Introduction to Pressure Defense

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

Many teams make a living off their full court pressure defense. Sometimes they are so good at it, they do not develop their other team skills (such as their half court offense) because they really don't see the need. Full court presses are easy to teach. Coaches of inexperienced but athletic players love to press because their kids can feel successful early in the season, sometimes upsetting a highly touted opponent. Turnovers can be converted to uncontested layups. Best of all, if the other team becomes rattled, even for a few moments, the floodgates may be opened long enough to decide the game.

The Benefits:

The Dangers:

Tips for Extended Court Pressure Defense

This tip is too important to be simply relegated to the list below. Do not believe that just because you are taking an aggressive posture on defense, you have any control over what will happen. Some coaches teach that when you run a full court press, you force the offense to do what you want. You can't force the other team to do anything because they have the ball. You don't. Anytime the offense does something, the defense must react. When the defense acts first, it is at a disadvantage. For example, after the inbounds pass, two defenders immediate jump to trap the player receiving the pass. If the offense abdicates the advantage and stands there, it is outnumbered and badly compromised. However, if the ball handler passes quickly or dashes past the oncoming defenders, the defense suddenly has two people out of position. The domino effect of that, as the 3 remaining defenders try to cover 5 breaking players, is usually an easy basket. 

However, you must take risks to make a press work. If a gamble fails, hustle back to help as fast as you can and try to cover for the teammate that has hopefully contained your man. And, most important, if you can sell the illusion that the defense is in control, sell it hard. You will likely be very successful if you can instill a sense of panic in the offense.

  1. Don't use it the entire game. When the press is deployed, change the game's tempo dramatically, create an illusion of extreme urgency, and promote panic in the other team.
  2. Be as aggressive as you can without constantly fouling. Infrequent fouls calls mean that either the referees will allow generous contact or that the pressing team is not being physical enough. If the opponent is getting fouled every other time down the floor, back off. The press is only effective if it creates turnovers.
  3. Practice at least two or three different presses. Its OK to have a favorite that is used the most, but be able to change to something new when the opponent makes adjustments.
  4. Stop the dribbler. The best opportunity to steal the ball or create a turnover is to disrupt a dribbler. The best way is to force a dribbler to stop and start looking for a pass. The way to beat a press is with quick passing. If the other team can simply dribble through your press, pick another defense. You have nothing to gain by pressing. Stop the dribbler by slide stepping in front and blocking forward progress.
  5. The players must talk to each other. When  two players are involved with the ball for example, the next two players back have an excellent view of what's going on. Warn each other of offensive changes. Tell each other where you are in case you can't be seen.
  6. Anticipation is essential. The offense will follow consistent patterns when it breaks a press. If you pay attention, you can soon predict where the ball will be thrown. Take a chance. Trust your instincts. Gamble.

The Basic Roles for Pressing Defenders

An important concept is that presses are all pretty much the same. You may start in a 1-2-1-1 or a 1-3-1 or whatever, but once the offense is on the move, you will need to react accordingly. The original press configuration will distort into a fairly common pattern. There will be a defender on the ball. To either side a defender protecting passing lanes while waiting for the ballhandler to come their way and be trapped. The last two defenders are protecting the longer passes and also provide a safety to stop the breakaway dribbler. Its a diamond shape that always points at the ball. Here are some responsibilities for the different press positions.

Point Man (Men if you have two on the ball)

  1. Herd the ball towards the sideline. Some suggest away from the referee to reduce the risk of a foul.
  2. Deny a good look downcourt to prevent the start of the passing attack. If the player tries to lob the pass overhead, OK, as it can be picked off.
  3. Do not allow the player to dribble up the middle of the court. 
  4. Pass back to a trailer is OK, but be ready to switch to the other side of the floor as the offense will likely reverse the attack.
  5. If the ball goes by but into a trap, deny the escape pass.
  6. When there are two men on the ball and the ballhandler is successfully forced to the side, the defender furthest from the ball drops off and becomes an interceptor. Never have three men trapping the ball.

Trappers (usually positioned on either side of the floor)

  1. Do not let anyone dribble by you on the side. Stop the progress of the ball and trap.
  2. If the ballhandler escapes the point man (men), leave your position and stop the dribble.
  3. If ball goes to the other side of the court, fade to the middle of the floor to prevent or intercept passes.

Safeties (the last two players back)

These two positions work in tandem. The one in front reacts to opportunities to intercept, or stop a dribbler. The last man back adjusts as needed. Usually, when the front man is on the left of the floor, the last man is on the right. But, concerning forward and back movement, they generally go back and forth together. Its OK to venture as high as the halfcourt line. The weaker the passing strength of your opponent, the more you can crowd the backcourt.

Common Configurations of the Full Court Press

The 2 - 2 - 1 Full Court Press

This is an easy press to teach. Notice that the inbounds pass is not contested. The action starts once the ball is in play. The first decision is whether or not  to trap the ball handler. If the offense is hesitant, go for it. You may force an interceptable pass or tie the ball up.

More common is to allow some progress up the sideline, then trap the dribbler.

If the ball is reversed, the defensive roles are mirrored. Don't try to prevent the backward pass. Time is in the defense's favor.

Note the diamond shape pointed at the ball. The only safe pass is backwards. If the ball is reversed, the diamond simply points the new direction (at the ball).

Note that in the backcourt you have the 10 second rule in your favor, so traps there are good. Traps just past the halfcourt line are good, too, because the offense cannot retreat back across the halfcourt line. It like having an extra defensive player.

In the left diagram, Y2 will likely drive until the trap by B1 and B3 is encountered. The next pass to watch for is to Y5 (covered by B5, who should try to get behind Y5 before intercepting).

Another outlet will be fromY2 to Y4 (right diagram). B4 must anticipate this pass and move in from behind.

If the ball gets in to Y4, B4 must contain and buy time for B1, B2 and B3 to fall back and help. B3 may have a chance to double team. B5 prevents pass to Y5.

1-2-1-1 Full Court Press

This press is very flexible. You can easily mold it into a 1-3-1. In a sense, it is the 2-2-1 tilted 45 degrees to the left. You can see the dilemma the offense faces. Whether Y2 or Y3 get the ball, they face a trap. The passing lanes to Y4 and Y5 are covered by B4 and B5.

One weakness is the pass from Y2 to Y4. (left) B5 is in the best position to move and intercept from behind Y4. B4 is a gambling position and should take high risks. B5 can see the entire court and covers for B4 as needed. 

This press is also hurt (right)  when Y3, Y4 or Y5 flash into the heart of the diamond, receive pass, then pass out to either sideline where players are breaking downcourt. Therefore, teach the weak-side defender (B3 stops Y3; B4 stops Y4 or Y5) to watch and prevent that occurrence.

The "Wildman" Full Court Press

Common Configurations of the Half Court Press

The 3 - 2 and the 1 - 3 - 1 Half Court Presses

Check this link for a full description of the 3 -2 half court press.

Half court presses offer a different look and often catch a team by surprise. they are not hard to beat, after all they are just a big extended zone. But, they may provide a couple minutes of confusion and opportunities.

In the 3-2, allow the ball to cross half court, then trap the ball in the upper corners. Once ball is trapped, the three remaining defenders are looking to intercept. Fall back into 3-2 zone

In the 1-3-1, there are obvious openings in the lower corners. Sometimes poor shooting teams can't resist the easiest obtainable shot, and miss them consistently. Other advantages include the chance to trap in the upper corners and pick off passes out of the traps. It is easy to fall back into a zone if you wish.