The (Over) Use of the Ball Screen

The ball screen has become a very popular offensive strategy in the game of basketball. Mastered by the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, it has become a staple of most offensive packages in professional basketball. The result is a trend towards the ball screen becoming a prevalent weapon at lower levels as well.

I’m afraid it is being overused. I think it hurts some players and teams more than it helps them. As a result, I think it hurts the game.

To start, let’s look at the skill set that a ball handler needs to have to truly take advantage of a ball screen.

1. Ability to handle the basketball well with either hand
The person with the ball must be able to handle the basketball with both hands against pressure in traffic. A ball screen is going to bring an extra defender to the ball. The offensive player must be comfortable dribbling the basketball in both directions with the ability to change direction and speeds quickly. Can the ball handler turn the corner on a hedging defender no matter which side the screen is set? Can the ball handler split a trap? Can the ball handler protect against a defender who ices the screen? Let’s say the defender goes over and forces the ball handler to attack. Can the ball handler beat the post player who might zone up? How many players have the skills to handle all of these situations?

2. Ability to make shots behind the screen
Players at many of the lower levels aren’t able to shoot consistently behind the screen. Many times this is a shot off the dribble over a taller player. For NBA guards, this is not a difficult shot. For many players who are not that calibre, it is a very low percentage shot. If a player can’t shoot over the screen, the ball screen becomes pretty easy to defend.

3. Ability to make the pull up jumper or floater
How many players have an adequate midrange game? How many players can consistently pull up from 15-18 feet and consistently make those shots off the dribble? Off the catch they are probably money. They can probably knock them down all day. How many of them can make shots off the bounce with a post player approaching them to contest the shot? How many players can make floaters consistently? Again, some players may be able to do one or two of these things. How many can execute them all?

4. Ability to see and pass to anyone on the floor
Scoring isn’t always going to be the best decision for the player with the ball coming off the screen. FIrst they have to be able to make that decision, but let’s say for a second they understand when they are not a scoring option. Can they make the next decision? Can they evaluate who is open and who isn’t? And then if they evaluate that correctly, can they make the play?

5. Ability to read the screen
This is obviously necessary to be able to execute a ball screen successfully, but yet many players don’t have the patience or the skill to be able to read the screen and act correctly. Defenses can guard a ball screen in so many different ways. Players must be able to read two defenders at the same time and make split second decisions on what they should do. Assuming they make this read correctly, they also have to learn to read help defenders in the next split second.

How many players can do all of these things well? Of the number of people in the world who play the game of basketball, there are very few. There might be 100-200 players in the world who can do all of this at a high level. Many players have some of these skills. Most don’t have all of them.

It’s understandable that the ball screen is heavily used in professional basketball. These are high level players with well matured skill sets and exceptional athleticism. A ball screen is very tough to defend when a player like Lebron James, Chris Paul or Tony Parker has the ball in their hands.

Now let’s consider the screener. Regardless of who the ball handler is, Lebron James as a screener is a lot different from Spud Webb as a screener. Kobe Bryant as a screener is a lot different from Kwame Brown as a screener. How many players who set ball screen have a diverse skill set? At lower levels, the people setting these screens are typically less skilled than the players with the ball. Just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me to reduce on spacing around the ball with a player who is even more limited.

Did I say ball screens should never be used? Not at all. A spontaneous ball screen is very tough to defend. However, ball screens can put players in positions where they are forced to execute skills that they aren’t comfortable with.

Use ball screens. Teach them. Incorporate them in what you do. Develop skills so that players can use them better. Let’s not forget the other aspects of the game that don’t take as much skill to execute, but are still effective ways of scoring.

Ball Screen: Description

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Next Best Actions

A ball screen is simply described as a screen set on the defender who is guarding the ball.  This  remains the same in the R&R.  Ball screens can be very useful in creating offensive advantages.  They can create mismatches or a numbers advantage.  The bigger questions become when and where can ball screens be set as well as who sets them.  As with anything else in this offense, the answer is whenever you want and wherever you want.

By this point, you should have expected this.  The offense creates a lot of freedom for the coaches and players who are in it.  Let’s break this down a little and explore some different options.

In the “pure” version of the R&R, the “default” time to set a ball screen is when the ball handler takes a dribble backwards. We don’t use this rule for a couple of reasons.  As a general rule, we don’t want our ball handlers dribbling away from the basket. The only time where this might be encouraged is to avoid a trap or to run more time off the clock in an end of half or end of game situation. Likewise, if a ball handler dribbles backwards, we may not want a ball screen to be set at that time.  We don’t want our players to have to decide if it’s a good time to set a ball screen in that situation.

So instead of talking about when NOT to set a ball screen, let’s talk about when to set one. You may come up with others. This list is not meant to be exclusive. Coaches can have players set a ball screen when…
1.  Player X has the ball. The cutter or post player must go set a ball screen for that player wherever they are.
2.  Player X cuts.  Every time Player X cuts they must set a ball screen.
3.  The ball is caught in a certain spot by a designated player or by the player in a designated spot.
4.  It is “easy” to do. In other words, the screener doesn’t have to go out of their way to set the screen.
5.  A player sets an off ball screen.
6.  The possession begins.
7.  The possession ends.
8.  Player X calls for a ball screen.
9.  Following a specific action

This was alluded to in the last section.  Who should be the player to set the ball screen?  The primary determination in this decision should be based off of personnel.  Who is your best screen setter?  Which player is going to make the ball screen most difficult to defend?  Who is in the best position to set a good screen?  This is going to partially depend on the alignment that you’re playing out of.  Are you 5 out?  Are you 4 out 1 in?  Are you 3 out 2 in?  If you’re playing with a post player or post players, where are they located?

The location of the screen can also be wherever the coach prefers it to be set. The screen can be set on the wing, in the corner, at the top of the key, or even closer to the basket.  I am a big fan of the ball screen around the elbow area. A “dumb drive” can turn into a surprise ball screen that can be pretty tough to defend.

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In the above diagrams, it could be said that 2’s drive to the middle is “dumb”.  It would be better if 2 went baseline right?  Well maybe.  But maybe 2 prefers going right.  Maybe 2 doesn’t feel comfortable throwing that left handed pass to the 1 on the baseline drive.

2’s drive to the middle can turn into a ball screen that’s pretty tough to defend.  In this case, the screen is set by a post player instead of a cutter, but it’s all the same idea.


Pin Screen: Points of Emphasis

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Next Best Actions

Pin Screens are unique to the screening family. The points of emphasis are the same as for any other screen. However, they must be executed in a different way because of the uniqueness of the pin screen.

Waiting for the Screen
While there is not a “cutter” on a pin screen, we will still refer to the person that the screen is being set for as the cutter.  Most of the time, these cutters are players who are 2 or more passes away from the ball.  In other words, they are on the weak side of the floor. In order to set up a pin screen, they must be patient when filling up to the next spot.
Remember: Only spots 1 pass away must be filled.
Spots that are more than 1 pass away do not have to be filled immediately.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with filling all the open spots, waiting to fill a spot provides an easy opportunity to set a pin screen.  It keeps the defender stationary and in a help side position.  It also helps make it easier on the screener to find the defender. Ball handlers must also learn to wait for this screen to be set as well.
 While a ball handler should never pass up an opportunity to attack, they should give a pin screen the chance to develop if they see a teammate going to set one.

Sprinting to the Screen
It’s important that the screener sprint to the screen.  The R&R is a fast paced offense.  There’s not a lot of standing around.  If the screener doesn’t sprint to the screen, the opportunity for the screen to be effective may be lost.  This also forces the defense to work harder and can make the screen more difficult to guard. Jogging to the screen will likely result in poor spacing and offensive confusion. It also minimizes the amount of time that the ball handler has to hold the ball to wait for an action to occur.

As with other screens, it is important to communicate that the screen is being set. With back screens (and most screens), the communication is primarily for the cutter and secondarily for the ball handler.  With a pin screen, these priorities are reversed.  With a pin screen, the cutter has very little work to do. A pin screen could be set for them, without them knowing, and it could still be effective.  Likewise, since they are away from the ball, they are likely to see the pin screen being set for them in their line of vision to the ball.

As a result, the communication in the pin screen situation is primarily for the ball handler. The ball handler is likely evaluating their options on the ball side of the court first. This is what they should do. However, a pin screen attacks the weak side of the defense.  A screeners’ communication that a pin screen is being set helps draw the attention from the ball handler to the weak side of the floor. This doesn’t mean that the offensive player will be open or that the pass should be thrown, but merely, that the screen is being set. It is still up to the ball handler to make a good decision.

Screening Angle
The screening angle for a pin screen is pretty straightforward.  The screen should be set on the defender to keep them in help side position for as long as possible.  In most cases, the backside of the screener will face the sideline, although if the ball is at the top, the screener’s angle may be more toward the baseline or the corner.

Using the Screen
This screen is probably the easiest screen to use for a cutter.  All they have to do is line up with the screener and the ball. In some situations, even this isn’t necessary.  It’s possible that the screener has done a great job of setting the screen and the offensive player doesn’t have to move at all.

Shaping Up
While a back screen can open opportunities for a player to get an open outside shot, the pin screen can create opportunities to get the ball inside. Primarily this occurs when the skip pass is made and the screener opens up to the ball.  As the defense chases out to closeout on the pass, the screener almost always has an advantage to post position on any defender.  It is just a matter of them finding a body and owning that position.  Post position can also be achieved before the pass is made if the weak side defender tries to anticipate the screen.  The screener can seal this defender out of the lane and look for the ball.


Back Screen: Points of Emphasis

This entry is part 10 of 13 in the series Next Best Actions

Setting back screens in the Read & React can be very effective, but it takes practice for players to execute this next best action correctly.  There are a number of points of emphasis that we like to talk about when it comes to setting back screens. Careful coordination and timing between the ball handler, the screener and cutter will create scoring opportunities for all three players involved in this action.

Waiting for the Screen
In many cases, we talk about the cutter waiting for the screen.  While this is still the case, it is most likely that the ball handler is the player who will need to be most patient.  Since movement in the R&R is predicated on ball movement, the other perimeter players probably aren’t going to be moving if the ball isn’t moving. The biggest exception to this would be a player making a Read Line cut.  This action fits right in with the back screen.  In the R&R, the ball handler must learn to see the back screen developing.  If they make an action too quickly, it could negate the effectiveness of the back screen.  While a ball handler should never pass up an opportunity to attack, they should give a back screen the chance to develop if they see a teammate going to set one.

Sprinting to the Screen
It’s important that the screener sprint to the screen.  The R&R is a fast paced offense.  There’s not a lot of standing around.  If the screener doesn’t sprint to the screen, the opportunity for the screen to be effective may be lost.  This also forces the defense to work harder and can make the screen more difficult to guard. Jogging to the screen will likely result in poor spacing and offensive confusion. It also minimizes the amount of time that the ball handler has to hold the ball to wait for an action to occur.

So far in teaching the R&R, we have been highly focused on the actions of the ball. If the ball does this, the other players do that.  This is the first action in the offense that requires the offensive players without the ball to be cognizant of something other than the ball.

We want the players without the ball to always be ready to react to the ball. As a result, any time someone is setting a back screen, they must call the player’s name to gain their attention and let them know a screen is being set for them. This is the responsibility of the screener.  Otherwise, the player may be so focused on the ball that they don’t see their teammate trying to screen for them and the opportunity is lost.  We don’t worry about the defense knowing that the screen is coming.  By the time they recognize it, we should be moving on to the next action.

Screening Angle
The angle at which is the screen is set is as important as you want to make it.  Typically, a back screen is set so that the cutter is directed to the basket.  This works and is a good way to teach the back screen to young players.  However, for older more experienced players, the angle of this screen can change. This could be more of a flare screen or a shuffle cut screen.  It all depends on the angle of the screen. This decision could be made by the coach or the coach could give the freedom to the player.  In most cases, the angle of the screen should send the cutter to the basket.

Using the Screen
We’ve  sprinted to set the screen.  We’ve let our teammate know that we’re setting the screen. We’ve set the angle appropriately.  Now the cutter has to use the screen.  The cutter can either sprint to the basket, or they can take more time to set up the screen and then make their cut.  If the defender is caught off guard, a sprint to the rim may be most effective.  If the defender is aware of the screen, the cutter should take more time to set up the screen before they cut.

Shaping Up
One of the best ways to get open is to set someone else a screen.  The screener must remember this fact and be ready to be open.  Once the cutter clears the screen, but not too early, they must get their feet and body in a position to receive a pass and become a scoring threat. This is a great option for a good shooter to free themselves for an open shot.  However, they must be ready to get their feet set after the screen has been set.  Otherwise, it will be a poor shot or a lost scoring opportunity.


Pin Screen: Description

This entry is part 9 of 13 in the series Next Best Actions

The Pin Screen creates offensive advantages in a variety of situations.  It is a screen set on a player in a help position to keep them in help position and open a passing lane to that defender’s player.  Any cutter can set a pin screen. They can also be set by post players. They can be set at a variety of angles and in a variety of locations. Since this series is focused on NBA’s, we will focus on setting the Pin Screen as a NBA.  We will discuss this again when we talk about Post Screening options.

Pin screens are best set on the defender closest to the ball in help.  The goal in setting a pin screen is to delay the defender’s closeout on a skip pass.  Over time, this may draw the defender out of help position or create mismatches as defenses adjust to defend this screen.

We’ll look first at Pin Screens set by cutters.

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Here 1 passes and cuts to the basket.  Instead of filling out, they see that 4’s defender is in help position in the lane.  They decide to stop and “Pin” in the defender.  Remember from the pass and cut layer, players have to fill spots that are one pass away from the ball.  In this case, 4 fills the open spot, but is not required to.  When 1 sets the pin screen on 4’s defender, 4 goes back to their original position, inline with 1 and the ball handler (2).
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Keep in mind 2 does not have to make this pass.  It is just an option.  If 2 does not make the pass, 1 again becomes a “cutter” and can execute another NBA or 1 can just fill out to the perimeter.  For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume 2 makes the pass to 4.  1 would immediately open up to the ball and look for the ball. If they were to receive a pass, the passer would Laker Cut.  If they do not receive the ball, they again become a “cutter” and able to execute another NBA.

In the diagram above, they do not receive the ball and begin to fill out to the other side. On the way, they recognize another defender in help position.  1 turns and sets another pin screen on this defender.  This could be 2’s defender or 5’s defender.  Either are options.

Notice 2 does not fill the top spot in this diagram.  This keeps 2’s defender in help position giving 1 the option to set the pin screen on either defender.  2 could fill to the top spot.  Neither is right or wrong.  However, the best way to set up a pin screen for perimeter players is to be patient when they fill spots.  In the below diagram, 1 could set another pin screen for 4, but this time 1 decides to fill the corner spot.

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When a pin screen is set, the screener should call the ball handler’s attention to the screen by screaming “PIN!”  This also tells the perimeter player to line up with the screener and prepare to receive the pass. If they do not receive the pass, they will still have the opportunity to fill as needed.

Keep in mind the different ways that a player can become a cutter.  Their teammate might “dribbled-at” them, and made them a cutter.  It could have been a result of a Read Line cut.  Maybe a teammate set a back screen for them.  Cutters can set pin screen after any of those actions.

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Back Screen: Description (NBA)

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Next Best Actions

The back screen is the first screening action that we’ll discuss in the Read & React offense.  It is used as a Next Best Action for cutters.  It can also be used as a way to get a player who is in the post into a perimeter spot, or visa versa.

Let’s talk first about the back screen as a NBA.  This NBA can be executed “on accident” or on purpose. Either way it can be effective in creating screening actions, continuity of movement as well as openings for both the screener and the cutter. Back Screens are most effective when set on players 1 pass away from the ball.

In a 5 out scenario, let’s pretend 1 passes to 2 and cuts to the rim.  Based on the Pass, Cut & Fill layer, they are supposed to fill out to the left side of the floor.  What happens if they fill out to the wrong side?  Does the play stop?  Does the offense reset?

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That’s not necessary at all.  The Back Screen Layer allows this player who “made a mistake” to turn this mistake into a good screening opportunity. The cutter just screens for the player in the corner who cuts to the rim and then fills the open spot if they don’t receive a pass.  This is also a good opportunity for the screener to get an open shot.

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This action happens primarily in a 5 out setting.  In 4 out 1 in and 3 out 2 in alignments, there is almost always an open spot for a player to fill. The diagram below shows how it can happen in a 4 out 1 in alignment.

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Of course these “accidental” actions can certainly be purposeful as well.  Purposeful back screens can occur anywhere on the court and can shock defenders who are caught off guard.  Back screens are also the first step in being able to set staggered screens.

We’ll discuss the specifics of setting screens in an upcoming post.  For now it’s enough to know that any cutter can set a back screen. When they set a back screen can be up to you or up to them.  You can have them set back screens after every cut.  You can have certain players look to set back screens.  It’s up to you and how you want to run your team.

Posting Up (3 player combinations w/ Read Line)

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series 3 player Combinations

Here are some 3 player combinations that show someone posting up after a Read Line cut. Notice that in all of these diagrams the ball handler could have filled the open spot with a dribble.  This would have been the same as a Dribble-At, which was diagrammed in an earlier post.   As a result, I wanted to show something a little different.  A fourth perimeter player on the court would open up a lot more possibilities for the ball handler.  Those diagrams are coming next.  These will also be shown from a 4 out alignment, which will look a little different from the diagrams that I’ve been showing.

Again you’re probably going to notice a lot of obvious screening opportunities.  Keep in mind there are only 3 players on the court.  When the fourth and fifth players are added, there will be even more opportunities.  At this point if players want to start taking advantage of these “obvious” opportunities, that’s great.

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