Full Court Press defenses

What is a full court press defense? Let us start with the key word: press. Press is short for pressure. And as Rick Pitino would say, pressure is one of the greatest privileges we can have on this earth. Pressure either makes diamonds, or bursts pipes. Applying a full court pressure defense to your game plan can really put a strain on your opponent and, depending on the match-up, can be a deciding difference maker in a basketball game.

A full court press can be defined as a style of defense in which the defending team applies pressure to the offensive team the entire length of the court, before or after the inbound pass following a made basket. A full court press may be applied in the style of a man to man, or in a zone press. A full court press is most often used to speed up the other team, to cause chaos or havoc and create a high number of turnovers. However, sometimes, a team with a lead will go into a slow-down press, sometimes called a tempo press, to use the clock to their advantage and slow down the other team, cut down on the number of overall possessions and eat up the clock.

As one can see, dealing with a full court press is not easy. Constant pressure on ball handlers and a sped-up tempo can be very difficult to handle. Executing a full court press has its challenges as well. The most important component for executing an effective full court press is that defenders have to be in top physical shape. Playing tough, hard-nosed defense in a low athletic stance for 94 feet takes a toll on the body. Being well conditioned is of upmost importance for running a well-executed press. On top of that, having proper defensive footwork and high IQ anticipatory skills will go a long way as well. The second most important component of running a full court press is communication. No defense can work well without talking to each other. This is especially important in the full court. As the two guards will be in the backcourt, 80 or 90 feet from the basket, pressuring the inbounder or guarding the primary ball handler, they cannot see the entire floor that is behind them. It is crucial that the other two or three teammates communicate as to what is going on and what is happening as the offensive team will be trying their best to execute a press breaker. The offense will be setting screens, flashing to the basketball, running quazi football routes and making many passes in order to break the press. The defense has to be on the same page when it comes to figuring out the chess game that is breaking a press. The catch is that the action on the basketball court is happening at a break neck speed. The final challenge facing a team that wants to run a full court press is knowing when to stop pressing. Good offensive teams with strong ball handlers and who execute well, will eventually break the press. The top level teams will be able to get a wide open shot, or a layup off their press breaker. If the defense is burned on layups and wide open 3-pointers, five or six consecutive possessions in a row, then they might have to concede that the press is not working. At that point, they will have to figure out another game plan. Other minor challenges facing a team that wants to press are personnel and getting back to the half-court defense. A full court press is best executed by players that are fast, quick, long, athletic and have good awareness and good defensive fundamentals. Larger, slower players are not best suited to execute a press. Lastly, it is important to properly retreat into your half-court defense once the press has been broken. Allowing the offense to capitalize off mismatches can be detrimental.

The most common types of full court press are the man to man. A similar style of man-to-man press is the run and jump, which is a man press but it incorporates more trapping. The two most common styles of zone press are the 2-2-1 and the 1-2-2. Whether in man or zone, the basic premise of each of these pressing defenses is the same, apply pressure. The goal is the same as well, create turnovers and dictate the pace of the game in your favor.

In the basic full court, man-to-man full court press. Each defender is guarding the opposing offensive player, pressuring them the length of the floor. Typically, the quickest and best perimeter defender will be harassing the ball handler as they bring the ball up the floor. This can be a large disruption to the offense that wants to execute in the half-court. The other form of man-to-man press is the run and jump. Although each defender is guarding one offensive player, as the ball handler begins to bring the ball up the floor, one of the defenders will leave their man, to go and trap the ball handler. This leaves one defender guarding two for a few seconds but the risk could be worth the reward if the ball handler turns it over or cannot handle the trap. These man-to-man full court presses are more challenging to execute than the zone presses because they require a superb level of fitness and defensive skill.

The most common zone press is the 2-2-1. Where two guards generally start out around the closest free throw line and funnel the ball handler towards the sidelines and corner of half court, where generally the forwards are waiting to trap. This leaves the other three defenders guarding four players but with the opportunity to pick off an errant pass like a free safety making an interception on the football field.  

In the 1-2-2 zone press, the concept is similar to the 2-2-1 except there will be one defender “guarding” the inbounder with the other four defenders set up on the free throw line and half court. The emphasis on this sort of press is to trap in every corner of the court. It is important in both zone presses to have someone in the backcourt at all times to be guarding the basket.

There are a number of key teaching points when it comes to executing a full court press. One of the most important ones is not to foul. It does not make a lot of sense to foul an offensive player, 75 or 80 feet from the basket when they are not going to shoot. In order to do this, the defense must not put their hands on the offensive player. Playing defense with your feet is key in the full court press. Knowing when to slide and when to sprint and recover goes hand in hand with this concept. Another key teaching point is to know how to properly use the sideline. The sideline can be used as an extra defender, especially when trying to press. If two defenders have a ball handler covered towards the sideline or in the corner of the court, the ball handler has nowhere else to go but to call timeout or throw a wild pass.

Running a full court press is certainly a gamble, it can be a significant role of the dice. Nevertheless, the risk can definitely be worth the reward. Causing many turnovers, dictating the pace and tempo, tiring out the opponent and creating easier baskets for your own team are all advantages of pressing the other team. A press works best when you have a speed and quickness advantage over the other team, or you identify the other team as not having the strongest ball handlers. Full court pressure defense is not seen much in the NBA but can be seen prominently as the Division 1 level and is even more common in the Division II, Division III and high school ranks. Bob Huggins, the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at West Virginia has become synonymous with running a full court press. The full court press can be a double-edged sword, but knowing when to put it on and when to pull it off is key. The gamble can most definitely be worth it, and applying that pressure can turn your team into that diamond.