February 1, 2019 • Basketball

Coach Throwback: John Wooden shares his fast-break offense

Throughout the year, Coach & Athletic Director will go back 25 years to share some of our best articles from 1994. The publication, formerly Scholastic Coach magazine, is closing in on 89 years of production. What better way to celebrate our longevity in the team sports industry than to show what we’ve done and where we’ve been.

This article, written by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, was originally published in 1949 and reprinted in our February 1994 edition. In it, the hall-of-famer and 10-time national champion offered readers a glimpse inside his fast-break offense.

UCLA Attack: A “reverse action” continuity that forces all five defensive men to keep moving

By John Wooden

In as much as fast-break basketball represents the ne plus ultra in offense and appeals to the players and spectators more than any other style of play, I feel that coaches are duty-bound to incorporate it into their offenses.

At UCLA, we are so solidly attached to the fast break that we are not content to fast break only when the opening occurs. We actually attempt to create our own opportunities.

John Wooden play 1
Diagram 1

First, we drill our players to perfection on snappy ball handling, fakes and feints, quick shooting from fast-break openings, 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 situations, etc., and explain the various ways in which fast breaks may be launched — off defensive rebounds, interceptions, jump balls, normal out-of-bounds balls in the backcourt, and after opposing scores. Then we spend considerable time on our fast-break patterns.

One of our basic patterns is illustrated in DIAGRAM 1. 1 takes the ball off the board or out of bounds and passes out to 2 or 3, whichever is open. In this particular instance, the ball is snapped to 2.

The latter then passes to 3, who has straightened out toward the center while I was passing to 2. 3 drives down the middle to the outer half of the foul circle, then passes to 4 or 5, who have crossed and gone down the floor.

If the receiver (4 or 5) cannot shoot, he return-passes back to 3, who stays on the side he passes to. Both side men, meanwhile, get into rebound position.

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If 3 cannot pass off to 4 or 5, or cannot get a good shot or drive through himself, he pivots on the foul line and passes off to 1 or 2, whichever one cuts by, or passes back out to the one who stays back to protect.

The main idea is to get the ball through the middle as quickly as possible and to have a cutter down each side, a late cutter and protector. This balance is most essential.

Other possibilities in the drill are:

  • 1 may pass to 3 rather than to 2.
  • If 2 or 3 cannot hit the other he may hit 4 or 5 and let the receiver try to work the ball down the middle.
  • If 2 or 3 takes the ball off the board, he and 1 reverses assignments.

We follow special patterns (with options) whenever we obtain the ball in the defensive end of the court, whether by rebound, interception, jump ball, normal out of bounds, or after an opposing score.

The problem is to drill the boys enough so that they will react quickly whenever possession is gained and will be able to shift to any option in case the one being tried is blocked. Where they have to stop and think which option to use, they haven’t been drilled enough and many opportunities will be lost.

Valuable reminders in the fast break

1. You must have patience and must expect mistakes, but drill and drill to reduce them to a minimum. A hard-working, fast-breaking team will often make more mistakes then their opponents because they attempt more and perhaps accomplish more.

2. If the boys cannot obtain a good shot when they reach the offensive area, they should be drilled to pass back and set up. Fast break becomes “race horse” or “fire wagon” when the boys fail to recognize a high-percentage shot and take any kind of heave.

3. The boys must be taught to reach quickly every time they gain possession in the backcourt. Many times they will create a fast-break situation where it did not exist by putting on the pressure immediately.

4. Much time must be spent on drills emphasizing 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 situations in order to get the good shot quickly before the extra defensive man comes into position to help.

5. Various quick-shooting and quick ball-handling drills must be devised and employed until the boys become accurate as well as quick.

6. Defensive rebounding and getting the ball out quickly must be stressed, since more opportunities will probably be gained in this fashion than in any other.

7. Emphasis must be placed on always keeping the head up and passing to men ahead who are cutting from the sidelines.

Although I believe in always attempting the fast break whenever possession is gained, regardless of whether the defense appears to be set, I realize that we won’t obtain the high-percentage shot every time and that we must have an adequate set game to fall back upon.

Running the offense

In trying to devise a suitable set offense, I have attempted to plan a system that gives all the positions an equal opportunity to score.

John Wooden play 2
Diagram 2

I have done this primarily for three reasons: First, it prevents the defense from concentrating on one or two outstanding scorers and thus breaking up the play. Second, it produces a finer team spirit. Third, it makes it easier to keep all five men doing their job at all times.

While it is impossible to show all the options that might arise from our style of play. The remaining diagrams give you a general idea. The plays are shown from the same side of the floor, but actually are used from both sides.

DIAGRAM 2: 1 cuts out to meet the ball as 5 passes to 4. The receiver may turn and shoot, turn and drive, or pass to any of other men. 2 fakes in, then cuts off 4’s back, 3 fakes up and then cuts back when he sees 2 break across. After passing to 1, 4 cuts between 2 and 1. Meanwhile, 5, after passing to 4, fakes outside and comes back to protect.

DIAGRAM 3: Same as Diagram 2, except that 2 cuts across in front of 4 and 4 cuts off 2’s back.

DIAGRAM 4: Same as the preceding plays, except that 4 hits 2 instead of 1, and 2 hits 1. 4 may sometimes cut outside instead of inside 2.

DIAGRAM 5: Same as Diagram 4, except that 4 crosses and screens for 5, who does the cutting with 4 coming back to protect.

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DIAGRAM 6: Ball goes from 5 to 4 to 2 to 5 to 3, who comes around a screen formed by 4 and 1. 3 may shoot, drive or pass to any of their teammates.

DIAGRAM 7: Ball goes from 5 to 4 to 2 to 4, who dribbles in if he can or dribbles as far as he can then and passes to 2 or 3, or back to 5.

I like a continuity which keeps all the boys cutting or doing something constantly, but which does not tie each man down to a specific thing. In short, an offense which leaves man several options.

Different drills are devised to teach each man the various fundamentals required for his position, and additional drills are added that have two positions working together, then three, then four, and finally all five men. Each player must understand the moves of the men in each of the other positions and know why they are being made.

As in any offense, timing and sound execution of the fundamentals must be mastered before the plays have much chance of success. Some of the little fundamental moves on the weak side are just as essential as the moves on the strong side.

Please remember that each man always has the option of driving or shooting, and that the other men must adjust to his moves and keep their guard so occupied that he cannot shift to block the play.

On shots from the floor, we want triangle rebounding power around the bank, with the shooter usually covering long rebounds around the back half of the free-throw circle and the fifth man farther back as a protector.

On a driving shot, we still want the triangle, but with the back man in the triangle playing a little deeper to cover a long rebound and the driver getting back into the play as quickly as possible.

In both our fast break and set offense, I stress the importance of all five men and want each man to feel that if he fails to make the proper move, fake or feint, he may cause the team to lose a scoring opportunity.

By encouraging the weak-side men and the protectors and complimenting them whenever a play away from them culminates in a score, I try to instill a better team spirit.

A scorer must always compliment the passer and all the boys must compliment a scorer, one who does a nice piece of defensive work, who gets the ball off the board, intercepts a pass, or makes some other nice play — not by great display but by a smile, or a kind word or two.

When mistakes are made, such as missing an easy shot, making a bad pass, overlooking an open man, or something similar, I insist that the boys never criticize each other but encourage the offender so that it won’t happen again. It is up to me to do the criticizing, and I always try to make it constructive.

Our set offense combined with our fast break has tended to equalize the scoring opportunities. As a result, scoring is well-balanced, which strengthens team spirit and morale. The four boys who played the most for us the past season average between 8.96 and 9.91 points per game in a 29-game schedule, while the combined total of two other boys who divided the fifth starting spot was 8.38. Four different boys from the six already mentioned led our scoring in at least one game during the season.

If a boy has the ability to make more opportunities for himself or is a better shooter and consequently a higher scorer, the rest of our boys will never be envious because they realize that our better scorer is earning his points.


I honestly believe that it isn’t so much what you use but how well you use it that makes for success, provided that it is predicated on sound principles that keep your floor balanced both offensively and defensively, and that your boys are in condition, properly drilled on fundamentals, and have a fine team spirit.

We pass out a lot of lists of helpful suggestions or hints — gleaned other coaches and from personal experience — and check occasionally to see if they are being studied. Such “tip sheets” represent an excellent means of supplementing the actual coaching on the floor.

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