Running the 1-2-1-1 zone press From Ed Webb, contributing writer

It’s very important for coaches to allow their players the opportunity to have fun while trying to accomplish team objectives. I’ve never met a player who didn’t want to play a fast-paced, full-court game, whether it be the fast break or full-court pressure such as the 1-2-1-1 zone press.

The theory of running a pressure defense, such as the 1-2-1-1, has lots of logic behind it. For example, few teams like to play against a pressure defense, because it forces them to put in extra time to prepare for it. In addition, a pressure defense often becomes a conditioning test for them.

From your team’s point of view, using a pressure defense can hide your weaknesses. It also allows a coach to play more players and control the tempo of the game. Plus, it can be a great confidence builder.

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There are several objectives we want to accomplish with our pressure defense, and taking away the ball on a direct steal isn’t necessarily one of them. We want to :

  • Press the ball out-of-bounds.
  • Double-team the ball, and cut off the adjacent passing lanes.
  • Stop penetration by the dribbler.
  • Force our opponent into errors (e.g. 10-second violation, a bad pass traveling).
  • Not foul (unless the situation warrants it).
  • Stop layups.

Player positions in the 1-2-1-1 zone press

As with any defense, the 1-2-1-1 zone press assigns certain positions and responsibilities to defenders.

• Player X4: Left side of the basket, tight on the baseline where the throw-in usually occurs.

• Players X2, X3: One step outside the foul-line extended, forcing the inbound pass into the corners. Not letting the ball handler pivot and face up when he receives the pass.

• Player X1: Halfway between the top of the free-throw circle and the midcourt circle, ready to protect the strong-side passing lane.

• Player X5: Halfway between the midcourt and free-throw circles, protecting the basket and taking away the long pass to half court.

Player responsibilities 

• Player X4: 1. Pressure the ball out-of-bounds; try to prevent the high pass inbounds. 2. Double-team the ball on the inbounds pass in front of X2 and X3. Prevent the dribble back toward the middle; don’t allow the dribbler to split the double-team. 3. Retreat to the basket in the passing lane in the middle of the floor if the ball is passed out of the double-team past the defender. 4. Follow the ball for another double-team if the ball is thrown over the defender’s head. 5. Chase the ball when it’s being advanced to the basket.

• Player X2, X3: Allow the inbounds pass to a player on their side in front of them, but do not allow the opponent with the ball to pivot and face up.

  • On the ball side: 1. Double-team the inbounds pass. Prevent the dribble up the sideline and the split of the double-team. 2. Double-team the ball if it’s thrown out of the double-team over and up the sideline. 3. Get in the passing lane if the ball is thrown out of the passing lane but not past.
  • On the opposite side: 1. Cut off the pass back into the middle. 2. Double-team the ball if the pass is made to an opponent in their area. 3. Abide by double-team rules. Prevent the pass from out-of-bounds between X2 and X3 and midcourt. Cut off the pass up the sideline on the ball side. Double-team the ball if the pass is made up the sideline out of the double-team. Stop any dribbler who splits a double-team allowing teammates to recover.

• Player X5: 1. Protect the basket against layups. 2. Take away the long adjacent pass to midcourt.

Deploying the 1-2-1-1 zone press

There are four ways to play the zone press:

  • Regular, where you allow the inbound pass.
  • Overplay, where you deny the inbound pass.
  • Double-team, where you double-team your opponent’s best guard with X4 on the inbound.
  • Rover, where X4 is open in the middle of the lane facing the ball, with X2 and X3 in an overplay position. Player X4 calls out where the ball is being thrown to alert X2 and X3.

DIAGRAM 1: Divide the court into three areas. In area 1, you can gamble — anything goes. In area 2, chase the ball from behind for the tap out. And in area 3, sprint into the lane to make the shot come from 15 feet and out.

DIAGRAM 2: Strong-side coverage.

DIAGRAM 3: Reversal. X4 chases the ball; X2 circles out to keep the ball in front of the opponent after a two-count to give X3 time to cover the middle.

DIAGRAM 4: If the ball is inbounded from the side, turn the press around.

DIAGRAM 5: A variation of the 1-2-1-1 zone press for late in the game. In this press, X2, X3 and X4 gamble. X1 and X5 protect and look for the lob pass. X2 and X3 either double or cut the middle off, and X4 always doubles. When the ball is reversed, the weak-side player circles out and gets in position to stop the ball.

To be a good pressing team, you must put your press in at the very start and allow your players to build confidence. Don’t be concerned about your team’s press offense at this point; there’s time to work on that. But it would be discouraging to your defense if it can never experience success.

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