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The Dependable Guide to Playing Defense in Basketball

by | Mar 24, 2021

Here, my intention is to give you the info you need to improve on defense in basketball.

We’ll go through…

  1. Basic keys to defense in basketball
  2. Basketball defense drills
  3. How to avoid fouls when defending
  4. Getting more steals on defense
  5. How to contest/block shots on defense

… so you can develop into a player that has a serious impact on the defensive end.

1. Basic keys to defense in basketball

These are the standard habits of a lockdown defender:

GOOD DEFENSIVE STANCE

Get in a low and stable stance.

Keeping your feet a little more than shoulder width apart will help you with this.

As a result, you’ll be able to cut your defender off and absorb contact in a strong position.

But, being too low has its disadvantages.

It becomes more difficult to more from side to side quickly to react to your opponent.

So, don’t go overboard.

When it comes to hand placement, different people have different opinions.

Keeping a hand up helps to defend a potential shot or pass.

Meanwhile, having your hands extended by your sides allows you to focus more on defending the dribble.

But, one thing is key for your hands, and it leads on to the next point…

basketball defensive stance

ON-BALL DEFENSE

Active hands

You must keep your hands active on defense.

No, this doesn’t mean reaching recklessly for the ball.

Make sure your hands stay moving and in a position to pounce on any mistake.

Even if it doesn’t lead to a turnover…

It will still make your opponent uncomfortable so that it’s harder to score.

Tailor your defense to your opponent

When playing defense in basketball, you shouldn’t be guarding every player the exact same way.

Pay attention to your oponent’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

If they’re a lights-out shooter, you’ll need to guard them tighter.

If you notice that they only really drive right, try to force them to attack towards their left.

OFF-BALL DEFENSE

Pay attention to your opponent AND the ball

You must constantly be aware of the player you’re defending AND the player dribbling.

That way, you can prevent the player you’re guarding from receiving an easy pass.

But, if the ball handler gets free, you will be ready to rotate over and help.

(It is sometimes better not to play help defense if your assigned opponent is a great shooter)

Talk and communicate

When playing off-ball defense in basketball, you can see everything that the on-ball defender can’t.

So it’s your job as a good teammate to call out screens and any adjustments that are needed.

By doing this, you’ll be able to shut down opponents’ opportunities faster.

2. Basketball defense drills

Now that you understand the basic keys to defending well, here are some drills to help you improve.

DEFENSE DRILL #1: CLOSE-OUT MIMIC

basketball defense drill: close-out

Instructions:

Stand at the three point line with your back to the basket.

Do defensive slides until you reach the hoop (in the directions of the red arrows).

Once you reach it, run back to your starting point as if an offensive player just got the ball there.

Get there as fast as possible with a hand up.

But, stay light on your feet, so that you would be ready to change direction at any point.

How does this help:

This helps to train two key movements in defense…

  1. Defensive slides: The sideways movement used to stay in front of the dribbler and cut them off
  2. Close-out: Running to defend an open player who has just been passed the ball.

DEFENSE DRILL #2: ONE-ON-ONE

Don’t get me wrong, training by yourself will help.

But, if you really want to improve at defense in basketball?

You’re gonna have to actually defend a real person.

A significant part of defense is effort and not giving up on the play.

1-on-1 is a great way to teach these traits, PLUS all the necessary defensive movements.

If you can, try to play fullcourt 1-on-1.

This will force you to defend well even when tired, also improving your stamina.

3. Getting more steals on defense

Yes, there’s more to defense than getting steals.

But, forcing turnovers will always help your team.

Here’s how to do it…

STEALS WHEN DEFENDING ON THE BALL

Active hands

As stressed before, keep your hands active and outside the frame of your body.

Leave NO room for laziness and you will get your reward eventually.

Forward lean

Often, when defending opponents who were reckless with their dribble, I’d predict their move but still couldn’t reach the ball to steal it.

I found that by adding a forward lean to my stance, I was brought closer to the ground and more able to reach the ball.

If you’re doing this, try to bring your elbows closer to the level of your knees, keeping your back straight.

HOWEVER, in this position you have less lateral quickness.

So, use it with caution.

how to get more steals in basketball

STEALS WHEN DEFENDING OFF THE BALL

Analyse the ball handler

Often, the player with the ball might make eye contact with a teammate before the pass.

Other times, they’ll make the next pass obvious with their body language.

Pay attention and you could get some easy interceptions.

Go for steals as a player drives to the basket

As players drive to the basket, they’ll try to protect the ball from their defender.

As a result, they often leave the ball exposed to off-ball defenders for a steal.

However, be careful not to foul by swiping their arm.

4. How to contest/block shots on defense in basketball

VERTICAL CONTEST

When a player attacks the basket and you’re already in position, a “vertical contest” is often most effective.

This means jumping directly upwards with your hands to the ceiling.

(Rather than jumping into the attacking player)

This is especially useful when the attacking player doesn’t have much momentum.

It helps in two ways:

  1. The shot becomes harder since you’re at max height AND stretch
  2. A good ref won’t call a foul since you aren’t jumping into them and your arms are in your ‘legal’ space

FOCUS ON THE BALL, NOT THE PLAYER

This is an honest mistake which players can often make.

It may be a subtle change in mindset, but could be the key to you blocking more shots.

Rather than swatting recklessly at the attacking player, focus on meeting the ball on its path to the basket.

JUMP BEFORE THE OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Anticipating a layup/shot and jumping before the attacking player can lead to a great block.

NOTE: this is only recommended when rotating over as a help defender that the offensive player can’t see

That way, you’re less likely to get caught out by a shot fake.

This can appear aggressive, so make sure you make contact with only the ball, not the player.

TRAINING TO JUMP HIGHER

By increasing vertical jump, you’ll be able to contest and block shots better.

It’s pretty basic logic.

To help with this, I made the FREE 4-Week Hooper Boost Vertical Jump Program.

It trains your leg strength, as well as muscle speed, core strength and mobility.

(All exercises have video demonstrations and can be done without gym equipment)

5. How to avoid fouls when playing defense in basketball

An elite defender knows how to lock up their opponent, without fouling.

Here are some things to remember so you can do the same.

REACH FOR THE BALL WISELY

Good defenders will only reach for the ball when it’s exposed and there’s a genuine opportunity to steal it.

It can be tempting to reach for the ball recklessly, but good things rarely come from this.

Realistically, it leads to one of the following:

  • You give up a poor foul
  • Your opponent gets past you easily

… and neither of those look too good

HANDS UP DEFENSE

Coaches and basketball announcers always seem to be going on about ‘hands-up defense’.

It may sound clichéd, but – when defending in the paint – it is often the best and wisest choice.

It GREATLY reduces the chance of you picking up a foul.

This is because it’s clear to see that you didn’t make illegal contact with your arms.

Fouling aside, it also just makes you much taller, making it difficult for your opponent to score.

how to avoid fouling on defense

ABSORB CONTACT WITH YOUR BODY

Lastly, you need to defend with your body, limiting the use of your arms to make contact with opponents.

Whether guarding the dribbler on the perimeter, or defending in the paint, this is your best bet.

As always, there are exceptions: having one hand on your defender WITHIN the frame of you body is sometimes allowed.

(e.g. when the attacking player is posting up or driving to the basket)

Regardless, it’s best to use your lateral quickness to cut off your opponent and absorb contact with your body.

That way, it’s pretty much impossible to pick up a foul.

Plus, it’s lockdown defense.

This is part of the reason why a low and stable defensive stance is important.

It gives you the ability to stay strong and absorb contact in this way.