What’s wrong with St. John’s zone defense?

Last year, Steve Lavin was hired as the head coach of St. John’s and defensively, Lavin set up a system that involved a lot of zone.  St. John’s played zone on 41.5% of their possessions, ranking them 22nd in terms of most zone defense played.  Through two games, St. John’s is once again relying on the zone, and in fact the team is actually using the zone more, employing it on 64% of its opponents possessions.  Last year, zone defense was effective for the Johnnies, as they held opponents to just 0.802 points per possession on 37.7% shooting.  However, this year the zone has been a whole lot less effective, and despite two wins, which could be described as lackluster at best, it could be a real problem moving forward.  In two games against William and Mary and Lehigh, St. John’s has allowed 0.946 points per possession on 45.3% shooting.  So what’s the problem?  Looking at the tape, I notice a few reasons to why opponents are getting really good looks against the zone:

Delayed/Late Rotations

The thing that really jumps out at you when watching St. John’s play their zone defense is how many late/delayed rotations there are on any given possession:

Picking up the possession with the ball at the top of the key, you see St. John’s in its default zone, which appears to be a 1-2-2 zone where the Johnnies match-up out of it.

As Lehigh swings the ball to the corner with passes, you have St. John’s rotating towards the basketball.  One defender rotates to the corner, another fills in for him, rotating to the block, and a third drops in and fills the second defender’s spot.

Here is a look at St. John’s defense with the basketball in the corner.  As it should, the zone defense is now flattening out and taking care of it’s responsibilities.

Swinging the basketball out of the corner and back to the top of the key, Lehigh forces St. John’s to rotate again.  The defender dropping down needs to get back and close out on the man receiving the swing pass.  The defender who closed out in the corner returns to his area, allowing the defender covering him to return to his original area.

However, that final rotation takes place a little too late and as the final pass gets made, the defender who should be closing out on the shooter is still in the paint.

Because of this delayed rotation, Lehigh is able to get off a rather uncontested shot, knocking it down.  Here is a look at the play in real time:

Watching the play live, you notice that there is a slight delay from when the ball goes to the top of the key and when God’s Gift Achiuwa starts his rotation back to his original possession.  He should be moving on the pass to the top of the key, and instead he is moving on the catch.  That little delay makes a huge difference.  What happens when the delay gets even greater?

In this clip, you notice that Achiuwa is so late with his rotation that he realizes he can’t even make it to close out on the defender.  So instead, he decides to hang around in the paint in hopes of grabbing a rebound.  The shot is so open that the rebound never comes.  Here are a few more late rotations:

In this clip, you notice a lot of jumping when closing out and contesting shots. That is usually an indicator of late rotations, because if a defender is rotating on time, he can close out under control, hands raised with his feet on the ground.

Zone Gaps/Middle Left Open

The second problem that I have noticed with St. John’s zone defense is a direct result of their style of play.  Coach Lavin wants St. John’s to extend their zone in an effort to try and create havoc.  Usually extending the zone is a problem, but Lavin recruits the type of athletes who are able to extend out and not be hurt by it.  With that being said, the key to this extension is containment.  St. John’s often finds themselves with two defenders pressuring the basketball way behind the three point line almost as if it is a trap situation.  It can work, and the fact that they are still forcing turnovers 16.1% of the time when playing zone shows that it does, but you can’t leave gaps or let the ball handler split the defense and get in the middle:

When that contain is broken, the offense will more often than not get a wide open look, especially against St. John’s zone.  They extend so far out that if the front line gets beat, the back line has a whole lot of ground to make up.  So much so that they either don’t get there or they do and expose themselves on the backend.  Here are a few more looks.

Notice how getting the basketball to the middle of the court forces the defense to collapse.  Usually when the ball gets in the middle, it isn’t the initial offensive player who gets the points, it’s the man he kicks it out to after the defense collapses on him.

Too Much Gambling

The final problem that I have seen with St. John’s zone is once again related to the style of high-pressure zone defense that they like to play.  They want to create turnovers out of their zone defense, and they are willing to go for steals to do it.  However, St. John’s players really need to be smarter about their steal attempts, because that too can result in easy looks for the opponent:

What gambling does is it takes you out of the play, especially if you really sell out for that steal.  Gambling and failing to create a turnover always hurts the defense, but it really hurts in a zone where you are covering areas instead of a man, making it a lot harder to help the gambling defender.

When looking at St. John’s defense and their struggles in their first two games, the question to ask is can they get better?  I want to say yes because this is still a real young team that hasn’t played much together, or for Lavin, all that much (only one returning scholarship player from last year).  Being more comfortable with your teammates and with your defense should make the rotations easier and allow them to happen quicker.  With that being said, the gambling issue is something that would worry me as a St. John’s fan.  If they continue to gamble at the same rate and against better competition, they are going to be allowing a lot of good looks out of the zone this season.

One thought on “What’s wrong with St. John’s zone defense?”

  1. Thanks for doing this – I’m going to borrow one of the videos to comment on it on the Rumble (the SB Nation St. John’s site), speaking about whether they can get better (short answer: yes, but…) and to how Lavin has used the zone, in my memory of last year.

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