The Principles of Run and Jump Defense

Our team played a run and jump press defense this past season. In a previous post, I documented the reasons for the switch to run and jump. This week I am going to attempt to write a “curriculum” for my team’s principles in run and jump. There are coaches out there that use different principles, and I think we will evolve in our principles. That said, I like the system we used after playing run and jump for a season.

The Core Three Principles

These are what I would consider “elementary school” for run and jump. Calling them elementary is not to say that they are easy to master. Errors are inevitable in a system like this that requires many quick decisions. The elementary school label is more to demonstrate that they are the core fundamentals, and without them our run and jump system broke down. When teaching anything, it is a good idea to teach no more than three things at a time. If you have the time, I suggest isolating these principles one by one. Here are the three principles for “elementary school” run and jump:

  1. Let the Ball in Play

Let the ball in play is a new concept to our players. In past seasons when we pressured with straight man to man, players attempted to steal the inbounds pass. Hall of Fame Canadian coach Coleen Dufresne teaches players to steal the inbound pass in the run and jump. I am sure other coaches do too. We play it more cautiously. Typically, coaches want to teach players to be aggressive first, and conservative later. In the case of run and jump, I think it is easier to get players to be conservative first. If players miss a steal or deflection on the initial pass, they are instantly out of position. In turn, every other player in the defense gets out of position helping this player recover.

We were ok with the offense advancing the ball, but we wanted to make them have to make several decisions in order to do so. The video above illustrates the offense attacking immediately on the catch. Our defender got caught behind and we gave up contain. In the last clip, the defender that gambled is the tenth player to arrive in the half court and eventually a player gets a wide open look. The offensive decisions are easy and the results are usually bad for our defense.

Decision Fatigue

The term I stole (not sure where it came from originally) is “decision fatigue.” A huge goal in the run and jump is decision fatigue. In the course of a possession, the more decisions individuals need to make, the more likely they will make a wrong decision. And over the course of a game, the same principle gets magnified. Coaches might tell players in practice to pass through the press. In the heat of a game where they throw it out of bounds, the seed of doubt is planted in the game plan. None of these decisions are difficult if the offense does not have a defender in front of them because the defender swung and missed going for a steal.

The video below shows turnovers that share two common traits. First, they take place in the second half. Psychologically speaking, the game shifts a little for players. Second, the role of the defender is simply to contain. We are not encouraging a second defender to jump in the play because the play is not sped up.

Most of the time players make the right decision on offense. The two teams in the clips above are good teams and their players generally attack our defense well. Each game though we want to try to get a couple possessions where we put forth a minimal effort physically, but mentally we are in the right spots to force mistakes.

No Home Run Passes

There is an additional benefit to letting the offense complete the inbound pass. We are not susceptible to giving up a home run pass for a lay-up. Many teams try to take the top off a defense with a baseball pass for a lay-up. If a team scores on this type of play, we are not executing. A deep pass that results in a lay-up means that the offense only made one decision. The worst possible outcome for a defense.

Letting the ball in play implies a hint of laziness. I think this is being a bit harsh. We specifically chose the language “let the ball in” for the purpose of undoing an aggressive habit. The real goal with the first pass as we eventually drilled home was to ensure that the first pass was caught so that the offensive player’s momentum is going toward the inbounder (whom I will refer to as the QB from here on out). If the offense catches a pass while seeing their own basket, the defense is lazy.

  1. Contain the Ball.

Once the QB enters the ball, the player covering the ball’s main goal is to contain the ball. Ideally, the on-ball defender forces the player with the ball to change directions. In general, the more dribbles the offensive player takes with a defender pressuring them, the more likely they make an error. By getting beat, the defender is not inducing any decision fatigue on the offense. Containing means that the offense needs to think about every dribble and pass. If the court is open, any player with average skill and court awareness will dribble up stress free.

In the video here, the defender contains the ball well. The offensive player is skilled and athletic. This clip came in game number one of the season. Eventually, we want the other four defenders to take a risk and accelerate the point guard’s decision process. We probably were not ready yet for such a tactic.

Personnel Considerations

The most important question we need to think about when it comes to containing is personnel. We want the most athletic player on their point guard. Even in matchups where a team’s best scorer is a different player, we still put our best on ball defender on the point guard. If an opportunity to switch in the half-court presents itself, we will do that. If a team has two really good ball handlers, we might have to tell a less athletic defender to match up and give space.

Containing the ball is not heroic. It might not ever generate a steal in a possession or even create a trap opportunity, but it disrupts how a team runs offense. In Massachusetts, we have a shot clock, so teams contend with a few less seconds to get a shot up.

  1. Fouling Negates Hustle.

The final principle of elementary school run and jump is that players cannot foul. This rule goes hand in hand with contain the ball, but deserves its own language. Fouling comes generally in two forms. First, the player containing the ball picks at the low hanging fruit and reaches in. Second, players that are coming to trap might sprint into the player with the ball if they change direction. The same technique of short choppy steps that is taught for a closeout can be applied in the instance of a second defender attacking the ball.

Fouling in run and jump got really ugly one game. Our opponent shot 14 fourth-quarter free throws and made them count on the scoreboard. At the next practice, our team agreed on a new rule. Anytime a player committed a foul in run and jump they were immediately subbed out of the game. We technically defined any foul outside the shell as being a foul in run and jump.

Their sin was not unforgivable. By its nature, run and jump requires players to be aggressive, so we quickly sought an opportunity to get the fouling player back in the game. The penalty definitely served as notice for players to be more cognizant of dumb aggression. In one instance, I took out our team’s best defender and she looked like she wanted to kill me. I asked her if we should change the rule pushing forward at the next practice. “No way. It holds us accountable,” she told me.

How to Reach without Fouling

We discourage reaching, but there are exceptions to the rule. Time and score make reaching a necessity of course. A not so obvious exception is knowing your personnel. Certain players are better at reaching and getting a steal than others. John Fortunato tells players “take, but don’t reach.” In other words if a great defender is making the offense work, the offense will take errant dribbles.

Former Duke point guard and author of Stuff Good Players Should Know Dick DeVenzio uses the acronym KUP. Keep up palms. As part of our dynamic warm up, players did foot fire every day and the coaches preached “KUP”.  KUP is effective because when players reach with palms down they tend to lose balance and referees love to blow the whistle. When players reach with palms up, they stay in a defensive stance and refs call less fouls.


None of these first three principles make mention of a player leaving to double team or switching. These are vital principles of a run and jump defense, but without these three prerequisites everything else will not happen. You can spend a whole season teaching these three principles and still never master them. At the same time, a team will improve on them if you emphasize them early and do not overload new information. After about two weeks of focusing on contain principles, we were ready for teaching the ambiguous decisions of how to play off the ball. And that is what I will attempt to breakdown in the next post on “The Puberty Principles” of run and jump.

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