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Defensive Principles: Introduction to Shell Drills

Table of Contents

Defense Reigns King

We have all heard it before: “Defense wins championships.” Some may argue that in today’s game, with the overall skill level and offensive efficiency at an all-time high, this is no longer the case. While it is true that great offense often beats great defense one-on-one, we believe team defense still reigns king. Don’t agree? Look at the last ten teams to win the NBA championship. Every one of them was ranked within the top ten in defensive efficiency over the course of their championship season. Six finished in the top five. So if the timeless mantra still holds true in today’s game, in the league with the greatest offensive talents in the world – how can anyone dispute the importance of team defense at the youth and amateur levels?

The key to any defense lies not in individual size or speed, but in having five players who consistently and efficiently work together. While having players who can pressure the ball and frustrate the offense certainly helps, what matters most is that all players on the court understand two things: positioning and rotations. Let’s take a look one at a time.


When we say “positions,” we are not referring to the player’s role, i.e. Guard, Forward, or Center. We are talking about the position on the court in which the defender, given the current locations of both the ball-handler and his/her matchup, should be. In our “4-On-4 Basic Rotations” drill, we explain the fundamental positioning principles for each player.

The defender guarding the ball should apply pressure. Defenders who are one pass away should have one hand in the passing lane with an eye on both the ball and their match-up. Players who are two passes (or a skip pass) away should be on the basket line, evenly splitting the ball and their match-up.


When defenders understand proper positioning, they are better prepared to help. This brings us to rotations. No defense is ever perfect. When the player defending the ball inevitably gets beat, one of his/her teammates must be in position to help stop the drive while the remaining players rotate accordingly. When the help defender steps in, the ball-handler will likely pass to an open teammate. At this point, all five defenders must understand who rotates to the next pass, the next one after that, and so on.

The help comes from the defender guarding the opposite corner (this player should already be standing under the basket, as they were two passes away). The help defender must step in front of the ball-carrier before he/she reaches the paint. The on-ball defender is to recover and trap the ball with the help defender. As this happens, the remaining two defenders should drop toward the paint and split the remaining three offensive players.


There is a third factor, perhaps equally as important as positioning and rotations: that is, communication. Once your players understand these principles, constant communication is the only way to assure efficient execution. Coaches should always encourage players to communicate clearly and assertively when defending an active offense. As long as your team talks through each situation, they will know what needs to be done and who needs to do it.

Teaching These Principles

At 360Player, we provide all users with access to our Shell Defense drills. These drills breakdown all of the essential concepts of proper positioning and rotations in a man-to-man defense. We cover a variety of offensive actions – including baseline drives, down-screens, face cuts, ball-screens and post entries – so that your team will be prepared for any situation.

As mentioned in the drill descriptions, we recommend walking your team through each situation and discussing the concepts before throwing them into battle. Once your team understands the principles of the drill, allow them to play through each situation in a live setting. Of course, the concepts covered in this article may change within different schemes and strategies. What we offer is a baseline understanding of how a man-to-man defense is typically played at every level across the world. Once these principles are familiar to your players, adapting new strategies for different personnel and opponents should be easy.

Below, we’ve included a video of Coach Jim Huber taking his team through a basic 4-on-4 shell drill. Take a look to see how he progresses the drill from a simple walk-through and discussion to a game-like setting.

As always, if you have any questions regarding this article or the principles mentioned, visit:

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