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Zone defense, a common scheme in college basketball, is on the rise in the NBA.
Two NBA assistant coaches told Insider that they talked to Amanda Butler, the head coach of Clemson's women's team, about playing and beating zone defense.
Butler has connections throughout the NBA and is a respected voice in basketball because of the execution of her teams.
Charlotte Hornets assistant coach Jay Hernandez found himself with an unusual amount of time off this past year.
With this time off, Hernandez wanted to study the game and strengthen the Hornets' strategies. Among his to-dos was to further understand zone defense - not just how to apply it but also how to beat it.
One of his first calls was to Amanda Butler, the head coach of Clemson's women's basketball team.
Butler and Hernandez first connected when Hernandez was an assistant with the Orlando Magic, and Butler was the head coach of the Florida Gators. When Butler took her team to watch the Magic practice, she and Hernandez began talking strategy and never really stopped.
"It's an ongoing conversation," Hernandez told Insider. "She'll pick my brain about various concepts and player development and things like that. And anytime I need her for anything, she's there."
Zone defense was all the rage in the NBA bubble. The Miami Heat used it generously and to great success during their run to the NBA Finals.
Long a defensive strategy used by college teams, zone defense - in which players defend areas of the court instead of specific players - was always thought to be too hard in the NBA because of the skill of the players and the defensive rules. Recently, however, it's been on the rise.
"Teams are so good offensively that you've got to just throw something at them, at least for a couple of possessions, that makes them think, 'What's going on here?'" Butler told Insider.
Nearly two decades in college basketball has made Butler, the 2018-19 ACC coach of the year, one of the game's most respected minds. A tour of the NBA in 2017 in between jobs at Florida and Clemson helped her establish relationships in the pros. Now, as NBA teams seek to implement a college-style scheme, Butler has become a resource to teams trying to broaden their playbooks.
Butler coaches basketball with a high level of execution
Coaches and basketball strategists often say that good outside shooting is required to beat a zone defense. So, why is zone being used more in a league that has put a premium on shooting?
"This may sound a little contradictory," New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Bob Beyer told Insider, "But I think a lot of times teams use it just to get the offense out of rhythm, oddly enough. All of a sudden, the team shows a zone, and where teams could run their man-to-man offense and generate great three-point shots, a lot of times what happens is, they see the zone, and it's almost like they freeze for a bit, and they don't feel as comfortable."
The NBA doesn't track specific zone usage. But according to ESPN, zone defense usage was up 2.2% during the 2019-20 season. It's likely higher this season. It's not unusual to turn on a game and see at least a possession or two of zone, a sharp turn from 10 years ago.
Beyer is another NBA coach who has called on Butler for help with zone defense. Butler met Beyer during her 2017 NBA tour when she paid a visit to the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons offered Butler rare access, allowing her to sit in on coaches meetings and practices.
Butler and Beyer grew close during that time in Detroit and have maintained their relationship, even as Beyer moved on to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings, and now the Pelicans.
"We've continued to stay in contact," Beyer said. "It could just be a random phone call about maybe this situation, or a check-up call: 'How are you doing here?' I do really value our friendship to this day."
Butler recalled Beyer asking her about zones when they met for lunch during Kings training camp in 2019.
"I can remember him asking, like, 'Hey, [Kings coach Luke Walton] wants to run more zone. What do you guys do? I haven't thought about zone since I coached college.'
Butler added: "We talked a little bit of college zone: what's happening, how we use it, what we see, what works best. I don't know how much it really helped them or not."
It's hard to pin down specific advice Butler has given her NBA friends. Hernandez and Butler told Insider that their conversations could range from fairly general to hyper-specific: rebounding in a zone defense, trapping in a zone defense, applying a zone in transition. It all depends.
"That's kind of the flow of some of those conversations," Butler said. "Sometimes [it's] more specific than others, and other times just like, 'Hey, what are you guys doing now with this?' And then it launches into 14 different branches of things."
Hernandez, who reaches out to coaches throughout women's college basketball, said: "Sometimes it's just as easy as presenting an idea and saying, 'Hey, this is something that I just recently saw, what do you guys think about it?' And just bring it to the table so we can have that dialogue."
The irony is Butler doesn't consider herself a "zone coach" - at least not in the way Syracuse men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim might because of his team's frequent use of zone.
But just as important to knowing zone defense is understanding how to beat zone defense.
As zone usage has increased in the NBA, so, too, have teams' offensive playbooks - Hernandez said the Hornets frequently have two plays drawn up: a play against man-to-man coverage and a play against zone.
Hernandez said he respects the execution in women's college basketball.
"When you watch some of these high-level college women's games, they're playing so many different types of defenses, and they have to prepare for all of those things at every level," Hernandez said. "So each game brings something new. So, I just really respect the college game because they tend to try a lot more things than even at the NBA level."
Both Butler and Hernandez said execution is partly due to more practice time in college.
Butler also said that their offensive packages are already in place because her teams see zone defense so often.
"We've already seen a ton of zone," Butler said. "So, it's just part of your offensive preparation. You always have to have a zone package, and then within that zone package, okay, what are our [plays] to get threes? What are our paint-touch looks? What are we doing to generate the shots that best serve our teams?
"So it's part of our preparation every year. No matter what your schedule looks like, you know you're going to see it."
Butler has no NBA aspirations - yet.
Butler has contacts throughout the NBA. Billy Donovan, now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, is a friend from their days at Florida. Butler met Mark Daigneault, now the head coach of the Thunder, through Donovan. Brad Stevens also granted Butler access to Celtics training camp in 2017 and is now a friend.
Butler's conversations with NBA coaches are two-way streets. She often calls them looking for advice. She noted that coaches like Butler and Donovan don't ask her for advice, perhaps because they also coached college before jumping to the NBA.
Naturally, this leads to the question: Does Butler intend to pursue a job in the NBA?
"I've got an amazing job, and I love where I am," Butler said, calling Clemson a "special place." She added: "I do love coaching, and I'm a big fan of the NBA game. And like I said, obviously have a lot of friends in the league and study the league."
Still, Beyer and Hernandez said Butler has the chops to coach in the NBA if she wanted to.
"She's a very talented coach and a very intelligent woman," Beyer said. "A thing that I really like about her is she's an active learner. She's always tries to look at different situations, analyze them, always to make her team better. And I think with her communication skills, if that was a route that she wanted to pursue, I think it would be a possibility, yes."
"Obviously, she's really happy at Clemson," Hernandez said of Butler. "But she's somebody I would hire in a heartbeat if I ever got the head coaching job at the NBA level. She knows that."
He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if she was already [been] approached on it."
Butler said while she loves the NBA game, perhaps more people can start appreciating the game she coaches now.
"I don't think NBA guys are watching a ton of college basketball, especially not college women's basketball," she said. "Hopefully, we can continue to grow our game, so that does change."
Read the original article on Insider