October 2, 2009 • BasketballXs and Os

‘5-on-4 Scramble:’ Taking the shell drill to another level

Several years ago, our varsity basketball team was struggling through the first half of its season, and it was beginning to affect the way it was practicing. By compromising our work ethic in practice, we had reached the point where one negative was feeding off the other.

PointGuard2During our Christmas break, I saw an opportunity to salvage the rest of our season. I had observed that our players often reserved their greatest efforts for their scrimmaging in practice.

Would it be practical to include one or more of these practice skills into a competitive situation?

My answer was yes, and since we believed that defense has a greater effect than offense on the outcome of games, we created a 5-on-4 Scramble as a competitive and fun game that would reinforce the defensive skills learned from the traditional Shell Drill.

Before describing the 5-on-4 Scramble, we’d like to review some of the fundamental rules of the Shell Drill. It is a classic defensive drill that emphasizes individual responsibilities in a 4-vs-4 situation in which the defensive players have specific rules to follow:

1. Since it is a high-energy drill, we encourage our defensive players to go all out.

2. The player on the ball yells, “Ball!” “Ball!” “Ball!” while the players off the ball yell, “Help!” “Help!” “Got Your Help!”

3. The players constantly jab one foot and arm toward the ball (on the side closest to the ball). This movement or feint makes it appear that the defensive players are moving or are ready to move toward the ball and help out or trap.

4. Lastly, the players off the ball (in help position) must never lose track of the person they are guarding. They must drop slightly to the ball, creating a flat triangle that will allow them to see both their man and the ball. This aspect of communication and teamwork is universal in all sports.

Whenever the coach puts the ball into play at one of the positions, the offensive players must play “cooperative offense.” They must go into triple-threat position, actively pivoting with the ball but holding it without dribbling or passing (or shooting) for a two second count (usually yelled by the coach or an assistant).

Basic positions and movement

Once players understand their general responsibilities, you can put them into position on the court. Start by placing the four defensive players in a box formation around the three-second lane (two at the top at each elbow and two at the bottom, one on each block).

Next, place four offensive players around the three-point arc (evenly spaced) – two up high on the wings, approximately on the free-throw line extended, and two down low near the corners.

The coach is now ready to introduce the ball into one of the offensive corner spots. The defensive players react to the ball by moving into the following positions:

First, the defensive player closest to the ball jumps out and applies a lot of pressure on that man without reaching in.

Second, the player who is one pass away drops down into a position that allows him to help out if necessary and deny the pass to the offensive player closest to him.

Third, the other two players, who are two passes away, drop deeper into the center of the lane where they can help out or quickly move to pick up their own man if they get the ball.

After the two-second count, the ball is passed from the corner to the offensive player on the wing. At this point, the whole defensive process starts over again with pressure on the ball and the other players shifting according to previously mentioned one and two pass rules.

This action is then repeated around to the opposite corner and back to the original starting point. It is important to remember that when starting something new, have the players walk through it first and then gradually apply more speed and pressure as you go.

Dribble penetration

Once everyone understands this aspect of the Shell Drill, the coach will introduce the next phase: Instruct the offensive players to attempt a “dribble penetration” into the seam between two players. Again, the offensive players are asked to execute a “cooperative offense” – taking two to three dribbles into the seam (between the defensive players), allowing the help defense to react.

The two defenders should end up about toe to toe and seal off the gap between them. The ball is then passed out to the offensive player on the wing, who at first allows his defender to recover, then makes another dribble penetration into the next seam.

This routine of dribble penetration is continued around the shell and back to the starting point. After the players have become familiar with these phases, the coach would be wise to introduce other components of the shell drill.

The 5-on-4 Scramble

Before you start this half-court game, you will need to pick your teams.

Assuming you have at least 12 players on your squad, choose three captains to pick their team of four. (If necessary, you can borrow JV players to fill out one or more of your teams.)

Games are played to seven points. The offense scores one point if they score a basket. If they miss and get the rebound, play continues. The defense gets one point for a turnover or a rebound.

Teams alternate on offense or defense on change of possession. A coach can be the fifth man on offense and play for both teams.

The ball should start with the coach at the top of the three-point line on each team’s possession, but he does not have to stay in one spot. Obviously the team that transitions the fastest from offense to defense or vice versa has the better chance of winning.

Coaches should keep track of wins and losses for each team and post them in an area where players can see them. At the end of the season, the winning team(s) should receive some special recognition and/or reward.


Initially, the game was played without any restraints on offense. But this gave the offense too big of an advantage over the defense. Two restrictions were introduced, a limit on time or number of passes (not both at the same time).

We would set and reset our clock (15 seconds) on each change of possession. We also limited the number of passes (four) in which a shot must be taken. You must be careful of this last one, so as not to promote too much dribbling. Instead, emphasize better player movement and use of screens. Note: Adjust the time or time and number of passes according to your players’ ability.


The “Scramble” certainly earns its wings in the full court set. It recreates game-like conditions when a team transitions from offense to defense.

Start by placing the four defensive players at the half-court line and the offensive players at the other end of the court at the basket. The offensive players fast break down the court (after a missed shot and rebound) and try to score.

Meanwhile the defensive players retreat towards their basket, making the man with the ball their first priority.

Once again, limit the amount of time or number of passes the offense gets once they cross half-court. In addition, the coach may wish to add a fifth defensive player, who would remain at the offensive end until either the ball crosses half court or after the first pass is made.


Both players and coaches will profit from the many lessons learned from the 5-on-4 Scramble. Obviously, it reinforces defensive skills from the Shell Drill and improves offensive proficiency. Other benefits you will notice as you go on are improved teamwork and better knowledge of the game.

This, in turn, will build pride and responsibility in what your players do.

Hopefully, this game will make a difference in your season. It certainly did for us.

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