In the ever-evolving world of basketball and training, we’re constantly striving to find ways to push boundaries, help our athletes gain a competitive edge, and hone our professional skills to make an impact on our athletes. Deconstructing—or reverse-engineering—movements and allowing that to guide my programming has definitely become an edge for me as a coach.
In my previous article, “Deconstructing 3 Common Basketball Moves (to Train the Underlying Qualities),” we dove deep into the critical components that underpin three common basketball moves (jab steps, hesitations, and misdirection steps) and the essential athletic qualities needed to help elevate a player’s ability to master those moves.
Guided by feedback from readers, I was motivated to add a second installment to this article series. This time, instead of all offensive moves, I will look at three common defensive tactics and break them down in the same format.
Teaching defense is a passion of mine, probably because I wasn’t very good at it as a player…and I now know how much of a positive impact improving my defense could have made for me. It’s a great skill to focus on from youth to pro—nobody has ever been benched because they played tenacious defense.
I’ve run a series of defense-only camps over the past few years where I not only instruct defensive principles but also aim to shed light on some of the longstanding myths and misconceptions about playing good defense. For example, why a plyo step (or false step) is more useful than a pivot step, and why it’s actually advantageous to cross your feet on defense rather than always being in a lateral slide. We drill, we watch film, and we compete, and every player goes home with a better understanding of efficient defensive movement skills.
Defense is complex. It requires both team and individual responsibilities. In this installment of the series, I’ll break down three of the most crucial, fundamental components of being a great defender:
- The closeout
- The lateral shuffle
- The crossover run
Starting with one of my favorite topics, the “closeout” is truly a fascinating part of the game. A closeout is probably the defensive movement with the most variations, the largest number of different coaching philosophies, the most nuances, and the most myths surrounding it.A closeout is probably the defensive movement with the most variations, the largest number of different coaching philosophies, the most nuances, and the most myths surrounding it. Click To Tweet
I’ll preface this by saying that there is no one-size-fits-all right way. Closing out is very situational, and it also depends on your skill set as a defender combined with the skill set of the offensive player you’re closing out on.
With those obstacles under consideration, we must adhere to the principles or goals of an effective closeout. Two major objectives in every closeout are:
- Close space.
- Follow the game plan.
Let’s unpack this.
Obviously, on defense, we’re trying to stop the opposing player from scoring. You’re assigned a player to guard, but that doesn’t mean the other players on the court don’t matter, including your teammates. Defense is not only an individual task but a team strategy.
Take face-guarding, for example. It’s highly effective for keeping the ball out of a particular player’s hands, making them work extra hard to get open and potentially stopping them from impacting the game. But, on the other hand, it takes you completely out of the team’s defensive scheme, removes you from help situations, and puts much more pressure on your teammates. Not to mention, face-guarding a player will wear you out as a defender, potentially decreasing your energy to produce on the offensive end. It can be good or bad, depending on the situation.
Closeouts are similar. Each style of closeout has pros and cons—and most coaches will assign a closeout style to each of their players and how they should close out on each of the opposing team’s players.Each style of closeout has pros & cons—most coaches will assign a closeout style to each of their players and how they should close out on each of the opposing team’s players, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
We can close out aggressively or recklessly to ensure we take away the catch and shoot by a knockdown shooter, but this usually takes us out of the play and creates an advantage for the offense if they decide to pump fake and attack. This is referred to as running a shooter off the line. And if a coach asks an athlete to run a shooter off the line, it’s because the other four defenders are prepared for the help needed.
We can close out conservatively or “short” if we want to ensure that we take away a driving attack to the basket by a dynamic playmaker. However, this usually leaves the door open for great looks at three-pointers with a late contest or no contest at all. This is referred to as containing. And if a coach asks an athlete to simply contain the drive, they’re willing to live with a few open shots knocked down by that player.
So, as a defender on a closeout, we need to consider these two scenarios and dozens of others because that closeout will have an immediate impact, whether good or bad, on the rest of the defense.
If we pretend for a second that basketball is purely physical and the scouting report doesn’t matter for how coaches create a defensive game plan, chances are there is a common denominator for how we can achieve our first goal in a closeout.
If we simply sprint to a closeout, we can close space and make plays. Then, we can layer in the X’s and O’s of the game plan on top of that, depending on the coach’s instructions on how to close out on who.
We don’t want choppy feet.
We don’t want high hands.
We want an all-out burst of speed to close the space and then decelerate, contest, or react however our game plan is designed for us. But the key is to sprint.
The two most important qualities needed to be an effective defender in a closeout will be acceleration and deceleration. We need to be able to get going in a hurry and stop on a dime.
Video 1. kBox squat.
Video 2. kBox RDL. I’m a huge fan of eccentric-focused tools like the kBox because of its ability to truly overload the eccentric phase with either load or velocity and then have to decelerate the flywheel rapidly and re-accelerate it on the concentric phase.
General strength training can help athletes check both of these boxes, giving them the ability to produce a ton of force as well as redirect that force (not absorb it) when it’s time to stop.
Video 3. SSB box squat.
Other lifts like box squats and any compound lift with a pause rep will also be great options for mastering the skill of going from a relaxed state to an explosive state, similar to accelerating and decelerating.
Video 4. Overspeed broad jump. Another drill I love to use is an overspeed broad jump. Using a band to “aid” the broad jump places a little more demand on the landing, forcing the athlete to stabilize and decelerate upon ground contact. This is like an overload on landing, helping athletes become stronger, more resilient, and, most of all, better landers.
Of course, sprinting is one of the absolute best ways to get faster. Short or longer distances. Standing or kneeling start. All curves and angles. Just sprint. Combine this with a solid strength program, and we’re cooking with fire now
Video 5. Sprint closeouts in game situations.
And lastly, the most specific of them all, practicing a sprint-stop closeout. A full sprint to a two- to three-step deceleration. This is the most versatile, general, and effective closeout style if we don’t consider individual game planning. This closes space and allows the players to get into the best positions to make the next play.
2. Lateral Shuffle
The lateral shuffle is the most popular defensive footwork strategy that we have, but it is also the most misunderstood. The lateral shuffle, of course, is the defensive slide. This is a fundamental aspect of basketball, considering nearly half of your time on the court is spent defending your basket and trying to prevent the opposing team from scoring on you.The lateral shuffle is the most popular defensive footwork strategy that we have, but it is also the most misunderstood, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
Drills like lateral lunges will help you build the strength and stability that apply to this movement. Lateral bounds will help you develop power in the frontal plane. Resisted shuffles will help you bridge the gaps between strength, power, and speed. But before we dive into the training, I’ve got to get a few things off my chest about the defensive slide.
What I was taught about the defensive slide growing up largely turned out to be incorrect and inefficient. The most important message I want to convey in this segment about the defensive slide is that it is okay, and normal, to have some uniqueness in biomechanics from athlete to athlete. It is widely accepted in the basketball community that nearly every athlete will have a slightly (sometimes drastically) different form with their jump shot. No two players shoot exactly the same.
There is a technical model of a “perfect” form jump shot that we base our fundamental teaching on, but over time, each athlete’s execution will turn into a form of its own based on several factors, such as limb lengths, lever angles, strength levels, and so much more.
Also, guess what? Rarely do the best shooters at every level look identical to that “perfect” model.
- Reggie Miller’s elbow sticks out.
- Kevin Durant begins his shot on the weak side hip.
- Steph Curry’s feet are never squared.
- Ray Allen flicks the ball with his guide hand thumb.
These are widely accepted nuances of jump shot form. But still, when it comes to the lateral shuffle, we expect there to be ONE way to perform the defensive slide. That doesn’t seem fair to the athletes.
Just like a jumper, the defensive slide will vary from athlete to athlete based on many factors.We expect there to be ONE way to perform the defensive slide. However, just like a jumper, the defensive slide will vary from athlete to athlete based on many factors, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
The shooters listed above were able to find success because even though they may deviate from the norm, they adhered to some best practices or principles of a jump shot, such as having your hand under the ball, having the ball roll off your pointer and middle fingers, snapping your wrist as you follow through, etc.
A defensive slide also has principles that help an athlete use this movement efficiently. Slides will look different, but the best lateral shuffles have these principles in common:
- Initiating the shuffle with a push from the top leg.
- External rotation of the non-pushing leg and hip.
- Moving with aggression and anticipation.
That’s it. If those three things occur on a slide, I am not too concerned with how it looks in any other way. So many fake fundamentals have been assigned to defense over the years—many of them are inconsequential.
A defensive stance height and width are completely individual preferences. Do you think Nikola Jokic can get as low as Jamal Murray? Heck no. Different body types, limb lengths, joint angles, etc.
What an athlete does with their arms/hands while they slide is also completely an individual preference. This can also be an element of team strategy based on where you have help-side defense, who you’re guarding, and who else is on the opposing team.
And now, the elephant in the room: the feet. Can they cross? Do we want short, choppy slides or longer strides? What if the feet come together during the slide?
Honestly, I’ve seen some of the best defenders in the world do all of these things. I don’t think they matter as much as people want to believe.
At one of the last clinics I went to, one of the presenters spent 20 minutes of his presentation teaching the slide. He taught the best stance, the best slide technique, the best footwork. When the athletes went live, all the drills went down the drain. Literally everything they worked on NOT doing happened.
False steps happened.
Feet crossing happened.
Not being in a low stance happened.
But…defensive stops also happened.
Feet crossing or coming near each other in a slide is not as detrimental as we once believed. If you watch athletes perform the action, when one leg pushes, the other leg externally rotates and pulls with the heel to continue the flow of that energy and continue to move laterally in space. After those two actions, there is a recovery phase in which both feet are underneath the hips and off the ground for a split second; in certain cases, those feet will actually slightly cross.Feet crossing or coming near each other in a defensive slide is not as detrimental as we once believed, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
This can happen due to circumstances and the context of the game that are out of the player’s control.
Sometimes, the athlete loses their balance, gets bumped, or simply gets their feet tangled up in the traffic of the game. This may cause an athlete to need to cross their feet to regain balance or stability and try to get back into position to make a play.
Also, an athlete’s limb lengths contribute to this happening and can make it inevitable. Basketball bodies come in many shapes and sizes, and long legs are common. I’ve noticed that having long legs and a little more vertical displacement on their shuffle will lead to an athlete’s feet coming close together or crossing. This results from their legs being off the ground for a slightly longer amount of time and just needing some more space and time to recover before the next shuffle—it’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing, just something that can naturally occur.
With that being said, am I advising coaches to teach athletes a shuffle with the legs crossing? Absolutely not. But if an athlete is making consistent stops, moving well, staying healthy, and just so happens to cross their feet every now and then during a slide, I think it’s safe to let it slide (no pun intended). It’s not the deadly mistake we once thought it was, especially because the offense is so talented in today’s game; you really shouldn’t be sliding more than two slides in any direction anyway—it’s too slow.
Again, the most important components will be a powerful push with the top leg, the external rotation of the other leg, and approaching each slide with aggression and anticipatory movement.
Let’s look into the physical qualities needed to build up a really strong lateral shuffle. From a mobility standpoint, we need to access decent ranges of external hip rotation and internal hip rotation, as well as adduction and abduction. These give us the fluidity to move our hips through space at various angles and through all three planes of motion.
I’m not saying we need to get a goniometer out and measure exact ranges, but a simple eye test should get the job done. Generally, if it looks or sounds painful for athletes to showcase their ranges of motion in these areas, that’s a good sign it could use some work. Also, if there are majorly apparent discrepancies between sides, that could be something to look further into or have a medical staff member perform some joint range testing.
The consequence of not improving and/or maintaining these hip ranges would be an inability to execute one of the three major principles of the lateral slide: the external rotation of the non-pushing leg. This would leave our athlete with a very squared-off, slow, and inefficient shuffle that looks like defense from the 1930s.
To address these mobility demands, I really love these three drills that have remained a staple in our programs over the years.
- 90/90 switches with lift
- Hip airplanes
- KB weight shifts
Video 6. 90/90 switches with lift.
Video 7. Hip airplanes.
Video 8. Kettlebell weight shifts.There are more advanced progressions and ways to individualize these three drills, but this is a good starting point. Generally, if not part of a warm-up, we may assign these as daily “vitamins” for athletes to perform on their own periodically throughout the day or week.
From a performance expression standpoint, it is crucial for athletes to have strength in the frontal and transverse planes. This not only provides stability to the system but also serves as a baseline of force for creating power and speed.
Video 9. Low hold lateral lunge.
Video 10. Transverse lunge. I love the transverse lunge and low hold lateral lunge to address general strength needs. Both allow the athlete to move in multiple planes of motion and target the muscles of the hip and inner thigh that will also be utilized while shuffling.
Although the above exercises build strength, they also have some built-in mobility benefits as a secondary use, even if they aren’t the main lift of the day.
Video 11. Lateral bound to one-foot landing.
Video 12. Slant board lateral rebound jumps.
Video 13. Plate straddle reaction hops.
Video 14. Slant board lateral bound.
Video 15. Resisted lateral shuffle.
Video 16. Resisted hip-turn to shuffle.
Another general quality we can help our athletes build is a base of plyometric fundamentals. Using plate straddle reaction hops or lateral rebound jumps to increase elasticity, lateral bounds or slant board lateral bounds to increase lateral power production, or even practicing the lateral shuffle skill (especially under load) are all great ways to enhance athletic outputs.
Lastly, the ultimate specificity would be simply going out on the court and guarding people. I love implementing small-sided games to put the defense at a disadvantage and force a chaotic environment for athletes to grow in.
Video 17. Spin out with cone touch defense. In a one-on-one setting, I like to have the offense spin the ball to initiate the drill.
For the drill above, once the ball is released, the defense can slide or run and touch the cone that is one to two strides away. This takes them out of position by one to two steps. The offense then attacks, and it’s a live one-on-one. You can set constraints like spots on the court, maximum dribble count, driving direction, or pretty much whatever your imagination can think of.
While you may not always get the perfect lateral shuffle—or maybe the athlete will use a completely different strategy—you still help them build up a valuable accumulation of reps. That is helpful for future scenarios when they can pull from those past training experiences to make the right play.
In fact, one of the other footwork strategies you may see during these live drill interactions is…the crossover run.
3. Crossover Step/Run
Aside from the defensive slide, the crossover step (or crossover run) is the most prominent and effective defensive footwork strategy basketball players use. Sliding laterally is far too slow for playing effective defense. We need an alternative method to make up ground if we get beaten and also potentially beat the offensive player to the spot to play aggressively and proactively on the defensive end.
The crossover step is the bridge that takes us from the shuffle into a sprint-like posture so we can turn and run or at least square back up with the ball handler to get back into a slide.
Quick terminology check: I am describing what some may refer to as a lateral run and a lateral run step. Those terms were coined by the legendary coach Lee Taft, a pioneer in teaching authentic sports movements as it relates to speed and agility—one of the most valuable resources in the field.
When I was introduced to this concept, it had slightly different terminology, so I’m in the habit of calling this the “crossover” version. More importantly, this has been the term that works well for my athletes and in my setting. Although it would be nice, having one set of nomenclature that spans an entire industry is difficult. My two cents here would be to choose the terminology you can be consistent with and that your athletes understand.
One of the best things about the crossover step is that it can simply be a step that bridges the gap between two movements, such as a slide to a sprint, or it can also be a continuous action that turns into a movement of its own, such as a crossover run where the athlete sprints on a diagonal path for a distance of several steps.
Just like the defensive slide, some principles need to happen to make the most of the crossover step. Those principles are:
- The movement must be initiated by a dynamic repositioning of the lead foot, never a static start position.
- As the lead leg repositions and initiates the movement with a push, the opposite leg will externally rotate (similar to the slide) and strike down under the athlete’s center of mass.
- The athlete’s torso will rotate toward the direction they want to travel as they bring the initial pushing leg across their midline.
While principles 1 and 2 are similar to the defensive slide, it’s the third principle that separates the two. When the torso rotates, it allows the athlete to commit to a diagonal path rather than staying on a lateral path like a slide. The external rotation of the non-pushing leg in conjunction with the torso rotation clears the way for this movement to occur. As the non-pushing leg strikes under the hips, the initial pushing leg will recover and swing across the front side of the body to then repeat the gait process for as many steps as needed before moving to a new strategy or change of direction.
When it comes to strength, many of the same general strength patterns we covered already are also applicable. Lateral lunges, transverse lunges, Cossack squats, and other frontal and multiplane movements are key.
From a mobility perspective, we need to be able to tap into the same elements discussed for the defensive slide. The only major difference in focus with the crossover step is ensuring we have adequate adduction ranges, especially in knee and hip flexion. Other than that, we still need great foot and ankle stiffness, strength, and power production capabilities.
Video 18. Chaos Carioca walk.
Video 19. Resisted crossover steps. Two drills I love to use are the chaos Carioca walk with Pallof iso and resisted crossover steps. These are both sneaky ways to blend mobility with strength, working on swinging the legs across the body’s center of mass at various angles while still locking in the core stability.
There are many variations of this, many ways to load it, and even machines you can use to set this up. In general, just try to load this movement pattern moderately to build up a foundation of strength. You can then build onto it with some more specific training.
Video 20. Rear foot elevated lateral rebound jump.
From a plyometric, something like a rear foot elevated lateral rebound jump can be a great drill to isolate both adduction and abduction of a single leg, forcing the foot to respond and stabilize from the ground up as the leg swings across the body’s midline.
Video 21. Hip turn to crossover step.
Basketball movements occur at many different angles, and the crossover run is an excellent way to access those unique angles of the game, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
Video 22. Reaction curved sprint. Lastly, we can start working on a hip turn to crossover run or curved sprint to get more exposure to and practice of this crucial movement in a more dynamic way. Both of these drills require the athlete to utilize their ability to adduct and abduct at the hip since it’s not a linear sprint.
Basketball movements occur at many different angles, and the crossover run is an excellent way to access those unique angles of the game. Linear speed is a massive bang for your buck when it comes to speed, but don’t neglect the curves and angles of sprinting to help bridge that gap from training to on-court speed transfer.
Video 23. Closeout to one more.
Another great small-sided game to throw in—perfect for a group setting—is the closeout to one more drill. There are two offensive players; I like to play corner and wing. The defense or coach begins with the ball, and the drill is initiated with a pass. The offense has zero dribbles, one pass, and one shot as a unit. They can use the shot or pass however they want.
Defense can earn one point if the offense misses a shot that is well contested and two points for pass deflections, turnovers, blocks, or shot clock violations. The offense can’t hold the ball for more than two seconds before passing or shooting.
As the drill begins, the defense must take the shot away on the closeout, force a pass, and then sprint to a contest on that shot. Players will get creative and find ways to naturally evolve the drill as they get more and more reps. This incorporates every movement that we discussed in the article.
Mastering the art of defense is a process, but it can be one of the most rewarding efforts a hooper can make. Defense is truly a game-changing skill to have and makes any player a valuable asset to any team.Defense is truly a game-changing skill to have and makes any player a valuable asset to any team, says @JustinOchoa317. Click To Tweet
By reverse-engineering the physical tools athletes need to build a robust foundation of strength, speed, and agility, we can help them transfer those gains to their sports skills and become lockdown defenders.
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