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How to Coach the 1-3-1 Basketball Zone Pressure Defenses

Stunting with pressure defenses is a good way to destroy an opponent. Sometimes, I feel the term; "pressure defense" is an inapplicable designation. Any "defense" that does not place pressure on the offense will never be effective.

Defense is not passive; however, the term "pressure defense" in modern-day basketball vernacular refers to defenses designed to harass and double-team the offense. Half court, three-quarter court and full court presses provide double-team situations and backcourt harassment. This defense prevents the offense from relaxing and keeps them guessing. Such defenses cause the opponent to make mistakes.

Pressure defenses have changed the game about as much as the jump shot. This helps take the game away from the big boys by forcing a wide-open game where speed and aggressiveness can be utilized to its fullest potential.

Coaching the basketball 1-3-1 zone press

In keeping with my theory of the flexing zone, I recommend the basic 1-3-1 zone defense and simply move it out to cover more court. The defensive players can be moved out to half-court, three-quarter-court, or full-court as shown in the following diagrams

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Diagram (1), (2), and (3) shows the starting positions for each of the presses. The matching principle is once again employed since a defensive player is useless guarding an area of the court that is unoccupied. On the press, the defensive players must rely heavily on peripheral vision to pick up offensive players as they move from one spot to another.

The point player, X1, is the most important player in this press. He should not contest the throw in, but should guide the dribbler to a position on the sideline where he can be double-teamed. On the three-quarter-court press, he would pick up the dribbler in the free-throw area as shown in the above Diagram (4). When the half-court press is used, X1 applies the pressure as the dribbler approaches the mid-court line.

Location for the double-team

Coaches have many different ideas where to apply the double-team. Some double-team as soon as possible without consideration to court position; however, experience tells me the double-team is more effective when the dribbler is forced to use his "weak hand." Since this, in most cases is the left hand, have X1 to drive him toward X2 by overplaying the dribbler's right hand as illustrated in Diagram (5). Diagram (4) shows where the double-team is applied in the three-quarter-court press.

As X2 and X1 converge to make the double-team, the other three players react and move, looking for the interception. The middleman, X3, plugs the middle. X4 cover the weak-side of the floor and prevents a quick pass back to the offensive player who passed the ball in bounds. If there is no one in the middle, X3 should drop back and play for the interception to either side of the court. The goalie, X5, protects the goal on all penetration beyond the frontline defenders.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Should the ball be dribbled to the other side of the floor, X4 becomes the double-teamer, X2 the interceptor, and X3 has the same responsibilities. X5 always protects the basket and should not gamble on an interception unless he is absolutely certain he can make the interception.

The half-court press

Missed field goals and free-throw attempts make it difficult to set up a three-quarter of full-court zone press. Quick outlet passes eliminate double-team opportunities. Play it smart, prevent cheap baskets, and fall back into a half-court press when there is a change of possession other than a successful field goal or free throw. Use this same defense when the offense escapes the backcourt trap and advances the ball into the frontcourt against either the three-quarter or full-court press. The half-court press is also a good defense to use on its own. It provides sufficient opportunity to double-team and intercept; yet remains compact enough to prevent easy baskets.

The initial alignment of players is the same as in the 1-3-1 zone; however, different slides are used to set up the double-team. Once again, the point player has the all-important job encouraging the dribbler to use his weak hand. The trap with the double-team ideally should take place just as the ball crosses the centerline as shown in Diagram (7). Mistakes are more likely when the ball-handler not only has to worry about the double-team, but the 10-second line as well. If the double-team is timed correctly, the mid-court and sideline serve as defensive men as well.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the basketball pressure defenses.

Sometimes the dribbler will escape the first double-team. When this happens, force the dribbler to the corner. The shaded area in Diagram (6) represents the best places to double-team. See Diagram (7), (8), (9), and (10) for double-team situations.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

When employing the half-court press, a most important point of execution is for the wingmen to drop to the goal when the ball is in the opposite corner. X5, the goalie must leave that critical scoring area when the ball goes to the corner. He double-teams with the strong-side wingman as seen in Diagram (10).

When the ball is between the free-throw line extended and center-court, the off-side wing man is the interceptor, but as soon as the ball passes the free-throw line extended, he drops off as rapidly as possible to cover the goal area that X5 has abandoned. Diagram (12) shows X2's position as an offside interceptor when the ball is in the frontcourt.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.


Drills for perfecting the 1-3-1 zone press

The secret of the 1-3-1 zone press is the double-team. Teach your players not to get overanxious. The players who make the double-team seldom steal the ball. They should concentrate on an aggressive double-team without fouling and close off any escape outlet the ball-handler may have. Don't grab or slap at the ball. Keep the hands up and force a lob pass or some other error, then their part on the press has been executed perfectly,

Since the double-team and intercepted pass are the heart and soul of any zone pressing defense, you must devote a great deal of time drilling your players on the proper maneuvers. You can devise a number of simple drills to practice both the double-team and the interception. Here are some with proven results.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Practice this double-team by placing one player near the sideline as shown in Diagram (13) on the left. Form two lines of defensive double-teamers on each side of him. Throw the ball to the offensive player and have the defensive players converge, using a wide base and arms spread. Give everyone a chance to double-team from various spots on the floor. Continually emphasize the importance of harassment without fouling. Occasionally, time the defensive players to see how long they can contain the ball handler without fouling or allowing him to break free.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Catching the ball cleanly in the interception and converting it into a basket is no easy chore. Break down this phase of your press and work on that basic fundamental. For example, instead of warming up with the two-line lay-up drill, have the players breaking to meet passes or picking up rolling passes on the floor as in Diagram (14)

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

You might station a player at a particular spot and pass to him. Improve the timing of your players and make them interception minded by having them break in front of the offensive player and take the pass as in the drill shown in Diagram (15). After the interception, have the offensive player chase and harass the interceptor to the basket, placing some pressure on the lay-up as would happen under actual game conditions. These "catch and go" drills will carry-over to offensive ball handling as well.

Combine the Drills

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

After working on the two previous drills separately, combine them. Have the ball handler attempt to pass to a teammate while he is being double-teamed. Let part of the players work on timing and the interception while others practice the double-team. Move the drill to different areas of the floor, so your players will become familiar with all double-team and interception situations as illustrated in Diagram (16) on the left.

Positioning of players

Each position has its unique duty. This will be fully explained in the following few paragraphs. Every man has his role to play in any zone press.

The goalie X5

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Positioning of personnel is the key to success of any zone press. On the 1-3-1, place the slowest player under the goal. Tell him to guard the area under the basket when the ball is between centerline and the free-throw line extended. (See the shaded area in Diagram (17). When the ball moves into either corner, he moves out to double-team.

The wingmen X2 and X4

The two wingmen, X2 and X4 should have good speed and sure hands, since they will make most of the interceptions. It is better to have some height advantage at these positions, because the added height will make the double-team more effective and help cause interceptions

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

Divide the court in half by drawing an imaginary line from one basket to the other. (See Diagram (18). Instruct each wingman to double-team with either the point, X1, or the goalie, X5, when the ball is in his area. Of course this seems like an extremely large area for one player to cover, but if the wingman will wait until the point man drives the dribbler to him, he will find the job much easier. He should not come to meet the dribbler, but let the point man force him to the sidelines.

If a good job is done on the first double-team, there is little need to be concerned over the large area to the back of the wingmen. If the dribbler escapes the double-team, the wingman must help drive the ball back to the sidelines so a new double-team situation will develop. By looking at Diagram (18), above, it's easy to see why I favor the three-quarter and half-court press. In fact, I suggest you teach the half-court press, first, then move it out to cover more area when the situation demands.

The middle man X3

The Middleman, X3, is usually one of the tallest men on the squad whose mobility is somewhat lacking. He should be a good rebounder. His primary responsibility is to plug the middle and discourage passes to that area. He is also responsible for picking up dribblers who escape the double-team and drive to the basket.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

It is difficult to designate a specific area for this man, because much of his work is free-lance; however, like X5, the goalie, he should not be two anxious to intercept and leave the middle open. Diagram (19), to the left, shows the general area of responsibility for the middleman.

The Point Position X1

Usually, the point position is reserved for the quickest and best defensive player on your team. One of the guards ordinarily will fill this position quite well. however, simple logic tells us it is best to place a fairly tall player at this position. A short point guard allows the offense to pass over his outstretched arms. I think it might be better to sacrifice a little speed for height at this position, especially on the half-court press. In the past, I have used the goalie at the point and put X1 in the goalie's position. This strategy paid off because the taller point man caused more bad passes when one of our wing men moved up and intercepted a lob that some 5'10" guard tried to pass over a 6'3" point man.

In the past several years there has been a tendency of placing the taller players in the front line of zone presses, leaving the shorter and quicker players play under the basket. Coaches who are using this idea feel the short, fast men can get back down the floor faster and protect against the fast break. The bigger, slower men can execute the double-team better, since their body spread covers more area. Because the big men in basketball are becoming increasingly mobile and agile, this change of personnel placement on the zone press may affect everyone on all levels of play before many years pass.

Alternating with the zone press

Using the signals that I described in the article, alternating defenses, a number of different alternations can be derived from pressure defenses.

Switching to the full-court man-to-man

One of the best ways to alternate pressure defenses is to change from a three-quarter zone press to a full-court man-to-man press. It is best to never be labeled strictly as a zone press team. Today, most teams have found ways to attack the zone press and destroy its effectiveness if you rely on that, alone. If you possess a strong man-to-man press, you have yet another weapon in your defensive arsenal. Simply keep in mind that defense wins games, yet having only one press eliminates surprise.

Alternating the three-quarter court zone press with the full-court man-to-man press offsets the offensive strategy of clearing and letting one man advance the ball up the court. The objective would be to catch the dribbler in the backcourt and double-team him before he could get any help from his teammates who cleared because they thought they were facing a man-to-man press. Using the man-to-man press several times and quickly changing to a zone press can encourage the clear out.

Tricks with the press

Tricks with the press can be successfully utilized with your normal half-court defenses. Use the scoreboard as a signal. When the opponent's score is an odd number, move your defense out and pick up the offense somewhere in the backcourt. Occasional pressure shakes their confidence and keeps them from relaxing.

The half-court zone press and the regular 1-3-1 zone make a perfect combination for alternating defenses. Since both start from the same basic formation, it is easier to deceive the offense and surprise them with a quick double-team. The point man can signal the change by using hand signals or positioning himself at a specific spot on the court.

A clenched fist could signal a half-court press and one finger extended could mean the normal 1-3-1 flexing zone will be used. He could also signal the press by taking a position inside the center circle as the offense comes down the floor. When he stations himself near the front of the free-throw circle, use the normal 1-3-1 zone. These same signals could be used in changing from normal half court to three-quarter and full court presses.

When using a defensive quarterback to change defenses, it is important that he be the offensive safetyman. He should be the first person down court so he can signal the defense as the other players take their defensive positions.

Concealed Zone Press

Some teams have developed their pressing defense to the point that you can't tell whether it is a zone or man-to-man press. They conceal their zone press by guarding each offensive player man-to-man until a situation arises when a trap or double-team can be executed.

If you want to experiment with such a concealed defense, I would suggest it works well on the full-court basis. Its success depends upon the ability of the defensive player guarding the ball to force the dribbler into a congested area. Preferably, this would be along the sidelines, where a teammate can leave his man and double-team. When the trap is made, the other three defensive players zone the area they occupy and look for the interception. If the double-team is broken or the interception missed, every defensive player returns to his assigned opponent until another double team situation presents itself.

 Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

In Diagram (20), X2 has driven offensive player 2 to the sideline. X3 leaves his man and double teams, because he is the defensive player nearest the ball and his assigned man have cut away from the ball. X4 zones the area around the center-court and looks for the interception on a pass to 3. The defensive reaction would be the same if 3 had cut down the sidelines to the basket, except that X4 would drop back and zone the sideline area.

Of course, if no double-team is made, the defense is in a normal man-to-man press. Cooperation and willingness to pick up loose men make or break this defense. The only way to perfect such a defense is through constant drill until each player knows and senses the time to leave his man and double-team. The double-team does not necessarily need to be made only on the sidelines. For example, the double-team can be made on offensive crosses involving screens and hand-offs.

The following are ideal situations where a double-team would be appropriate:

  1. When there is a cross of two offensive players involving the ball.
  2. When an offensive man cuts away from the ball, leaving his defensive man nearest the defensive player guarding the ball.
  3. When an offensive man is driven to the corner. In that case, the defender closest to the ball comes over to double-team


Zone and One zone pressure defense

When you face a team that has built its offense around one player, the zone -and -one zone pressure defense can solve your problem of stopping that high-scoring star player. It enables the defense to pressure one player, yet capitalize on poor passing and dribbling by the other four players.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

As mentioned earlier, it is best to try to stop the really good boy without changing too many of your established defensive habits. By using the 1-3-1 Half court, three-quarter, or full court zone press, the middle man can be assigned to guard the superstar on a man-to-man basis. His primary purpose is to keep his assigned opponent from ever getting the ball.

This creates a definite weakness in the middle, but in order to gain an advantage, there is bound to be a weakness somewhere else. You remedy this weakness by having the two wing players pinch slightly toward the middle and help protect that area. Otherwise, all moves and slides are the same as with the 1-3-1 press. The zone now depends on only four men to double-team and intercept instead of five.

Coaching the 1-3-1 basketball pressure defenses.

In Diagram (21) and (22), X3 is guarding offensive player 1 on a man-to-man basis, while the other four players have assumed their normal positions on a three-quarter-zone press. X3 must overplay 1 to keep him from receiving a pass. Should 1 receive a pass, then X3 must force him to the sideline, where X4, the wingman on that side, will form the trap. X1, the point man, would drop to the middle, since X3 has assumed his responsibility of directing the dribbler to the sideline for the double-team. X2 plays for the interception and X5 protects the basket.


Pressure defenses are spectacular. No basketball team can afford to be without some variation of a pressure defense. No team can ever be counted out of a game as long as it can put that extra effort into perfecting a pressure defense.

Here are a few teaching pointers requiring special emphasis:

  1. Sell your players on the value of pressure defenses.
  2. Get set before the ball is put in play. Each player should know where his position is and go there immediately.
  3. Encourage the offense to dribble, then force the dribbler to the sidelines before double-teaming.
  4. Keep the ball away from the middle of the floor.
  5. Make sure there is always one safetyman back to protect against cherry pickers.
  6. Force the offense to use the lob pass or bounce pass. These are the slowest and more easily intercepted.
  7. Break your pressure defenses down and work on the double-team and interception separately.
  8. Teach the half-court zone press first. Then move it out to cover more area, using the same slides.
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