December 16, 2019 • OffenseWinning Hoops

Using interior screens to bust zone defenses

by Julious Coleman, contributing writer

No matter where you turn, there’s someone talking about ways to beat a man-to-man defenses. Sit down with some coaches or attend a clinic, and if you’re talking about defense, the strategic emphasis is typically about ways to counter a man-to-man.

diagrams 1-4But you also need a proven strategy to beat zone defenses. For us, it all comes down to interior screens. We’ve utilized the following play series featuring interior screens to pick apart zones.


The Wheel series spreads the zones and creates scoring opportunities for the wing player and opposite posts. Have players set up in a 1-2-2 offensive alignment.

DIAGRAM 1: Wheel zone (A). 1 passes to 3 on the left wing. 4 pops to the corner, which causes the zone to shift. 3 passes to 4. 3 then cuts to the strong-side block. 5 can flash to the middle if it’s open. If it’s not, 5 stays home.

DIAGRAM 2: Wheel zone (B). 1 replaces 3 on the left wing, and 2 fills to the top of the key. The ball is reversed with 4 passing to 1, who then passes to 2. In the strong-side post, 3 runs off a screen by 5 to end on the opposite wing (could be open for a shot). 4 slides back into the post.

DIAGRAM 3: Wheel zone (C). The ball is reversed to the opposite side with 2 passing to 3. 3 passes to 5, who has popped to the corner. 3 cuts strong to the low post. 2 fills the ball-side wing vacated by 3. 1 comes back to the top of the key to replace 2. This is a continuous offense.

   » RELATED: 10 tips for beating zone defenses

If the offense can’t find an open player, coaches can run a Wheel reverse with the ball moving from the corner to the wing. The center is again the focus. After sending the pass back to the wing, the center sets a downscreen allowing the ball-side post player to move freely to the corner (Diagram 4).

DIAGRAM 4: Wheel reverse. This counter to the Wheel starts with 5 sending a pass to 2 on the wing. 5 then sets a downscreen, allowing 3 to come cleanly to the corner.

diagrams 5-8Two-Out Gaps

The second way to beat a zone is to use the Two-Out Gaps set. This zone buster is designed to take advantage of your interior bigs — especially if those players can step to the corner and shoot.

Your offense starts in a 2-3 alignment with your two smaller guards lined up at the junction of the zone. The other three players are on the baseline.

DIAGRAM 5: Two-Out Gaps (A). 1 passes to 2. 3 runs off a double staggered screen on the baseline from 4 and 5.

DIAGRAM 6: Two-Out Gaps (B). 2 then makes a pass back to 1. 4 runs off a single screen set by 5. 4 ends up in the corner. 3 fills the weak-side block.

DIAGRAM 7: Two-Out Gaps (C). If nobody was open during the first two parts of the Two-Out Gaps series, play continues to Diagram 7. 1 passes back to 2. 5 runs off a single screen from 3. 4 fills the weak-side block.

DIAGRAM 8: Two-Out Gaps (D). To keep the offense moving, 2 passes back to 1. 3 runs off a single screen from 4. 5 fills the weak-side block.

The four parts to the Two-Out Gaps are designed to get your interior players shots on the baseline. However, 1 and 2 have the option to drive into the gaps and create 2-on-1 situations to get the zone to shift. As the three interior players run off each other’s screens, they need to read how the defender is playing. This allows them to seal their defender for post-up situations.

It cannot be stressed enough that strong interior screens are the key to this set. The weak-side post also can flash to the middle of the zone or to the strong-side elbow, then replace himself back on the block for another wrinkle to the offense.

diagrams 9-12Horns

The third concept to beat a zone is a set called Horns. The Horns set is designed to get midrange jump shots or layups for interior players. Your offensive alignment in this set is a 1-2-2.

DIAGRAM 9: Horns (A). 1 passes to 3, who passes it back to 1. 1 then reverses the ball to 2, who comes high to receive the pass.

DIAGRAM 10: Horns (B). When 2 receives the pass from 1, 3 cuts along the baseline to the strong-side wing. 4 dives to the short corner after 3 cuts through. 1 spaces over toward the wing. 2 passes to 3 when 3 arrives to the ball-side wing.

A couple of notes about this part of the Horns play:

  • The wings always cut through first before the post players move.
  • If 3 passes to 4, 5 dives to the basket. If 3 passes to 5 in the post, 4 goes to the basket. There’s always the same action for players 3, 4 and 5.

DIAGRAM 11: Horns (C). 3 looks hard to the post for a possible pass to 4 or 5. If there’s nothing there, 3 reverses the ball by passing to 2, who passes to 1. 3 then runs the baseline to the strong-side wing, and 5 sets an interior screen for 4. 4 comes along the key to receive a pass, if open. If 4 is not open, 4 continues to the ball-side midpost, and 5 follows to the strong-side short corner.

DIAGRAM 12: Horns (D). 1 looks hard to the low post to pass. If nothing is there, the interior-screening action continues with 3 running along the baseline to the ball-side wing. 5 sets a screen for 4, who cuts through the lane to the ball-side post. The offense continues through this motion until a player comes free.

The purpose of the Horns set is to get your players mid-range jump shots. It also is a strong play to send passes into your interior players for easy post-up situations.

Julious Coleman is the assistant men’s basketball coach at Boise State University in Idaho.