Zone Offense Philosophy + 8 Attacking Principles!

By Rory Hamilton

Rory Hamilton - Zone Offense

A comprehensive checklist on zone offense to go through before the coming season, including 8 principles of attacking zone defenses.

At the time of writing, it is the end of July – meaning basketball season will be here before we know it. As all of us coaches know, summer is the perfect time for professional development. Every year I look at studying a team I feel mirrors the personnel and players we have in our program. From here, I often find some new ideas both offensively and defensively to help our team have success.

By following the same system, you can too.

I’m sharing this comprehensive zone offense series designed to get coaches thinking about their zone offense philosophy and zone package for the 2019-20 season. Whether you are a brand new coach or a seasoned veteran, hopefully you can take at least one new concept or idea back to help your program.

Zone Offense Philosophy

Before you talk about XsOs, I feel it is important that the players and coaches know your offensive philosophy versus man-to-man and zone. If you have never done this, take some time to sit down with your staff and share your beliefs. This will  provide players with much needed clarity and answer the “why” we do what we do. Here is our simple offensive philosophy at Norman North.

      1. Early Offense – We run for layups, open 3pt shots and quick post up opportunities.
      2. Set Plays – Coach or team can call a set or quick hitter versus zone or man.
      3. Motion (4-Out) or Zone Offense (Odd/Even) – This is what we run behind what we run!
      4. Crash the Boards – Always send 3 to the boards and have 2 back.

Concepts vs. Structure

Do you want to give your players the freedom to read the defense and make appropriate reads? Or will you use more structure and continuity to help simplify reads for your players? This depends on your talent and your philosophy. If you have great talent, sometimes giving them more freedom to make plays is a better option. On the other hand, if you are not as talented and you need certain players to always touch the ball, then maybe structure might work best for your team. I personally like a combination of both, and feel you need both at different times to be a good zone offense team. Here are just a few of our offensive concepts versus zone defense. Click on a diagram to download it to your FastDraw library.

1. Alignment over Movement—Hubie Brown once said: “You don’t need great movement if you have great alignment.” We want quick ball movement and less player movement versus the zone. We always want to position ourselves in gaps and have the zone move quickly and have to make quick decisions. Guards should always be ready to shoot and post players ready to score at the high and low post areas. We like to begin our zone offense in a 1-4 alignment because it distorts every zone and creates four outlets for your point guard.

2. Ball Movement, Pass Fakes & Skips—We use a phrase in our teaching that the “ball moves the zone” so we have a 1-count rule on every catch to promote efficient ball movement. On every catch we should do the following progression (shoot, drive, reverse). We also like skip passes versus the zone because they create long closeouts which we can attack and get the ball into the paint with dribble penetration. Lastly, pass fakes are extremely useful against great zones because zones are taught to anticipate and move in the direction of the ball. We use the phrase “fake away from where you want to throw it.”

3. High-Low-Opposite—One of our main goals in our zone offense is to get the ball into the high post area. This often collapses the zone and provides multiple scoring options. We use the phrase “High-Low-Opposite” so our players know the reads on a high post catch. Once the ball gets into the high post the first look is to shoot, second look is down low and third is look opposite. These reads are simple, easy to teach and reinforce.

4. Get the Ball Inside—My favorite thing to do against a zone is get the ball inside. It often collapses the zone and will allow inside-out 3pt shot opportunities. Don’t let your team be one-dimensional against the zone. A great way to do this is to reverse your scoring in practice: award three points for a paint point and only two points for anything outside the paint. This will also encourage your players to drive gaps and get into the paint.

5. Flash Behind the Zone—Zone defenses are taught align themselves in relationship to the basketball. Often times all five zone defenders will be watching the ball. This allows the offense, usually from the weak side, to see gaps and open areas and flash into them accordingly.

6. Screen the Zone—There are lots of ways to effectively screen a zone defense. No matter if it is a pin-in screen on the weak side of the zone to an on ball screen, screening the zone creates easy 2-1 advantages and nice scoring opportunities.

7. Misdirection Drag Dribbles & Gap Dribbles—Misdirection dribbles opens up gaps in the zone by dragging defenders from coverage areas. This is especially effective versus teams that run a really good match-up zone.  “Flood” is a great play that incorporates multiple drag dribbles to confuse and overload the zone defense.

8. Crash the Boards – One of the best ways to score against the zone is to get second and third scoring opportunities via offensive rebounds. Rebounding out of a zone is a challenge for the defense, so emphasizing offensive rebounding is a must.

Regardless of whether you teach your zone offense through concepts or by structured movements, adding a couple of these concepts will hopefully help your team improve next season.


More from Coach Hamilton: All Plays & Drills | All Blog Posts | Attacking a Match-up Zone | Man-to-Man Defense Series

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Rory Hamilton

Rory Hamilton

Rory Hamilton has 21 years of basketball coaching experience at the collegiate and high school level. Coach Hamilton is the current girls basketball coach at Norman North High School. In 5 years his team has posted a 85-49 record, won four mid-season tournament titles and appeared in five 6A area tournaments. In 2019, Norman North won the silver ball losing in the 6A state championship game to Norman High School. Coach Hamilton was named Central Oklahoma Conference girls coach of the year along with earning Oklahoma Girls Basketball Coaches Association Large Class All-State coach. Prior to Norman North, he served as the head girls coach at Mount St. Mary Catholic High School in Oklahoma City, OK. In seven years at MSM, he posted a 108-75 record and is the winningest girls coach in school history. Coach Hamilton led the Rockets to three consecutive 4A state tournament appearances. In 2011-2012, the Rockets had a 20-7 record and made it to the state tournament for the first time in school history. The next year in 2012-2013, the Rockets posted a 25-6 record and earned the silver ball, losing in the 4A state championship game to Fort Gibson. In 2013-2014, the Rockets posted a 23-7 record and lost to Anadarko in the 4A state tournament semifinals. Coach Hamilton was named Central Oklahoma Conference coach of the year three times and was selected to coach the Little All-City all-star game three consecutive years from 2012-2014. Coach Hamilton has coached 6 NCAA Division 1 players, 6 NCAA Division II players and several playing at the NAIA and NJCAA levels.
Rory Hamilton – Zone Offense
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