1-3-1 Zone Defense Guide

Posted by Coach Chris on 4th Feb 2019

A zone defense can be exactly what a team needs to neutralize their opponent. Changing from a man-to-man defense to zone means players focus on guarding a specific area of the court rather than a specific player.

The goal of a zone defense is to disrupt the offense and force them out of their game plan. Some teams may play a zone defense the entire game while others may implement it for a single possession to cause chaos on the defensive end.

In a 1-3-1 Zone Defense, the defenders play off the ball and cut off the passing lanes. By playing in the passing lanes it forces the offense to gamble by throwing over the defense or making a longer pass. Both of which play right into the defense’s hands because this is how they get turnover opportunities with deflections and interceptions.

In this article, we’re going to focus on the 1-3-1 Zone Defense and its strengths and weaknesses, who might use this zone, and go into more detail of positions and rotations. When you’re done reading, you should have a better understanding of the 1-3-1 Zone Defense and if it’s a right fit for your team.

Strengths of the 1-3-1 Zone Defense

      • Opponents Aren’t Prepared. Most teams practice against a man-to-man defense which means they do not give time to practicing their offense against a zone defense. Regardless of if your team plays zone the entire game or just periodically throughout the game, your opponent will not be prepared for your 1-3-1 Zone Defense.
      • Creates Turnover Opportunities. By playing in the passing lanes, the 1-3-1 Zone Defense takes away ball reversal and passing angles. Which means this defense creates turnover opportunities with interceptions and deflections because the offense is going to try to pass the ball over the defense. After a few turnovers, the offense will be overthinking every pass they make and your defense will have them completely out of their game plan.
      • Transition Offense. With all the turnovers from this defense, your offense will be able to make them pay. As soon as your team comes up with a steal, your players are already in position to run the floor and get easy transition points.
      • Limits Fouling. Players simply do not foul as much when you’re playing a zone defense. If you’re team has a habit of getting in foul trouble then a zone defense may be a better defensive approach because it will put them in a better position to refrain from fouling.

Weaknesses of the 1-3-1 Zone Defense

      • Block Out and Rebound. With all zones, rebounding can be an issue because players aren’t direct on who to box out when the shot goes up. However, it’s even more tricky with a 1-3-1 Zone because you only have one defender at the back of your defense. In order to be successful, you need all your players to find someone to put a body on and crash the boards.
      • Time to Learn. You can’t try to throw this type of defense into your game strategy the day before a big game. If you’re going to implement the 1-3-1 Zone then you need to take time to teach the defense in detail and give your players plenty of time to learn.
      • Teamwork. The 1-3-1 Zone Defense relies heavily on the team working together as a unit. If any player doesn’t make the right rotation, other defenders will have to compensate and it will lead to open gaps and possibly easy scores for your opponent.

Who should use the 1-3-1 Zone Defense?

Generally, any team can play a zone defense because they offer flexibility to be able to fit all types of personnel. The 1-3-1 Zone Defense does provide the same flexibility for any team to execute this defense, but for it to work its BEST then it is more suitable for a long, athletic team.

A team with long, athletic players will flourish in this defense because they’ll make the passing lanes impossible for the offense. With their outstretched arms, the floor will become smaller for the offense and the defense will be able to get their hands on more passes to create turnovers.

However, it’s still possible for your team to use this zone even if your entire five on the court isn’t made up of long, athletic players. Each spot in the 1-3-1 Zone has roles and responsibilities that allow you to know where each of your players need to be in order to succeed on the defensive end.

Any team can use the 1-3-1 Zone Defense, you just have to adjust how you run the zone to best suit your personnel.

1-3-1 Zone Defense Starting Positions

A 1-3-1 Zone Defense starts with one player at the top of the zone, three players in the middle of the zone in the formation of two on wings and one in the center, and one player in the back of the zone.

The starting location of this formation depends on where you want to pick up the offense. If you’re planning to use this as a full-court press then your top player will start in the front court whereas with a half-court 1-3-1 Zone you would have your top player start at the half-court line.

The 1-3-1 Zone Defense doesn’t have assigned spots where certain positions must play like other defenses. Instead, you place players in zone positions that will suit their strengths and allow the defense to succeed.

Top (1) ,Wings (3 and 4), Middle (5), Back (2)

1-3-1 Zone Defense Roles & Responsibilities

The types of players filling these positions can vary depending on your line-up on the floor, but let's talk about the roles and responsibilities by position for this defense. By knowing the ins-and-outs for each spot you’ll be able to immediately know where every player can be used on the court.

Top of the Zone

Some consider the top of the 1-3-1 Zone to be the most important position. The player at the top of your zone should be athletic, great anticipation skills, and be in tip-top shape because they’re going to cover a lot of the court. Top players set the tone for the whole defense by relentlessly trying to get deflections on every pass.

The main role for the Top of the zone is to influence the offense to one side of the court. Once the offense picks a side, the Top makes sure not to allow the ball to be reversed to the other side. To do this, the Top plays high in the passing lane to block a guard to guard pass. When the ball goes to the corner, the Top guards the ball-side elbow.

Wings of the Zone (Sides of the Zone)

The Wings are on the outside of the zone. They are responsible for trapping in both corners, defending the ball when it’s passed to the wing (when it’s on their side), and guarding the weak-side low block when the ball is on the opposite side of the court.

An easy way to tell if the Wings are in the right spot is that they should be opposite of each other. If the right Wing is up, the left Wing should be down. And vice versa, if the left Wing is up, the right Wing should be down.

When the ball is on the opposite side of the court, the Wing moves to the low block as the the only weak-side defender. If they see the offense about to make a skip pass, the Wing tries to anticipate the pass for a deflection or steal.

The Wing defends the passing lane to the corner if that ball is away from the three-point line while the Top defends the reverse pass.

Middle of the Zone

The Middle has one main job: keep the ball out of the post. With this job in mind, the Middle is usually occupied by a bigger player.

The Middle spends a lot of time battling for position against the offense. The reason why they have to battle so much is because you want your Middle to front the post at all times; regardless of if the offense is in the low post, high post, or anywhere else around the paint.

We want them in front to deny the pass to a vulnerable part of our 1-3-1 Zone which is the high post. If they’re in front of the offense then they are also in position to help if the offensive guard decides to penetrate.

Back of the Zone

The Back covers both baseline corners which can be a tough job because they could be sprinting from side-to-side a lot depending on the offense. Most teams like to put their quickest, smartest player in this position which often is their point guard.

They are always on ball-side of the court fronting the low post until the ball gets passed to the corner. When the ball goes to the corner, the Back closes out to guard the shot and make sure the offense doesn’t try to attack baseline.

1-3-1 Zone Defense Rotations

To get the 1-3-1 Zone defense started, the Top (3) is going to pick up the basketball and start pushing it to one side of the court. We want the ball-handler to have no choice but to bring the ball up the sideline. We never want the ball dribbled down the middle of the court!

Frame 1

As the ball-handler dribbles, the ball-side Wing (4) will position themselves between the ball and the offensive player on in the corner forcing the ball-handler to decide if they’re going to attempt to pass the ball over the zone or try to continue using their dribble. The ball-side Wing must NOT let the offense continue to dribble up the sideline.

With the ball on a side, the Top (3) will be in the passing lane to discourage a pass back to the point guard, the Middle (5) will be denying the high post area, the weak-side Wing (2) will drop to weak-side low block ready to recover for any skip passes, and the Back (1) will be on ball-side low block ready to close out if the ball does get passed to the corner.

Frame 2

As the ball goes to the corner, the Back (1) sprints to close out and guard the ball. Ball-side Wing (4) follows the ball and turns to get in the passing lane from the corner back out to the wing.

The Center (5) will drop to defend the low block by fronting in the post. The Top (3) moves to the ball-side elbow and takes over defending the high post area. Weak-side Wing (2) stays in the same position of weak-side low block ready to intercept or deflect any skip passes.

Regardless of which side of the court the ball is on, the rotations are the same. With every pass of the ball, the defense needs to be in the passing lanes making it difficult for the offense. All off-ball players should be reading the eyes and body of the offensive player with the ball and are ready to anticipate and pick off a pass.

1-3-1 Zone Defense Key Actions

How to Win with the 1-3-1 Zone Defense

      1. Active Hands and Defensive Stance. One way to bust a zone defense is with great passing. If teams are able to effectively make passes against the zone then the whole floor opens up. The defense must keep their hands up and active to make it harder for the offense to see, discourages passes inside, and get deflections. Being in defensive stance makes it quicker for your defense to react on passes or create turnover opportunities.
      2. No Direct Passes. With high, active hands, there should be no direct passes. In the 1-3-1 Zone, you’re in the passing lanes forcing the offense to make lob passes or slow bounce passes. You DO NOT want direct passes or your zone defense is busted.
      3. Move on the Pass. Every player must move on the flight of ball and not on the catch. If you move on the flight then you’ll be in defensive position when the offensive player catches the ball. On the other hand, if you move on the catch then your defense is most likely a step behind and the offense will have an easier time creating a scoring opportunity. You definitely do not want to be behind so be sure your team is ready to move when the offense makes a pass.
      4. Crash the Boards. Another way to bust a zone defense is with offensive rebounds. Every player should be going hard after rebounds. As soon as a shot goes up, find a body, block it out, and secure the rebound!
      5. Read the passer’s eyes. To anticipate what the offense is going to do defenders should be reading the passer’s eyes. They will most likely be looking where they want to pass the ball; the defense should anticipate this pass and try to get a deflection and turnover.
      6. Communicate, Communication, Communication. Communication is crucial to every defense and that includes the 1-3-1 Zone Defense. Your team must communicate who has the ball, screens, cutters; essentially every action the offense is making so everyone knows what to do. All great zones have solid communication.
      7. No Easy Points. Do not allow easy point such as lay-ups against your zone defense. Your players must not make it easy for any offensive team inside the paint. You have three players in the middle to make this hard.

Learn More

This 1-3-1 Zone Defense Guide should cover everything you need to know about this defense, but there's always room to learn more. To learn more start browsing through our vast selection of Coaching DVDs right now.

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Learn the 1-3-1 Zone Defense from Champion High School Coach Steve Klaas

This DVD package includes both Steve Klaas’s 1-3-1 Zone Defense: The Basics and Traps & Adjustments. The basics show each player’s slides and coverages for any offensive movement. It also discusses the five rules that make Coach Klaas’ defense effective. The video teaches the defense with two simple breakdown drills. Coach Klaas continues the development of the 1-3-1 with the traps and adjustments he uses to confound opponents. He shows how the defense can be used from at any level on the floor and how he trap tops and corners. He also teaches three other adjustments used versus a strong high post player, a strong low post player, or a great perimeter shooter. Running Time: 86 Minutes. 2003