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The Full Court Press

The best basketball strategies are simple, and that goes for the full court press as well. I've seen all kinds of complex plays drawn up, even tried a few myself, but the ones that consistently work on the court are the simplest ones. Give your players too much to think about, and they'll fall apart.

Which is why I like this full court press. It is simple - essentially a 1-3-1 zone defense spread down the court - and effective. It will create chaos and turnovers for you, and open up scoring opportunities.

It is also, probably, the most common press out there. So what will make your team any better at applying it than others?

What Makes this Full Court Press Work

  • Aggression - your players must want the ball, need the ball, be hungry for the ball. If they are not, the full court press just becomes a stall technique, slowing down the offense but not actually gaining from it. Your players need to go for broke, go for the steal, and this needs to be drummed into them: this is not a defensive play, it is an offensive situation. The aim is not to stop the man with the ball, it is to take the ball away as quickly as possible and score.

  • Conditioning - your players need to be in excellent physical condition to apply a full court press properly. They are now playing hard on the entire floor, and they need to hustle. They need agility, reflexes, explosive power.

  • Organization - they need to know where to go to set up, and they need to do it immediately. A very important aspect to a full court press is surprise - the offense cannot know what is happening until the press is on top of them - they cannot be given the time to set up a press break.

  • Court Sense / Sight - the offense will rarely be in the same positions as you put them in your practices. Players need to be able to adjust their positioning and their play to where the offensive players set up, to anticipate where the pass may go, where the player may cut to.

  • Communication - every successful team communicates well. Against a press, offensive players are cutting, crowding, trying to get free and trying to get teammates free. The defense needs to be able to adjust to these movements, and they'll only be able to do this if their teammates are talking loud and clear, calling out the offense's moves.

The Full Court Press: Set Up

  • Players are aligned as shown in the diagram. One of the bigger men directs the inbounds pass to one side. I usually use a forward, and not the center to do this - you want someone with some height to be able to make it difficult for the inbounder to see the court, but you also want some decent maneuverability. Especially since he will be part of the trap that is so important to the full court press.

  • Remember two more things:

    • the inbounder can run the baseline, so the man defending him will need to move with him

    • the man defending the inbounds pass can use the backboard to cut down on passing options.

    • The weak side guard (#2 in the diagram) needs to deny the pass to that side - i.e., we want to force the pass to the only open man - #1.

    • The strong side defensive guard (#1) allows the pass in - if you deny all passes, the offense becomes a little more desperate and works harder to get free - we don't want them to find a better way to inbound the ball, we want them to inbound the ball where we want it.

    • The ball is inbounded to the side we want - generally, the right side is better. Most guards will be right handed, so by allowing the pass into the right side, they're strongest dribble will be the sideline. The right side defensive guard (#1) is going to focus on overplaying on the sideline, forcing the ball carrier to go left - his weaker side, and into more defensive players

    • #1 and #4 double team the ball carrier as soon as he puts the ball on the floor, not before - remember that the most explosive step a ball carrier has is the first step; once he puts that ball on the floor, he has effectively taken away that explosive first step and his ability to get by the defense is greatly reduced.

    • The double team is the most important part of the full court press - it needs to be solid, needs to force the ball carrier to pick up the ball, needs to make it extremely difficult for the ball carrier to see the court.

      • If this trap is tight, we'll get turnovers;
      • if this trap is weak, they'll beat us every time.

    • And nobody reaches for the ball after he picks it up - we don't need unnecessary fouls.
full court press 1

  • The other players deny the ball and anticipate the pass, looking to steal any pass and immediately to take the ball in to score. Remember the ultimate objective is not just to get the ball but to get points on the board.

  • The players not in the double team guard these areas:

    • #2 - key and weak side - stops passes to the weak side guard, to the inbounder after he steps into the court

    • #3 - center court area - stops any passes along the center court line, to the sideline, down to the top of the key

    • #5 - far half - stops any long passes down court. If the double team is solid, any passes this length will be forced to be lobbed high, giving the defense plenty of time to get position to steal

  • Remember that the defense needs to adjust to the offensive players positioning - e.g., if there is nobody at the weak side guard area, then #2 should move more into the key, focusing on the pass back to the inbounder or to any passes to the top of the key

  • Also remember that the defense is going to be outnumbered, since two defensive players are being used on the double team - the double team needs to be really solid, and everyone else needs to really hustle to make up for being shorthanded

full court press 2

The Full Court Press:
Steal and Scoring Opportunities

full court press 3

#3 - Top of the Key to Center Court

Steals here will usually come from two areas:

  • The ball carrier tries to pass along the sideline to a teammate around center court (#3 must be careful not to step over center court line once he makes the steal)

  • The ball carrier tries to pass cross court to a teammate either at the top of the key or towards the center line on the weak side

#2 - Weak Side and Key

Steals here will usually come from these two areas:

  • The ball carrier tries to pass back to the inbounder

  • The ball carrier tries to pass to the weak side guard or a forward cutting to the top of the key

Note that the pass across court to the weak side guard is a possibility, but should really be taken away by a strong double team on the ball

#5 - The Long Pass

#5 is focused on the far half of the court - where he aligns depends on where the offensive players align, but he must absolutely be sure that there is no player behind him - #5 is our last line of defense should the offense break the press, and he can't let someone sneak in behind him in position for an easy lay-up.

Steals here will usually come from these two areas:

  • The ball carrier tries to pass along the sideline to a teammate far down court

  • The ball carrier tries to pass cross court to a teammate far down court on the weak side

Again, to press home the point - we want #5 to go for the steal, but within reason. If one of the other players goes for a steal and doesn't get it, the offense may break the press and we'll need to scramble to catch up. But if #5 goes for a steal and misses it, the offense is likely to have a clear lane to the hoop and an easy two points. We don't want #5 to be timid, but we also don't want to be completely caught out.

The steal that presents itself will, of course, depend on where the offensive players are. Again, the most important thing is that the defense needs to be aggressive and go for the steals, and then take the ball immediately to the hoop

The Full Court Press:
What to do if the Press is Broken

Fall back into another defense. The defense you choose depends on you, but I always use the 2-3 zone because it is simple and quick to fall back into, and fills the key, taking away lay-ups better than most other zones. Just be sure that whatever defense you use, you practice with your team so they are ready to fall back in case the press is broken.

One more thing about the full court press - don't use it constantly. If your players are hustling as they should be, it will be too tiring. And if you use it too often against a good team, they'll figure out how to break it and hurt it. Use it a few times, get some points, then call it off and play a different defense for a while. Maybe mix it up and use a Half-Court Press sometimes, then throw the full court press on again later. Surprise is an important part to an effective press - catch them off guard and pick up a few quick baskets before returning once again to your regular defensive strategy.

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