The ball screen has become a very popular offensive strategy in the game of basketball. In many situations, coaches are overusing ball screens. Just because it looks good on paper, or just because it looks good on TV, doesn’t mean it will work for your team.
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 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 speed 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 attack 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
Many players at 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 shooters this is not a difficult shot. Since most other players are not that caliber, 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 react correctly. Defenses can guard a ball screen in so many different ways, not to mention the rotations for everyone else. 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 a 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. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me to reduce 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. Overusing ball screens is the issue.
Use ball screens. Teach them. Incorporate them into what you do. Develop your players’ skill sets so that players can use them better. Overusing ball screens is just as bad as under-emphasizing rebounding or closeouts. 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.