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How to Apply Ball Pressure and Play Great On-the-Ball Defense

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Every coach loves players who have the ability to not just guard the ball on the perimeter but can also apply constant and disruptive pressure. Unfortunately, though, players like that are sometimes hard to come by as many athletes lack the natural athleticism necessary to become the next feared defensive stopper in your league.

In this guide we are going to discuss how by grasping some key concepts, players can become a supremely sound defender and apply intelligent pressure regardless of their level of natural athleticism. These concepts apply to both man to man and zone defenses.

Applying intelligent pressure starts with the understanding of two basic defensive techniques. (My definition of intelligent pressure is pressuring with the ability to anticipate the offensive player's next actions and therefore react in an efficient matter.)

1. Closing Out. As soon as the offensive player catches the ball the defender must execute a proper close out. After watching dozens of games every year I'm convinced that most programs don't place enough emphasize on the importance of a proper close out. This one technique is often the difference between a blow by lay up or applying intelligent pressure. Here are 4 steps needed to execute a proper closeout:

A) Run at the offensive player, and when you are about 4-6 feet away drop your hips and chop your feet. This is going to slow you down and give you a lower center of gravity which is necessary to react quickly.

B) After slowing down your next goal is to disrupt his vision and prevent him from taking advantage of an open catch and shoot opportunity. To do this, simply throw your hands above your head in hopes of disrupting his vision. Stay low while you do this - do NOT stand up straight as you throw your hands up.

C) Another great defensive tool is your voice. Yelling "ball" or "shot" while closing out gives the illusion that you are much closer than what you actually are.

D) Once the offensive man is clearly not going to shoot and is back in a triple threat position, take a quick six inch hop back towards the basket. One of the toughest shots in basketball is to face up and then to pull the trigger on a shot that is not in rhythm. Many high school athletes and the majority of younger players have not fully developed this part of their game yet. After preventing a shot in rhythm this small hop back helps prevent the drive.

2. Tracing the Ball. The next aspect of guarding an offensive player in triple threat position is the art of active hands. After understanding the proper placement and tactics of active hands, a defender can greatly increase his ability to pressure the ball.

Coaching Tip: Coaches should make sure to take the necessary time to explain the difference between proper hand placement and out of control hands. It should not be assumed that players already know this. Just yelling "Pressure the ball" is not going to be as effective as possible without teaching how and why first.

There are three places that the ball can be placed when in the possession of an offensive player. The placement of the ball should dictate your hand movement and the amount of pressure that can be applied

A) The first placement is to put the ball on the hip, which is the initial set up for the Triple Threat Position. When the ball is on the offensive player's hip the easiest way to defend him is to read his eyes. Simply noticing where he is looking lets you effectively shade and pressure. When applying pressure in this situation focus on using only your elbows and hands. Make sure that you are digging up at the ball and not swiping down at it. Avoid long reaching movements that will throw you off balance and make you vulnerable to getting out of position. When the ball is in this position the defender needs to be close enough to the ball handler that he can reach out and touch him.

B) The second place the ball can be positioned is below the hip. When most offensive players when put the ball below their hip they are looking to penetrate and get to the basket. Knowing this, as a defensive player I am going to take an additional six inch hop backwards to give myself even more time and more room to react. When applying pressure in this situation you must even use less arm movement. Instead of using your entire arm (elbow to hands) to apply pressure you must now only use your hands to dig or get a deflection. Don't over reach or over step as you will more than likely find yourself watch the ball handler blow by you.

C) The last defensive read occurs when the offensive player puts the ball at shoulder level or higher. When this happens your eyes should get HUGE as this is the time to apply extreme pressure the ball. When the ball is this high the offensive player only has one option and that is to pass. More specifically he is probably looking to skip the ball from to another player on the opposite side of the court. You can now jam him with your whole body and then use your entire arm from your shoulders on down to pressure the ball. If done properly you greatly increase your chances of causing a turn over, deflecting the pass, or getting a steal.

Now while I may be stating the obvious, it's important to realize that it is entirely possible for the ball to sequentially be placed in all three positions during a single possession. When that happens, the defender must also quickly adjust his own positioning while following the guidelines written above.

A simple drill to work on these concepts starts with placing an offensive player on the wing and having a defender start in the middle of the key, Skip the ball cross court to the offensive player and have the defender close out correctly. Then have the offensive player rotate the ball through all three positions and have the defense react accordingly. When you first start using this drill it is important that the offensive player go slow enough to allow the defense to react before repositioning the ball.

One of the most frustrating feelings for an offensive player, especially a really good one, is when he realizes that he is being stopped by an opponent who is far less gifted in terms of athleticism. If you can accomplish this as an "unathletic" defender you will not only control your opponent physically but may be able to dominate him mentally as well!

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