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For Starters #2: How to react to a pick and roll

By Rodrigo Verney, July 5 2022

Before the illustrious dunks and the logo threes, the pick and roll dominated. A play that you most likely have already encountered while playing basketball. This play utilizes two players. One with the ball and one without it. The one without the ball will block one of the defender’s sides with his body —Which is called a screen or a “pick”. The one with the ball will run towards the side blocked by the screener. After the one with the ball has passed by, the screener will cut towards the basket. Thus, “rolling” towards it.

This crucial tactic originated in a time when the game wasn’t far from having a peach basket mounted on the wall. Yet, it is utilized today at every level of basketball. Whether you are playing at the park or at the NBA Finals, you must understand how to react to your opponent’s screen call.

The first item to consider is the threat level. It is crucial to understand who is more likely to score on that play. In a pick and roll situation, there is a multitude of factors that have to be considered. These include the player that called for the screen (in the situation that we will study, it will be the point guard), the one that is setting the screen, and the surrounding shooters. They are all active and have to be contained equally as the game is susceptible to change at any moment. Their offense will be constantly exploring weak defenders surrounding them to pinpoint the best place to attack.  

Many believe that the best defense against a play like this is the one that results in a steal or a turnover by the offense. Although this is optimal, it is usually unrealistic because of fatigue and offensive adjustments. The best defense is to gear the ball towards the player that poses the least amount of threat. The type of defense will be congruent with the player that presents the biggest risk for the defense. For example, if the screen caller is shooting at a high percentage, then the screen defense will aim to nullify his shot after the pick is set. This is why it is necessary to assess the situation and present defensive schemes that prepare you to deal with every possible offensive threat that may come your way in the next game.

The point guard will be the focus of our defense as he is known as the floor general and, like the one that has to generate the offense, he is most likely the one to call for the screen. We will identify the possible threats he might pose and how to react to them. Even though, there are other problems in the pick and roll such as the screener cutting to the basket, this edition will focus on the first threat, as once you can contain the point the offense loses steam and can be controlled by the defense. 

The first step is to detail the picture that we are working with before we analyze each situation. Every moment described here will come from a normal pick situation. That is, your opponent has called for a pick and it was set by one of your sides. The defender that should be on the screener has moved up with him. 

If you identified the point guard as the greatest threat, your defense will have to be quick and concrete, since he is a quick and versatile piece. The next step is to understand what is your target. Is it their shot, ability to create shots for others, or their driving ability? 

  1. Shooting

If you can’t give him an open shot because of his sharp shooting skills, you will have to get by the pick in a way that your coverage of his shot remains the same. Put the foot that’s closer to the screener over his outermost foot, that is called going “over” the screen. This will allow you to remain on the point guard’s face without allowing a space for him to take a shot off. If he can still make it no matter your coverage, you can call the defender that is on the pick to double team the point guard and force him to release the ball. In the double team, both defenders will charge at the guard to smother his space and force him to release the ball, which usually results in a turnover or a steal.

  1. Shot creation 

Movement is key when it comes to guarding the possibility of him draining an open shot or creating one for his teammates. Being able to flow through the screen is a defensive ability that will have a lot of coaches’ heads sweating. In this case, you can go “under” the screen to keep up with the point guard, as he bobs and weaves through the screen trying to get an open look. In the event that he beats you to a spot, you can always call for a “drop coverage” from your help defender. 

In the drop, you will go over the screen while your help defender will position himself strategically in front of the point guard, but not too in front of him, just enough to deny the drive. You will continue to chase the point guard to force him to drive towards the help defender. The space between the help defender and the point guard created by the drop allows the help defender to scare the point guard into releasing the ball while facilitating the help defender to catch up with the screener driving to the basket. It is an intelligent defensive scheme, but it has its flaws. Most noticeably, giving some shooting room for the point guard if poorly executed. So don’t rely too much on it. It is ideal for low shooting point guards with a good screener.

3. Driving

The ability to cancel a quick point guard can be the defining factor to freeze an offense. In the case of defending against a Penny Hardaway or a Ben Simmons type of point guard, you have to learn how to clog the lane so that neither the point guard nor the screener can make it to the basket.  A great way of punishing the point guard invading the paint is to hedge. This move works as a drop except there is no room left for the point guard to shoot. 

The help defender will position himself in front of the point guard’s driving lane once the point guard drives to the screener side. This position will effectively stun the guard as he can’t find an open shot and his momentum has been cancelled. This gives you a moment to recover towards the point guard while the help defender gets back to the screener that started to move towards the basket — effectively nullifying their offence.

Every team needs a good defender regardless of your level in basketball. Knowing how to traverse the opposing team’s offence will aid your team to be more efficient scorers. Coaches love to see effort on the defensive side and a selfless brand of basketball being played. For as much as the long range three pointers and buzzer beaters get all the glory in the highlights, defences are and will forever be a team’s backbone. As Bear Bryant once said, “Offence sells tickets, defences win championships.”

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