How to Play Defense

Most basketball players don’t want to be a great defender. That is just a fact. They shy away from the challenge of holding their opponent scoreless and would rather work on their offensive skills than their defense. What does that mean for you? An incredible opportunity to set yourself a part from the rest of the pack. If you have a good offensive game but are the best defender on the team, there is always a spot for you. It’s like being a great shooter, every team needs a lockdown defender. Now if you’re great on both ends, you have a chance to really make a name for yourself. Before getting ahead of ourselves lets break down a few principles you will need to be a good defender on any team.

The Basics

Before we get into technique, defense is about heart and determination above anything else. It is deciding that your man will not score one basket and you are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. With that attitude, I can teach you to be a great defender but without it you will always be mediocre.

First let’s make sure your stance is right. Spread your feet a comfortable distance that will enable you to be low but also laterally mobile at a good speed. Sit down in this stance somewhere between being in a chair and hunched over. There is a sweet spot in-between there that will be comfortable for you. Sitting completely in a chair will make you too stiff and being hunched over will make you off balance. In-between these two there is a point where you will feel on-balance and ready to move. Hand placement can change with every coach, I recommend being very active with your hands and disrupting the offensive player rather than keeping them in one position. Think of what you wouldn’t like as an offensive player and do that. Keep the hands low when they are dribbling, higher when they go to pass and all over the place when they don’t have a dribble.

Man to Man

When you are locked on to one offensive player your job essentially is to not let them make a play. That could be scoring a basket, drawing a foul, making an assist or simply breaking down the defense. If your man does any of these you have failed. Be tight on your man, only half an arm distance when they have the ball, one step back when the ball is one pass away, and two steps back when it is two passes away.

The reason for the distance is because you have to be in a position that enables you to help your teammate if their offensive player drives past them. If you are guarding a player on the wing and the offensive player drives to your side, you have to step in front to impede his progress and recover. If you remain attached to your man, the offensive player would have a free lane to the basket. Keep your offensive player from making plays but be ready to help if your teammates need it.


Zone defense can be tricky because there are many different formations and coaches have unique philosophies when using them. Some examples are 2-2-1, 1-2-2, 1-3-1 and 2-3. These are common half-court zone defenses that many teams run ad nauseum. Instead of going over every rotation to every zone defense, I want to give you the essential concepts you need to understand what a zone defense is and why you are running it.

A zone is designed to overcompensate for a mismatch, pressure an offensive team, protect the paint, protect the perimeter or confuse the opposition. As you can see there are plenty of reasons why a coach may use a zone. All you need to know is that you will be assigned a “zone” or area of the court that you must protect at all costs. You will also have to understand the two positions around you and where they go in order to understand the rotation. For example, if you are at the top of a zone, you need to understand what your teammates on the left and right of you are doing. How they move dictates where you move and so on and so forth. It is as if the entire team is on a tight string moving in unison and if one of you is in the wrong spot it will break. Remain cohesive and constantly communicate to play an effective zone defense.

You can have all the technique in the world and still be a terrible defender. In order to truly be great at this skill you have to decide to never want the opposition to score. If you develop that sense of hate, it will rub off on your teammates and before you know it teams will have a really tough time scoring. It starts with you, so what are you going to do?


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