally award 1 point per basket (also 3s) and 2 for a score without any dribble during the entire sequence. But you can adjust your rules as you see fit (left hand scores count twice, offensive rebounds mean one extra point etc.).
    – if waiting players don’t pay attention and thus ruin the offense for the 2 attacking players, this means 10 pushups for the delinquent. Had to do it twice in the beginning and had no more problems ever since.

    Enjoy! Your players will…

  • Coach:
    Good stuff. Thank you for sharing. I wish I had seen this before my clinic this weekend; I would have tried it out!

  • I love reading all the info on ssgs, “drills” etc. I have a 4th grade team at our YMCA. 2 or 3 are skilled enough to compete in ssgs, the other 6 will freeze up on the catch. I am looking for ssgs for quicker decision making,etc. A “pass clock” of 2 seconds?

  • Brian, I have 2 of your books ( Fake Fundamentals , and 21st Century basketball practice), hope I got the title correct. I’ve also watched a ton of your YouTube vids. I have implemented a few small sided games in practice. My “big ” team, 8th grade boys love them, and has helped us tremendously in our first couple scrimmages. The 4th graders all want to crowd the ball, bringing defense with them, and freeze up when they catch ball,on perimeter. This week I may start with 2 vs 2 to introduce pick n roll, and simple give n go. I’ll post next week how it goes. You single handedly have changed the way I’m teaching basketball. I have limited coaching experience as a head coach , 2 years with grade 4 and 5, and 4 years assistant with who are now 8th graders. Thanks again for all the info all you guys share.

  • Trey:
    A couple things to try:
    (1) Reduce complexity – play with fewer players (2v2 as opposed to 3v3) or limit potential skills (no dribble; keep away). Of course, no dribble may defeat your goal and may make it harder initially.
    (2) In Cross Over, I wrote about Americanized Netball: essentially, do not allow the defense to steal the ball from the offense when the offense has possession of it. The defense can steal the ball only when it is in the air. Any reaching or attempting to block a shot when the player has possession of the ball is a foul, whether the steal or block is clean or not. Defense is working on deflections; offense now has the confidence to look for an opening rather than having to devote most of their attention to ball protection.
    (3) With older players, I play 1-second rules. You have 1 second to drive, shoot, or pass. That could lead to some ugly play, but it also could force them to anticipate and make quicker decisions. The ugliness may lead to better performance in the long run or it could lead to bad shots and over dribbling. Then, you have to add something to correct those problems, but maybe it solved the first problem of freezing up. Creating new problems isn’t the goal, but if it moves them forward, there may be a method to the madness. probably easier to teach shot selection to aggressive players than to teach aggressiveness to timid players.

  • Brian, thanks for responding. i have practice with the “little” team next week after the Thanksgiving break. I will try more 2vs2 ( on each basket , I have 8 players) with no dribbling. I really like the idea of defense only stealing when ball is in the air. If it’s possible with this group I may try using a “pass clock” in the 10’pass game. With quicker decision making this team could be competitive. I have only had them in 1 tourney ( 3 games) and we weren’t very competitive because we are undersized. I like to practice and play ssgs a lot more than games, I am a believer that kids play too many games and more time should be spent on skill development. My assistant is wanting to start working on set plays or a continuity offense in the half court. First, should we keep working on skills, and transition?, or perhaps work on basics of a 5 out pass , cut, fill? Not ready for screens yet .

  • Trey:
    I wouldn’t worry about plays. I’d keep playing SSGs and focusing on skill. Only reason to add some organization in terms of plays or something like that is to be more competitive so players do not get frustrated. It is hard to keep players and parents motivated and believing when you’re getting blown out all of the time, and if adding a play or two to give you some organization leads to more competitiveness, it’s not a bad thing in my book. But, if it takes the entire practice to teach the plays, it’s a waste of time in the long run. Just give them something basic and don’t worry if it’s run 100% correctly. Just a starting point or a couple basic rules (pass and basket cut; fill behind; flare away from dribble penetration, etc) can increase the competitiveness without having to devote hours to plays or set offenses, and you can teach these concepts through the SSGs.

  • That’s exactly what I was planning on working on. Basket cut and fill spots, back cut when dribbled at. Instead of away screens, I’ve started with telling wing or posts to simply “switch places with each other” to keep defense moving. Once this starts working in ssgs or scrimmage, I’m hoping to add a ball screen, or away screen after pass.

  • Brian, next month I’ll begin coaching a different team at our YMCA, all 5th graders. They’re all going to have vastly different talent levels. We will begin our first practice with basic ball handling, dribble tag,etc. I am hoping to use mostly small sided games I’ve seen on your YouTube videos, and books. On the defensive end I’m needing simple ways to teach man basics. Something other than shell drills or 1vs1 with emphasis on ball pressure. If you have suggestions for ssgs or drills to teach team defense with limited practice ( 2 hours weekly) ,the same ssgs with more focus,on the defense. Maybe have assistants work on offensive skills, while I focus on D?

  • I build out of 1v1 to 2v2 to 3v3 etc. I don’t teach too much. I wait and see what kind of instincts they have, what they do naturally, and add to it. Too many times, we go straight to teaching, and then we have to re-teach something that was instinctual if left alone. To focus more on defense, just change the constraints or add rules to make the game more defensive, like points for defensive stops or three stops in a row or point for an offensive rebound or points for deflections/steals, etc.

  • Thanks again. I like the idea of points for stops, boards, deflections, etc. We have used these types of scoring during ssgs before. I recently watched ( 3rd or 4th time) the Basketball Manitoba Coaches Clinic with Mike Mackay , Kirby Shepp, and yourself. I am going to try more games approach to practice ( 50 mins, of a 90 min session). The kids, a few whom haven’t played organized basketball, really seem to enjoy the competitive aspect . Could you send me an email address of yours? I’d like to send you updates on how we are progressing. Again, thanks for all videos, articles, ec. I really think more coaches, especially at the youth level (grade 3-6) should coach this way

  • B- we are 1-1 on the season. I’ve been pleased with spacing in the half court, and our man defense. The 75 minute practice sessions I have are now 30 mins of ssgs ( some with focus on d) . Still using basic dribbling drills, and 2-0 passing drills to try to improve skillsets. I have started to introduce a simple 5 out pass and cut offense, since there’s no real post presence. Just thought I’d update you , lol. I’m almost thru 21 century basketball , for the 2nd time. I’d recommend that book, as well as all your others to all youth coaches. Thanks

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