THREE ZONE SPECIALS
When the opponents on your schedule generally play Man to Man Defense, the rare one that opens in a Zone can present a problem for your team. Players may be happy because they believe they will now have a green light to fire away from the 3-point line and beyond. But coaches know this can be a “good or bad” approach depending on whether shooters are “hot or cold.” A good Zone Offense, like a good Man to Man Offense, needs ways to score inside as well as outside. That’s why I have employed Zone Specials to help my team get more inside scoring opportunities.
If a team normally plays a Man to Man Defense and suddenly switches to a Zone in the middle of a game, it’s a sure sign something is wrong. Maybe the opponent is in foul trouble, or they are tired, or just desperate because they can’t defend you well enough with their Man to Man Defense. No matter what the reason, it is important to take advantage of their present weakness and make them pay a price. Standing outside and firing away from the 3-point line could end up playing into their hands, especially if your shooters are cold.
When an opponent opens a game in a Zone, I like to have my team use our regular Zone Set Offense to start out. We then sprinkle in some Zone Specials here and there, especially when a basket is really needed. But when an opponent switches from a base Man to Man Defense to a Zone in the middle of a game, I consider this an Opportunity and I want my players to feel the same. We go straight to a Zone Special and look to score inside immediately. We follow that up with a different Special that can get us another easy, inside basket. The goal is to get a very high percentage shot and score ……… twice ……. at least. This will often force the opponent to get out of the zone right away, and that is the goal. If they are in foul trouble, attack them. If they are tired, don’t let them stand around and rest. If they are desperate, show them they are helpless. Attack the weakness and score inside when possible.
My favorite Zone Special is one I call Stack. To me and my team, the name implies that the “4” and “5” (Bigs) stack themselves at the left low post. Usually “5” is on the bottom of the stack because he is the taller and more athletic player. The two Bigs can switch spots of course, and they sometimes do if we run Stack a couple of times, just to give a different look. Positioning in the Stack requires one Big to put his right foot on the block and the other Big to put his left on the block, with both players facing into the key. The two players form a double screen, or what we call a “stack.” The point guard “1” takes the ball toward “2” (our best outside shooter) on the right wing, lane line extended. (See Diagram 1, below) The “2” moves to the baseline as “3” makes an “L-Cut” from his wing to the left lane line extended. (Diagram 2, below) The “3” must time his cut so “1” can look for him as “3” moves from behind the defender in his area.
As the ball is passed from “1” to “3”, the Stack holds and “2” cuts under the basket, around the Stack, and heads to the corner. (Diagram 3 below) It is important at this point for the “4” to observe how the defense adjusts to “2” in the corner. If he is left open, “3” passes him the ball and we let him shoot it. Remember, “2” is our best outside shooter, so he should be covered eventually. While “3” has the ball, he looks at “2” and watches what the defense does. If a defender (X4) goes out to cover “2”, then “3” fakes a pass to him and looks for “5”. When (X4) goes out, “4” steps in and screens (X5) or whomever is in the middle of the zone. That leaves “5” completely open for a lob pass and easy basket. (Diagram 4 below) If (X5) slides or cheats under “4’s” screen, then “4” just steps into the middle of the key, puts his hands up, and gets the open pass for an inside shot.
The “3” must be a good passer and patient in looking for the openings. I often have the “3” spot filled by the player who takes the ball out for us on Under O.B. Plays. Both spots require a good passer. If the play is covered and we can’t get it to any of the three main options, we move directly to our regular Zone Offense. The “1” goes to the right wing, “2” floats the baseline, “3” returns to his left wing after he passes to another player. The “4” and “5” remain in the post area, one high and one low.
My second Zone Special is similar to Stack, only from a slightly different set. (Diagram 5 below) I call it Delta, and the main difference is the “4” and “5” set up on opposite low blocks. I generally have “4” on the left because he is the screener, but it really doesn’t matter which post screens. Every move remains the same as in Stack, only “2” just runs through as the posts are doing their Screening Play. The “1” and “3” do the same move and looks. (Diagram 6 below)
As “2” leaves the key area and heads to the corner, “4” cross-screens for the “5” by seeking out a defender in the middle of the zone. (Diagram 7 below) The “5” always cuts under the screen, below the “4”, and looks for a pass on the opposite side. (Diagram 8 below) The “4” screens, then asks for a pass in the middle by stepping one step toward “3” and putting his hands up. As in Stack, the “5” should be open the first time, but “4” will be open eventually when the defenders start adjusting to stop “5.”
My third Special is usually a play for our good shooter to get an open 3-point shot. After two inside scores, it’s time to hit a “three” and break the Zone’s back. There are several good Zone Specials for getting 3-point shots, but this is one of my favorites. It’s called “Loop” and it attacks the right side of the court as opposed to the Stack and Delta which attack the left side.
This Special lines up the same as Delta to help disguise it. The “1” passes to “2” and heads away from the ball. Meanwhile, “3”, a good 3-point shooter, heads to the baseline, low block area. (Diagram 9 below) The “5” fakes a screen for “4”as “4” cuts to the high post area, ball side. The “2” looks for “4” in the paint area, then dribbles up toward the top of the key. (Diagram 10 below) The goal is to drag defender “X3” with the dribble of “2” so that the corner opens up for “3” as he cuts under the basket and to the corner. The “2” passes to “3” for the shot if he is open in the corner. Generally, “X5” has inside responsibility and will not go out to the corner to cover “3”.
If “X5” does move out, offensive post player “5” should be wide open for an inside pass and easy score. (Diagram 11 below) The “4” moves to the opposite side of the basket, low post, to position for a rebound of a shot by either “3” or “5”. This Overload Play will get open looks at 3 point shots and then open the middle and low post for the Bigs. It is a nice counter to the first two Specials and again, a great use of a good shooter.
Attack with Zone Specials that get you very high percentage, inside shots at opportune times. Whether you are zoned from the beginning of the game or in the middle as a “change up,” a Zone Special is something that can make your offense better. Have a couple of Specials ready at least for League games and Postseason play. You will be glad you did.
Key Teaching Points:
- Emphasize that Specials are for getting intended shots. Look for them.
- Execution is important. Time the cuts, screens, and passes with precision.
- Don’t force passes inside if the Zone packs it. Look and take what you get.
- Ball fakes and look-offs are important in creating inside passing lanes.
- When Specials are unsuccessful, immediately flow into regular zone offense.