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Lessons From the Pick-and-Roll Masters

The two-man game has long been the bedrock of NBA offenses, but its use is at an all-time high. Some of the best in the business explain the ins and outs of basketball’s most fundamental play.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

From John Stockton to Steve Nash to Stephen Curry, the pick-and-roll has been a cornerstone of NBA offenses for decades. “If you had five guys who knew how to run the pick-and-roll and do it really well, you wouldn’t need any other offense,” Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “You could take your transition baskets when they came, then sit back and run the pick-and-roll all night.”

It’s nothing new to see bigs and forwards who pass and shoot like guards — we’re nearly four decades removed from Magic Johnson’s and Larry Bird’s rookie seasons, which changed the face of the league forever. But with such a prominence of multitalented big men in the league, teams are more versatile than ever. Today’s positionless league is close to what Cousy imagined. Teams are running the pick-and-roll more frequently than any other time in the past decade.

So far this season, 24.5 percent of all plays that resulted in a shot, foul, or turnover have been executed by either the ball handler or the screener in a pick-and-roll, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. That number was 14.5 percent in 2006, and it’s been rising steadily ever since. In the 1990s, Michael Jordan ushered in an era of isolation-focused basketball, and it was furthered by Kobe Bryant and other acolytes in the 2000s, but that style of play (which includes post-ups) has declined rapidly in favor of offenses that emphasize ball movement. And in a versatile league that leans on pace-and-space, there’s no better way to accomplish rim penetration and find open 3-point shooters than to run the pick-and-roll.

It’s quite a simple play: A player off the ball stands firmly between the ball handler and his defender like a shield. The screener can choose to “roll” to the basket or “pop” out for a shot. The ball handler can shoot in the space created by the screen, penetrate to the rim, pass to the screener, or pass to another player on the court, away from the main action.

“The biggest thing about the pick-and-roll is that it keeps the defense off-balance,” Bird told SI in 1995. “You’re making your opponents work, and you’re forcing them into decisions. Then if they make one little mistake, you’ve got yourself a basket.” Let Bird and Red Auerbach explain further in this classic 1980s instructional video:

Stockton and Karl Malone mastered the pick-and-roll in the 1990s. Nash ran it like he was conducting an orchestra in the 2000s. Today, it’s evolved to the point that it has countless variations, many of them unique to specific teams and player combinations. The most elementary play in the book is also its most complex.

Let’s toast some of the best pick-and-roll operators the NBA has to offer.

The Always-Reliable Lou Williams

Lakers guard Lou Williams, now 30 years old, is having the best season of his career, averaging 18.9 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 52. Williams has scored the fifth-most points per possession in the pick-and-roll so far this season (of players with a minimum of 100 pick-and-roll possessions, per Synergy). This isn’t a blip on the radar: In each of the past two seasons, he’s ranked in the top five, and over the last eight seasons he’s ranked in the top 15 seven times.

Few players have been that consistent. There are the familiar superstars like Chris Paul, Curry, and James Harden, and then there’s Lou, an oft-overlooked sixth man. Williams’s consistency is remarkable, especially considering how it has translated across each of the four teams he’s played for. It all started in Philadelphia, where he told me it was “huge” for his career to be able to learn from Andre Miller. “Just watching the way Andre attacked the pick-and-roll, how he took his time picking defenses apart,” said Williams. “He was big in my development.”

Miller played with an encyclopedic knowledge of the pick-and-roll, and now so does Williams. When deciding how to attack, Williams said, “my reads are always determined by [how] the bigs on the defense [like to guard the pick-and-roll].” If the big man “drops” or lightly “shows” on the screen and isn’t aggressively pursuing him, Williams will probably pull up for a shot:

“A lot of teams try to blitz me and be aggressive just because of my size,” said the 6-foot-1 Williams, adding that if he’s “blitzed,” he’ll try to split the screen, which often leads to penetration to the rim.

No matter how the pick-and-roll is defended, Williams said the goal is to put his team into a two-on-one advantage. How this is done could depend on the skill of your own screening big man. If that big man rolls down the rim, like the classic pick-and-rolls we’ve witnessed for decades, Williams said he’ll go “north-to-south.” But when that big can shoot and he pops, it becomes an “east-to-west” game.

Here’s Williams running a pick-and-pop with Patrick Patterson during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign with the Raptors:

Notice how Williams takes the ball laterally to pull Patterson’s defender, LaMarcus Aldridge, as far away from Patterson as he can. This gives Patterson ample space to unleash his shot. “When you have shooting bigs, you try to get their man as far away as you can. You come off that screen, you probably take two dribbles right or left, instead of taking two dribbles forward or back,” Williams said.

Kemba Walker and the Multipurpose Hornets Attack

The pick-and-roll is the staple of Charlotte’s offense; it makes up a league-leading 31.2 percent of the team’s plays. Kemba Walker, a speedy playmaking machine, is the centerpiece. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford has at his disposal a wealth of weapons that make for a deadly combo in a play called the “double high” pick-and-roll. This occurs when both the center and power forward set screens for the guard at or above the 3-point line.

Here’s what it looks like when Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky set a double high screen for Walker, who presses turbo to zip to the rim.

This works for the Hornets because, as Zeller told me over the phone, “we have so much skill. … It puts a lot of heat on the defense.” The Hornets have assembled a group of bigs that covers every base: They have two classic rim runners in Zeller and Roy Hibbert, two floor-spacing giants in Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes, and a rangy small-ball 4 in Marvin Williams.

With Walker running point, the double high screen is a headache for defenses. Using both bigs as shields so far away from the rim, especially when one of them can shoot like Kaminsky, creates a perfect environment for Walker’s offensive creativity. Penetration has become a little bit easier for Kemba largely because of the development of his pull-up jumper. The Hornets guard is draining 37.8 percent of his 3s off the dribble, per SportVU, compared to 30.6 percent over the last three seasons. Walker has similarly made strides at the rim, finishing 57.4 percent of his shots in the restricted area since last season, compared to 50.1 percent over the first four years of his career.

The pick-and-roll isn’t all about the point guards, though, nor is it all about the ability of the screener to pop and shoot 3s or roll and throw down dunks. The screen itself is integral to the success of the play. You’ll notice a trend in all four Hornets plays above: Zeller is the screener who springs Walker loose. A screen assist is a screen set by an offensive player for a teammate that leads directly to a made field goal. Zeller creates an amazing 4.9 screen assists per game, according to NBA.com, which ranks fourth in the NBA behind the likes of Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan, and ahead of Tristan Thompson and Al Horford. “I take it upon myself to make sure I’m a good screener,” Zeller told me, adding that it was a skill that he had to learn. In college, Zeller was the focal point of his offense; in a way, he still is, serving an indispensible role in the Hornets’ most reliable mode of scoring. “My responsibility is to make sure the [opposing] guard goes over the screen so Kemba can turn the corner.”

Screening is often a thankless task, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t perks. As longtime coach P.J. Carlesimo said in a Team USA instructional video, “The better screen you set, the more chance that you’re gonna get the ball.”

Chris Paul and the Value of Honing Your Instincts

Former Clipper Glen Davis was asked on The Herd earlier this year if Chris Paul is a problem in the locker room. Big Baby didn’t exactly answer the question, but he did give his best CP3 impersonation:

“‘I’m Chris Paul. Give me the ball. I’m gonna dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble. Might pass if it looks good, or I’ll shoot,’” he said. Davis was obviously knocking Paul for handling the ball so often, but CP3 isn’t like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Paul might dribble a lot, but he’s willing to share his precious, and he does it at the highest of levels.

Since Paul entered the NBA in 2005, his shots or passes out of the pick-and-roll have led to a remarkable average of 1.03 points per possession scored, according to Synergy. Perhaps even more impressive is his low pick-and-roll turnover rate of only 8.2 percent in that span, which would be elite in each of the last 10 seasons. Paul is the best point guard of this generation; condemning him for dribbling as much as he does would’ve been like demanding Peyton Manning call fewer audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Paul serves as a model of what a point guard can be by blending the old-school pass-first style with the en vogue score-first sensibility. His game is like a composite of every great point guard, a reminder of what the game was and a harbinger of what it will be. Every young point guard who enters the NBA will undoubtedly learn something from watching Paul, or their coaches and trainers will attempt to install some aspect of his game. (Even Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns lists Paul as one of the players from whom he’s borrowed skills.)

I spoke to Drew Hanlen, CEO of Pure Sweat Basketball and an NBA skills coach and consultant, about how he trains his clients to improve their decision-making in the pick-and-roll. Hanlen has a four-step process:

  1. Break down a specific type of pick-and-roll play by watching it on film “so they understand the whole.”
  2. Walk through the play piece by piece on the court in a one-on-one setting.
  3. Run through the play in a “managed setting,” like a two-on-two where the player understands how the play will be defended.
  4. Internalize different instinctive reads on the play.

Step 4 is by far the most intricate. “We break it down into if-then statements,” Hanlen said. For every action the big-man defender can take, the ball handler has three different ways to respond. For example, if the defender switches, then Option 1 is for the ball handler to drag the defender toward him and attack off the dribble; Option 2 is to throw the ball into the post to take advantage of the perceived post mismatch that the switch created; and Option 3 is to simply continue the offense. These progressions may vary depending on the player and their projected role, but the point is to minimize thinking and maximize instincts.

Most young point guards need years of live reps before their decision-making catches up with their talent. Of the bottom-10 players in Synergy’s pick-and-roll turnover rate, seven are first- or second-year guards. “Once you start overthinking, then you stop reacting,” Hanlen said. “They become indecisive and overanalyze the situation instead of trusting their instincts. If you don’t rep it out enough, then you don’t trust your instincts, then you become hesitant.”

Draymond Green and the Influence of Warriors Basketball

The initial pick-and-roll action itself isn’t always as deadly as the secondary play that unfolds as a result. Just look at the Warriors and Draymond Green, who is one of three forwards (along with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo) to rank in the top 25 in assists per game. A chunk of his dishes come via actions that look like this:

Stephen Curry is so lethal shooting off the dribble that defenses are forced to be aggressive on him, but Green doesn’t use that extra space the way a traditional big man would. He doesn’t dive down to the rim like DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside would in anticipation of a lob. Green is ground bound, so he “short rolls” to an open spot on the floor around the top of the key, where his playmaking ability is activated. With two defenders guarding the ball, a 4-on-3 offensive advantage is created for Green. He can take it all the way to the rim, throw up a floater, or kick it out to one of his three open teammates.

“It’s a mimic league,” Phil Jackson told SI in 2013 regarding how the NBA had become more dependent on pick-and-rolls and 3-point shooting. Coaches see something and say, ‘Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that.’” The Warriors have established a trend of using a larger player like Green as a primary facilitator, or using their shooters like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in reverse roles as screeners, and more and more teams are adapting that style to their own personnel.

You can clearly see the influence up north. The Raptors are blitzing the league on offense, scoring 115.4 points per 100 possessions, and the two-man game plays an integral role. It makes up 27.5 percent of their possessions, on which they score a league-high one point per possession, according to Synergy. A play they run frequently involves a slip screen set by point guard Kyle Lowry for the ball handler, DeMar DeRozan, which is an adaptation of what the Warriors run.

More defenses switch ball screens, which can stagnate an offense by baiting it into isolations (a slower big switched onto a guard) or post-ups (a smaller guard switched onto a big). These perceived mismatches can be highly effective, but it often takes an offense out of rhythm. The offensive counter to this involves a screener slipping or changing directions right before making contact, like Lowry does above. This misdirection can compromise a defense’s positioning and lead to an open catch-and-shoot 3, or open space for penetration.

This is what the league has become. As offenses evolve, defenses adapt. Once an attack is neutralized, offenses counteradapt. The cycle will continue forever; old trends will reemerge and new trends will be developed. A dominant pick-and-roll identity may not lead to championships — John Stockton, Steve Nash, and Chris Paul can attest to that — but it will forever be a foundation of success for an NBA offense.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

The Next Step for Harrison Barnes

If you’re a hardcore NBA observer, you’re well aware that Barnes has finally gotten over a slump that stretched from the NBA Finals, through the Summer Olympics, and into the Mavericks preseason. In his first season as Plan A scorer, Barnes is averaging career highs across the board with 20.2 points on 17.6 shots per game and a 26.7 usage percentage. What’s most encouraging is that his effective field goal percentage hasn’t dropped all that much (from 50.1 percent with the Warriors to 48.8 percent so far this season). He’s excelling in the areas he always has: beating switches, draining spot-up 3s, and feasting in the post.

Barnes on the Mavs is like 22 Jump Street; you come in with low expectations and leave the theater realizing it had the same story and fun factor as the first movie, just with some more bells and whistles. Barnes is putting up these numbers on a bad team, though. To get better, he will need to improve his shooting off the bounce. Too often, this is what happens when Barnes is forced to create with his dribble and launch from 3:

Here, he gets away with an MJ-style push-off move to create space for his shot, but he still misses the 3. He’s shooting 15.4 percent on 3s off the dribble, per SportVU, which isn’t an improvement over the last three years with Golden State (23.1 percent). The shots are coming at a higher volume, though: His 13 attempts so far this season has already matched his average amount of pull-up attempts per year (13) during his time with the Warriors.

Barnes can shoot though: Since 2013 he’s shooting 39.3 percent on spot-up 3s, which isn’t elite, but it’s very good. (For reference, J.R. Smith shot 42.6 percent on spot-up 3s last year and J.J. Redick shot 48.1 percent.) He has good touch on his jump shot, and he has already found success pulling up from midrange. The next step is to replicate that production from deeper range.

The Transformation of Steven Adams

It’s important to take a step back and appreciate Adams’s transformation from clean-cut rookie to Khal Drogo.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

He’s changed on the court, too. At the University of Pittsburgh, Adams had clunky hands, didn’t finish very well at the rim, and shot just 44.3 percent from the free throw line. Today, he scores almost automatically when inside, shoots 74 percent from the charity stripe, and has a marshmallow-soft touch on his floater:

Adams is shooting 9-of-18 on this flip shot, according to Synergy Sports. This quirk gives him another way to score on cuts and pick-and-roll dives, especially when the paint is clogged. Adams can’t sneak by Dwight Howard, but he’s become more than comfortable elevating over the top for a smooth bucket.

Myles Turner’s Slams and Volleyball Tip-ins

Turner’s offensive rebounding percentage is 6.7, which is quite low for a big man, but that doesn’t mean he’s a poor offensive rebounder. It’s a product of his team’s system: The Pacers don’t crash the boards, emphasizing getting back on defense instead. Plus, as a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter, Turner is often spacing the floor. He is actually an elite offensive rebounder when he does crash: He scores a league-high 1.6 points per possession on putbacks, according to Synergy (minimum 20 attempts). And it’s not all power flushes, either.

The same touch he displays as a shooter and timing he shows as a shot-blocker also manifests on the offensive boards. Turner understands angles and knows how to tap the ball in.

He is developing into an excellent overall threat as a scorer from the perimeter, the post, and the pick-and-roll, but he’s also doing it on the boards with his limited chances. At just 20, Turner is now part of the conversation as one of the NBA’s young unicorn bigs.

Jaylen Brown Came in Like a Wrecking Ball

When you hear about a player “attacking a closeout,” what’s being described is when someone receives a pass in spot-up position and then dupes his defender by putting the ball on the floor instead of shooting. Here’s what that looks like:

Brown’s explosive dunk, Nikola Vucevic dipping his head in shame, and the bench’s reaction make for a truly beautiful basketball moment (unless you’re a Magic fan). There is a small sample size for this specific type of play, but Brown leads the NBA in points per possession (PPP) scored driving to the rim when attacking closeouts (of players with a minimum 10 shots)! According to Synergy Sports, Brown scores 1.6 PPP on 19 chances. Kevin Durant is second, at 1.5 PPP.

Brown is shooting 35.3 percent from behind the arc so far this season, much better than his efficiency in college (29.4 percent), so defenders are more compelled to contest him from the perimeter. Maybe Brown’s numbers will regress and by season’s end defenses will be baiting him into jumpers and stopping his thunderous drives, but for now he’s causing havoc inside. The rookie isn’t ready to contribute a heavy workload, but at only 20 years old he’s looking like a keeper for the Celtics with his flashes in the open floor.

Cheick Diallo Is Already Exceeding College Production

As a freshman at Kansas, Diallo never played more than 21 minutes, scored more than 13 points, grabbed more than nine rebounds, tallied more than one assist, or had more than one steal. In his first NBA game with a full workload as Pelican, Diallo met or exceeded all of those numbers in 31 minutes against the Clippers on December 10, with 19 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and one assist.

In a single game, Diallo showed more than he did during an entire season at Kansas. Diallo had a pretty good week overall, with four points and four rebounds in nine minutes against the Suns; then against the Rockets he had 10 points, seven rebounds, and one block in 22 minutes; and on Sunday against the Spurs he had six points and four rebounds in 10 minutes. It’s possible these three performances are nothing more than a flash in the pan, but he’s filling the box score and showing off his brand-new smooth jumper, which extends to 21 feet.

The Malian big man found himself in Bill Self’s Kansas doghouse because of his lack of defensive fundamentals and inability to execute simple plays. Self’s goal is to win national titles, not develop players for the pros (this is the inherent issue with the college-to-pro system), so you can’t blame the coach for not funneling minutes to his top-five recruit. Diallo failed to meet expectations in college, but he could exceed them as the no. 33 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. The Pels are trying to win games, too, but it’s become clear that they’re facing yet another lost season, at 9–20 with the league’s 24th-worst net rating. Hopefully Diallo will receive more minutes as the year wears on.

Must-Scout College Game: Kentucky vs. Louisville, Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET

Not only do Kentucky and Louisville have a storied rivalry, but it’s far and away this week’s best game to scout high-profile prospects. Kentucky is loaded with three potential lottery picks: freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, and freshman center Bam Adebayo. But as The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks detailed, scouting Kentucky is difficult because its wealth of talent means players are shoved into restricting roles. For example, Karl-Anthony Towns’s role was to dominate the interior, so he shot only eight 3s despite having floor-spacing skills.

Monk is a knockdown shooter with no-gravity athleticism, and he’s coming off an unbelievable 47-point performance against North Carolina on Saturday, but don’t sleep on his passing. At only 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Monk will likely need to be a playmaker in the NBA, so passing and decision-making are important traits.

The issue for Monk is that Fox (and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe) handles the majority of the point guard duties. This is understandable: Fox isn’t effective off-ball (13 percent from 3) and he’s terrific on-ball. Fox is speedy, but he knows how to control time and space by simply slowing down. The young Kentucky backcourt will be tested by Louisville’s top-ranked defense. Keep your eyes glued to Cardinals sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell, who isn’t a lockdown guard by NBA standards, but at the college level provides a tough challenge.

For tips on scouting, read the article below, which features tricks of the trade from draft experts and scouts.

ATO of the Week: Lights! Camera! Inaction!

Here’s the full play Mike D’Antoni drew up with his Rockets down three points to the (gulp) Nets late in the fourth quarter of their December 12 clash:

This play puts James Harden — who else? — in position to make the best decision possible. Brooklyn’s inaction made his choice easy.

As Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley scurry to the corners, Harden and Nene Hilario run a pick-and-roll at the top of the key. Watch Nene’s defender, Brook Lopez, who is being back-screened by Eric Gordon; Gordon’s defender, Joe Harris, is floating in no-man’s-land at the restricted area. Harden was probably expecting to switch with Lopez, but it didn’t happen. Once Harden and Nene rumble down the lane, Lopez spins around Gordon’s screen then knocks Harris to the ground, springing Gordon open for a 3.

It’s impossible to know whether a lack of communication caused the error between Lopez and Harris; regardless, their inaction gave Gordon enough time to finish his Christmas shopping before firing away his 3. Gordon is, by the way, shooting 44.2 percent from downtown. The Rockets set the record for made 3s in a game with 24 on Friday night, and they’ll be a threat to break it again as long as Gordon stays blazing hot.