The following article seeks to illustrate a framework through which different types of pick-and-rolls can be analyzed and evaluated. Specific attention is given to four components of pick-and-roll. These four components, or variables are:
- Screening Angle.
They are always present in pick-and-roll and combine to create a specific action. By focusing on these components as distinctly different variables, then observing them in combination, a larger framework can be derived. This framework is used to assist in the identification, communication, and execution of pick-and-roll.
Over the past few years, through discussion and observation, I have attempted to improve my understanding of the pick-and-roll game. This process led me to compile an in-depth catalog of various types of pick-and-roll. The initial purpose of recording my thoughts and observations was to create a tool to help me more carefully examine and understand the intricacies of pick-androll. I had hoped to more thoroughly study the history of pick-and-roll and to properly acknowledge the innovative coaches and players who are responsible for its evolution. I apologize that time has not permitted me the opportunity to identify the specific contributions of these individuals.
The article that follows is not born from any desire to reinvent the wheel. It is merely an exercise in recording my observations about pick-and-roll. The evolution of the article itself is a product of not just my thoughts, but many coaches and players who enthusiastically provided feedback, observation, and criticism. My hope is that it will be useful in some way.
The category of plays referred to as “Pick-and-Roll” has dominated the strategic thinking of coaches for decades. By observing the evolution of pick-androll, coaches have found windows of creativity to use for the development of new types of pick-and-roll. Equally influential in the innovative process are the instinctive and creative abilities of players. Players modify pick-and-roll action. Coaches, through observation, use these modifications to maximize players’ strengths and minimize weaknesses in execution. For their part, players have made pick-and-roll increasingly complex yet simple at the same time.
We will use NBA rules for the sake of analysis. However, the basic theory is equally valid and consistent when applied to the international game, especially because of upcoming changes to FIBA rules starting in 2010. Within the discussion of pick-and-roll references may be made to “Up and Down” sides of the floor referring to the right and left sides of the court while facing the basket respectively; “Live dribble”, a reference to a player who has caught the ball, but not dribbled, or an “Active dribble,” a reference to a player who is in the process of using his dribble. These, along with other ways of communicating specific examples, will allow for more clarity throughout the article.
“Action” is one of 5 potential phases of pick-and-roll:
- After Action.
Pick-and-roll Phases are identifiable within an offensive possession where pick-and-roll is utilized.
- Early – is defined as a pick-and-roll that is initiated quickly – often in the late stage of transition.
- Entry – is defined as the part of the play that is intended to create an advantage in the upcoming action. Entries vary in complexity and are comprised of: screening, movement or pace.
- Action – is defined as the interaction between the ball handler and the screener in pick-and-roll. An Action is comprised of the following 4 variables – the location of the pick-and-roll on the floor, the angle of the screen, the spacing of the other players and the abilities of the players.
- After Action – is defined as the segment of the play that occurs immediately following the Action. After Action may be the real focus of a teams’ intent and an After Action may be designed as: an entry, a way to generate a three-point shot, deliver the ball to the post, or to create a mismatch opportunity.
- Late – is defined as a pick-and-roll that takes place at the end of a possession. When the defense has successfully defended a possession, late pick-and-roll is a way to create an advantage in a short clock situation.
For the purpose of this article we will focus on the “Action” phase of pick-and-roll. The combination and manipulation of the Action variables, listed below, creates specific types of pick-and-roll:
Location refers to the place where the ball handler is on the court when the pick-and-roll action occurs. Traditionally, locations of pick-and-roll have been described as occurring in 5 areas on the court: corner, sideline, middle, elbow, and post (diagr. 1). Different names are used to identify locations. Like many other basketball situations, naming can assist in the clarification of intent and in the identification of a pick-and-roll location where a coach or player wants pick-and-roll to occur. This helps eliminate confusion and enhance execution.
To facilitate the process of communication, locations will be referred to by their angle in relation to the basket. All locations will have coordinates between 0. and 90.. This process slices the court into six pick-and-roll locations (diagr. 2).
Each range of degrees corresponds to a separate location: corner 0°-15°, sideline-low 15°-30°, sideline-high 30°-50°, angle-wide 50°-60°, angle-tight 60°-70°, and middle 70°-90°. Another component that impacts the parameters of a location is distance from the basket. The colors Red, Yellow and Green are representative of different distances and also facilitate communication (diagr. 3).
Red is the area inside the lane. It is unusual to see a pick-and-roll occurs in the Red area. When it does, it is usually random. The Green area mirrors the three-point line. It extends from a few feet inside the three-point line and approaches the mid-court line, sideline, and baseline. Yellow is the area in between Red and Green. The borders between these areas, in a general sense, reflect the possibility of a 3-second violation, as well as the impact of the 3-point shot. A change in color reflects the fact that a change in distance for a pick-and-roll location receives consideration when defenses are assessing their choice of pick-and-roll coverage. Some locations can cover multiple zones – Green and Yellow. Each distance retains a particular situational advantage.
A potential limitation on the effectiveness of a location is a “dead zone” (diagr. 4). These areas are identified by their proximity to the baseline, sideline, and mid- court line. Dead zones have a restrictive impact on pick-and-roll locations. They limit space and therefore affect the efficiency of pick-and-roll. When pick-and-roll is initiated in a dead zone, the defense is better able to dictate direction and limit potential angles. Generally, a reduction in space limits attack options. However, there are situations that mitigate the effects of dead zones. Usually after a free throw, in “full court” pick-and-roll, the speed with which the ball is advanced up the court negates the effect of the mid-court line. Also, a player in a sideline dead zone, who has not used his dribble has a “live dribble.” He is able to use fakes and pivots prior to attacking with the dribble, potentially limiting the impact of the dead zone.
When Green, Yellow, and Red distances, dead zones, and angles are considered in combination, and differences in pick-and-roll locations become more specifically identifiable. In combination, the parameters of the court, the angle, and distance in relation to the basket determine what will be referred to as “Location Zones.” As players produce different locations, it is possible to gain insight into the effects subtle changes in location have on offensive and defensive execution. The product of these observations has produced the following pick-and-roll locations comprised of traditional zones, modified zones, and new zones.
Yellow Area Location Zones (diagr. 5):
Green Area Location Zones (diagr. 6):
- Sideline Low.
- Sideline High.
- Angle Wide.
- Angle Tight.
Traditional, Modified, and New Location Zones (diagr. 7):
- Angle Tight.
- Angle Wide.
- Sideline High.
- Sideline Low.
Diagram 7 shows the traditional pick-and-roll locations of: middle, corner, elbow, and post in blue; modified pick-and-roll locations of: angle tight/wide and sideline low/high in green; and new pick-and-roll locations of: nail, pinch, and slot in orange.
Whether the identification process is intuitive or intentional, it is constantly happening. The relevance and usefulness of recognizing additional pick-androll zones is found in the identification of “gray area.” Gray areas are essentially the borders between zones; they have an effect on execution.offensive and defensive. This identification may reveal new attack options and the skills necessary for their execution. Even slight movements in a location can create a subtle difference in execution. Eventually, these differences are noticeable enough to draw attention and affect offensive and/or defensive schemes.
A player’s abilities lend themselves to certain zones, preferable angles, and varieties of spacing. There are endless combinations that illustrate this point. Sometimes it is players that make these adjustments and sometimes it is coaches that design actions to assist their players. Either way this is the product of the intersection of Action variables. Hedo Turkoglu sometimes initiates pick-and-roll with a live dribble, choosing to keep the defense off balance with pivots and fakes before attacking with the dribble. Tony Parker takes advantage of the space available in the “tight” Angle zone, manipulating location between 50° to 70°, depending on his read. The space allows for the option of not using the pick-and-roll as well as providing opportunity for the angle of the screen to be adjusted inside or outside, allowing him to attack the rim. On the Down side of the court, in wide angle location, Chris Paul “cuts back” under his screener and attacks the opposite side, initiating a change in the roll direction and rotation. Steve Nash has found pick-and-roll opportunities in the Red zone: with his ball skills and instincts he is able to use his teammates as screeners underneath the basket. Gary Payton brought the location of a pick-and-roll from high sideline to low sideline and in doing so created opportunities for different screening angles. Through a variation of reads, Stockton and Malone, perhaps the most famous pick-and-roll tandem ever in the NBA, were able to score from both the low and high sideline locations with equal effectiveness.
Some may feel that the locations described are already cut so small that they have lost significance. Although, most of these locations have already been explored, the evolution of other variables can have the effect of reinvention. The gray areas in locations continually reveal slight modifications in execution. Players create new opportunities for innovation. For example, the evolution of the shooting 4 has had a profound effect on spacing; encouraging new locations and leading to the possibility of new angles. It is useful to recognize that locations will continue to evolve and we need to consider what effect these changes will have on pick-and-roll execution.
Angle refers to the angle of the screen itself, not the angle ranges which identify location. If the location of the pickand- roll is on the longitudinal line (an imaginary line from rim to rim that divides the court into two equal halves) and a straight line is drawn from the middle of the screen directly to the basket the angle of the screen would be called “flat” (diagr. 8). As the location moves in either direction from the longitudinal line toward the sideline, and the midpoint of the screen remains perpendicular to the basket, it is still referred to as flat. However, as the angle of the screen adjusts we refer to the new screening angles as either “inside” or “outside.” A screen that is set at an angle that sends the ball handler toward the near sideline is called “outside.” Conversely, a screen set in the same location that sends the ball handler toward the middle of the floor would be referred to as “inside.”
As the location of the ball gets closer to the center of the floor, the distinction between inside and outside becomes less apparent, and also less important, since the distance between the screen and the sideline is less of a factor. In many instances, the preferred angle of a screen in the middle zone will be one that gives the ball handler use of his strong hand.
Offensive players attempt to set screens at angles that are advantageous to the ball handler. This angle may be adjusted. Players “twist” to change the angle late in the process of setting the screen, making it harder for the defense to anticipate and adjust. Depending upon the location, the spacing, and the defense, certain angles will be more effective than others. The clearest way to illustrate this point is the through observation of sideline pick-and-roll.
As the location of an action moves closer to the corner (versus help and recover defense.or hedge) the roll is generally more effective (diagr. 9). The same “side angle” will work for a pick- and-pop game; however, the “High” Sideline zone provides more space for the screener to get separation from the defender (diagr. 10). This is an example of how an angle may stay the same, but a location change may present different challenges for the defense.
Good defensive teams adapt to stop successful execution, sometimes resulting in the development of new schemes. Successful sideline pick-androll challenges coaches to consider different ways to defend it. For example, a team might prevent the offense from using the screen by forcing the ball handler toward the baseline; the defender guarding the screener is no longer needed to help and recover in a traditional sense. This defender is available to help on the baseline side and essentially zone, or plug, that area of the floor (diagr. 11). This defense is a common and effective mean of defending sideline pick-and-roll.
Offenses also respond. The angle of the screen can be adjusted to the outside with the screener twisting his back to the baseline or by “stepping up” to screen out of the post (diagr. 12). This angle and location combination is commonly referred to as a “Step Up.”
If the defense recognizes this adjustment and the screen is close to the sideline, they may trap. The limited space available to the offense in this action gives an alert defense a chance to be very aggressive. With additional space, trapping is more difficult. As players gradually move the location from Sideline Low to Sideline High, or even more towards mid-court and into the Angle zones, there is additional space for the offensive player to operate. Further, by adjusting the location from Angle Wide to Angle Tight, it becomes more difficult for the defense to direct the pick-and-roll towards the sideline and it is harder to trap (diagr. 13). With this amount of space, a ball handler can maximize a quickness advantage against his defender as well as the dropped defender, whose help responsibility becomes more demanding. Additionally, the location change results in the potential for other changes in spacing. As the pick-and-roll action moves into the Angle Zone, spacing a player in the strong side corner is potentially more effective by making defensive rotations more difficult (diagr. 14).
Diagrams from 9 to 14, show a realistic progression of sideline pick-and-roll adjustments, both defensively and offensively, with the major offensive changes being angle and location.
As note already, “dead” zones can limit opportunities for effective angle options. However, by moving location into the deep Yellow, with the pick-and-roll action in the Post Zone, the screen can twist to all the way to 0. and create different attack options. We are differentiating this from the corner since the location is in the Yellow. This offensive player can successfully attack a spot to create a shot rather than merely attacking the basket. Even though the screen may send the ball handler back away from the basket, this is not to the offense’s detriment (diagr. 15)
Communication systems continue to evolve. As noted, the “Step up” screen identifies the combination of a sideline location and an outside angle. In addition, “Angle” also fits into this category of a combination of location and angle that has become common enough, that it is now referred to simply as “Angle.” Angle denotes a location between 50 and 70 degrees, offset from Middle, but in the Green zone. The space available to the ball handler allows for a flat initial angle and gives the screener the ability to twist in pursuit of the most effective screening angle. The ‘art’ of twisting is a skill and it can be seen in a player such as Anderson Varejao. The greater the number of potentially effective angles in which a pick can be set, the more difficult it is to defend the action. “Angle” is a name that encompasses a location zone, a flat and adjustable angle of screen, and usually denotes a shooting 4 man who is lifted above the three- point line opposite the pick-and-roll action.
The third variable of Action is the spacing of the players away from the actual pick-and-roll. The location zone where the action is initiated, the angle with which the screen is set, the number of players involved in the pick-and-roll action, and the strengths/weaknesses of the additional players combine to determine optimal spacing. “Good spacing” seeks to maximize a player’s strength while at the same time trying to disguise or neutralize a weakness. Movement is often used as a component of spacing in order to try and force or confuse rotations.
Spacing adjustments can be a response to a defensive coverage or reflect changes in personnel. The “Spacing” variable is meant to include any of the following:
- The position of the players that are not in the pick-and-roll action.
- The addition of players involved in the pick-and-roll action.
- Changes in the spacing of the players in the same action.
The spacing of the 4 man in pick-androll is illustrative of multiple spacing options.
Diagram 16 shows a typical 1-5 middle pick-and-roll, location approximately 80. with 1 going to strong hand -3 in the down corner, and 2 in the opposite corner, and 4 lifted on the down side.
In diagram 17 the action is similar, 1-5 middle pick-and-roll, but with 4 starting on the Down Side block and spacing to the corner as the 5 rolls, and 2 in the Down Side corner being pushed up into lift position by 4’s spacing.
Additional spacing decisions are presented when there are more than two players in the action. For example 1-4-5 middle pick-and-roll where 4 and 5 are stacked shoulder to shoulder in a double screen (diagr. 18); 1-4-5 middle pick-androll with 4 and 5 positioned in a tight staggered screen (diagr. 19); 1-4-5 middle pick-and-roll with 5 and 4 inverted in a “spread” staggered screen (diagr. 20), or another solution in what is traditionally referred to as Horns action, where the 4 and 5 are spaced in the pinch zone on opposite sides of the floor (diagr. 21). Another adjustment can by made be inverting 2 and 4 (diagr. 22).
Lastly, a subtle change in location across a gray area demonstrates the domino effect of changing multiple variables. For example, when Horns action is offset into the angle location, specifically to the dividing line of angle tight and wide (diagr. 23 and 24). Although the location moves only a few feet, the resulting action has dramatically different options.
Good defenses will adjust, sometimes on the fly, but there still may be a momentary advantage gained (diagr. 25).
Players’ abilities are a catalyst for the discovery of potential combinations of location, angle, and spacing in pick-and-roll. The general structure of a play, or the appearance of structure, is intended to maximize the abilities of players on the floor. To the extent that the players change so will the variables in pick-and-roll.
Having multiple players that can run pick-and-roll makes it more difficult to defend. Offensively, teams utilize match-ups as a way of exploiting the advantage of versatile personnel. The inverse is also true. In general, teams with players that can defend multiple positions have more defensive options – like switching pick-and-roll.
Certain players will be more effective than others running pick-and-roll in different zones. A significant size advantage is generally going to be more effective in the Yellow zone. There are an endless number of examples that illustrate coaches tactically using players in different pick-and-roll situations. Many of these tactics are acquired through experimentation and observation.
Identifying action variables can assist in the analysis of a player’s potential in pick-and-roll. Can a certain player learn to be effective and help his team in a pick-and-roll situation? If so, which situation? Pick-and-roll assists in the development of skills. In order to execute pick-and-roll effectively, a player must have a well-rounded set of skills. Equally important, the ability to read situations and make instinctive decisions is accelerated with repetition. Teaching from this framework may appear to be over-coaching or over-complicating a simple pick-and-roll. Ironically, it is the opposite. If players understand -even on a simple level- why a play is unfolding as it is and how the location or angle of a screen affects their reads and subsequent decisions, then the growth process accelerates. This is a trial-and-error approach. Understand that a player may never reach a competency level where a coach would have enough confidence in him to use him in pickand- roll but there is a chance that given understanding, exposure, and repetition that player’s skill set may be an asset to the team. Moreover, even if not directly involved in the pick-and-roll action as a ball handler, or a screener, a player with a good understanding will have an impact on execution. An understanding of spacing and the ability to read a defensive coverage can lead to a seemingly unconnected play that has an impact on the game -for instance, an offensive rebound. The same is true on defense- an understanding of offensive objectives can help a player’s anticipation and aggressiveness defensively. As skills necessary to play pick-and-roll continue to surface in more and more players, the possibility of lineups with multiple players capable of playing pick-and-roll is likely to increase. In an extreme case where all five players, in one location or another, can play pick-and-roll, a coach would now have the opportunity to evaluate multiple options and weigh them against a defense’s strengths.
With increasing frequency, we see numbers and positions giving way to skill, size, speed, and strength as defining characteristics of players. Multiple position players allow coaches tremendous flexibility and force preparation, adjustments, and in extreme cases, may even create the need to explore personnel changes that address specific match-up advantages. The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are institutionalized and for good reason they reflect general categories and allow for the efficient execution of plays. A numerical system (any system) assists execution by providing accountability and a consistent foundation for the definition of roles. Nevertheless, in practice, coaches constantly modify these positions and customize them to fit a team’s talent in an effort to maximize their ability to win. Before “1, 2, 3, 4, and 5” there were other descriptor...guards, forwards, and centers. Some teams used specific names for positions within the structure of an offense, unique labels that define a role in that particular offensive or defensive system. The “Personnel” variable and the possibilities for execution are defined by players themselves. In this case, the process of consciously considering multiple options can provide coaches direction on ways to implement combinations of location, angle, and spacing that maximize their players’ abilities.
To illustrate the application of this framework we will turn our attention to the possibilities for pick-and-roll that arise from the Nail location. Consideration of the four pick-and-roll variables, first individually, then in combination provides direction for execution (diagr. 26). “Nail” is a by-product of this process.
- Nail Zone = 85°-95°, Yellow area
- Nail Angle = Flat, inside, or outside.
- Nail Spacing = corner, corner and up or down high quadrant.
- Nail Personnel = variable.
Pick-and-roll at the Nail may be executed with either a “live dribble” – a reference to a player who has caught the ball, but not dribbled, or an “active dribble”, a reference to a player who is in the process of using his dribble. The Nail Zone is maximized through the use of a “live dribble”. This allows the ball handler to: pivot, pass-fake, pass, handoff, dribble hand-off, shot-fake, shoot or attack with the dribble. In addition, at the same time, the screener is able to effectively twist the angle of the screen. Also, the screener may change his body angle, effectively sealing the defender and positioning himself to roll quicker. This improves the ball handler’s passing angle and makes it easier to finish successfully.
The distance of the Nail Zone from the basket presents additional challenges for the defense. By having the option of waiting to attack, and by not immediately declaring a side of the floor upon receiving the ball, the offense limits the opportunity for the defense to anticipate and pre-rotate. The ball handler's ability to present multiple threats without committing increases the likelihood that his defender will make a mistake. In the end, the opportunity for isolation is also preserved and maybe disguised as well. The diagrams 27, 28, 29 and 30 illustrate potential actions, referred to earlier, along with adjustments in personnel, and spacing.
The “Action Phase” of pick-and-roll is characterized by location, angle, spacing, and the abilities of the players involved. Different combinations of location, angle and spacing are more effective with certain combinations of players.
These tactical decisions are made with specific attention paid to the players themselves. Sometimes that may mean getting out of the way as players instinctively make reads and show us new options. Players’ creativity allows us to observe, and then to help replicate in future situations. The more intricately pick-and-roll is understood by both players and coaches the greater the competitive advantage.
“Action” is only one of the phases of pick-and-roll, and it plays a role in a larger concept of an offensive possession. Through the observation and distinction of pick-and-roll we have sought only to identify and categorize what coaches and players orchestrate and execute, and in a form that provides a process useful for either instruction or reflection.