I feel like I've learned a quarter of a million things this year
as I've gotten deeper and deeper into basketball. Pace is
critically important as a ball-handler, defense is way more
complicated and complex than I grasped even last season, and
development is about as linear and predictable as the stock
Add another detail to the list: We need to appreciate screening
more! I keep coming back to this. It's an essential part of the
game that tends to get overlooked and, in some ways, I've felt its
impact more this season.
Sure, I've noticed a nice bone-crunching screen time and time
again, the kind that makes you go, "How is that legal?!" Like, when
Nikola Pekovic destroyed Brandon Knight simply for being Brandon
This isn't the kind of screen we need to appreciate, but please
don't tell Pek I said that!
Pick-and-roll has notably grown as an offensive staple and
foundation over the last decade, but what's the first thing that
you think of when someone says pick-and-roll? I don't mean to
assume your thoughts, but I bet you probably thought about a
ball-handler canning a pull-up three or getting downhill off the
The action is all about creating an advantage, kickstarting the
offense and either creating a shot directly or forcing the defense
into rotation until a better opportunity presents itself. As the
screen-and-roll has continued to dominate in relevance, something
that seems to have gotten lost in the sauce is that the screening
part is pretty darn important! It's a means of amplifying creation,
exacerbating an advantage; the best screens are creating an even
better advantage. In a way, the highest levels of screening
could be viewed as a means of self-creation when
factoring in other aspects.
Defenses have really adapted this season. Coverage versatility
has become a must for the majority of teams, throwing some funk
into the mix to make easy offense a bit harder. Teams are more
comfortable blitzing ball-handlers — sending two to the ball
against ball-screens — to try to negate the initial advantage and
force secondary options to beat them.
The Minnesota Timberwolves built their defense on it (less
recently), the Chicago Bulls routinely play with their 5-man high
on screens and the Milwaukee Bucks have made it a near automatic
response. It's hard to get by playing defense just being solid in
one way because offenses are just that good.
Rudy Gobert, screen-assist royalty, is doing so much more as a
roller than he gets credit for routinely. For starters, he sets
hard screens. Defenders feel them and don't often get
through them. While he doesn't necessarily roll fast, his downhill
gravity is a key matchstick that ignites the Utah Jazz's
More importantly, on top of that, he can make solid reads and
decisions on the roll once he receives the ball.
It's not perfect. Gobert can show some clunkiness if he has to
put the ball on the deck, but he's threatening enough with his roll
presence and capable enough of a decision-maker that defenses have
to respect the process (don't ask about post-ups).
Gobert passes the threshold required of a screen-and-roll
player, which has only risen over the past few years, and I feel,
particularly, this season. If you can't make quality decisions off
an action or finish the advantage efficiently yourself, that's a
win for the defense. It's extremely hard to strictly be a finisher
at the basket or a lob threat. You need more juice now! Even if you
are capable of the decision-making, can you put the ball on the
floor once or twice and craft an efficient look? More importantly,
can you make the defense care?
We've hardly even gotten into the meat of the screening yet, but
it's so important to point out just how difficult it is to be a big
in the current NBA. There's often a train of thought along the
lines of "screen-and-roll bigs grow on trees," and sure, it's
reductive, but I guess not entirely incorrect. However, how many
bigs can you just go pick up in the free-agency pool that can meet
all the requirements? Being at least a neutral on both ends is
extremely hard, especially as a starter!
Bulls center Nikola Vucevic is one of the best screeners in the
league, and shows his versatility and dynamic ability to loosen
things offensively for both himself and others. While he's drawn
ire from many a Chicago fan for his shooting inconsistency, this
offense would not be what it is without Vucevic. We know he can
score in a variety of ways, we know he can pass and we know he can
screen. The way he blends the trio is what makes him a special
offensive player and vital to the Bulls.
While Vucevic doesn't screen Zach LaVine completely open for the
action, watch how he tracks and moves with Jrue Holiday, toeing the
line of legality. He screens initially and re-screens again before
using his forward momentum and footwork to open himself on the
So while LaVine isn't cleanly open — largely due to Holiday
cheating the action and dodging the first screen from Javonte Green
— Vucevic salvages space with screening. Holiday can't fully
reconnect before LaVine starts his way downhill, occupying Serge
Ibaka's attention before hitting Vucevic with the pocket pass; the
Chicago big man then rumbles into a mesmerizing balletic hook shot.
It's quick, Ibaka was already off-kilter and Vucevic takes
While you could reduce the possession down to a screen and a
slow roll, so much more goes on in that space that makes it
Per Second Spectrum Tracking, Vucevic averages 1.58 seconds per
touch, the third-lowest mark amongst players who receive 50 or more
touches per game. He touches the ball often, but not for long. He
gives the ball energy, adds zest to the possession and serves as a
turnkey for the offense.
Send two to one of Chicago's All-NBA candidate guards, and
Vucevic slips into space to quickly hit cutters as the defense
adjusts to him.
Or he'll throw in a timely slip when the drop defender is
committed to the ball-handler, sure to use his arms to generate
some contact with the defender, adding some slight oomph before
flipping his hips into a lightning-quick touch shot or jumper. The
quickness with which he gets his shots off along with the downhill
threat of Chicago's drivers gives the defense headaches.
Speaking of slipping screens, look no further than John
Trae Young's threat as an elite pull-up shooter, terrifying
downhill quickness and immaculate court vision are already a
nightmare for defenses. Teams have to often sell out due to Young's
advanced craft. Collins slips seemingly every ball-screen, and uses
his own explosive downhill dynamism to put the low-man in a torture
Rotations are extremely important to executing defense but, man,
how do you stop someone like Collins coming down the lane full
force even with a perfect rotation?
He creates sinkholes on the perimeter at times with even the
mere thought of a slip, as a game has progressed. Fool me once,
shame on you. Fool me twice, dear God please don't do it again.
While this is largely a byproduct of bad defense and
miscommunication, in the end it's happening because of Collins.
Good defensive teams will try to find ways to neutralize the slip
and more effectively handle the perimeter, but silencing the slip
is easier said than done. Young needs but a sliver of space to be
His verticality and touch are nutty. The ball skills have come
along, and he's improved greatly on his passing reads.
Next up is one of my favorite possessions in basketball over the
past year. Indiana Pacers rookie Terry Taylor screens Khris
Middleton into the abyss and makes getting over a screen an
Buddy Hield is a very good off-ball mover and one of the best
shooters in basketball, but this shot is not clean without
He screens Middleton just before Tyrese Haliburton passes the
ball to Hield. He moves and re-screens with a flip of his hips, as
Hield sets up Middleton to his right. He just stays active and
makes Middleton work — which sounds simplistic, but that's the
point... it's not. It's the continuous little efforts to open a
half-foot of space that can make a significant difference acquiring
said real estate.
Next up, the quintessential Jakob Poeltl possession!
Dejounte Murray isn't a pull-up shooter like that, and the
Orlando Magic know, so they go under the screen. But here's the
nice subtlety — so does Jakob.
Like, of course he knows that teams don't go over on screens for
Dejounte, but the quick flip and re-screen allows for the Murray
snatch-back and an open lane. I can feel that thudding hip check
through my laptop.
But we are not done yet folks!
Poeltl rolls and throws in some more trickery, sealing Mo Bamba
with yet another "Is this legal?" (Jakob Poeltl, habitual
line-stepper) screen. It's the Daniel Theis/Al Horford seal, but
Jakob does it better, so it deserves a cooler name. (I'm not sure
what, but think on it!)
Murray is a really nice player (an All-Star, of course), but
without Poeltl there is no advantage being created here.
He eases the burden of primary creation for Murray and amplifies
As good as Poeltl is as a dribble-handoff operator, there may
not be a more explosive and fluid artist at the elbow and slot than
Adebayo sprints into early offense DHO's with the Miami Heat's
He's another non-stationary screener. He keeps his arms down to
try and blur the lines of legality, making it harder to call a
moving screen. I absolutely love it.
Try and sell out to stop the quick hitter? Well, Adebayo might
have the most fluid hips and change-of-direction ability of any big
in the NBA. He flips screens and thuds you for the audacity to try
and cheat the action.
If you're wondering why Miami had an open three even without
Adebayo handling the ball — rewind, and look for the chaser who
gets taken out along the way. He cracks back on off-ball defenders
like a wide receiver excited to dole out punishment for a
Ja Morant is one of the most punishing drivers in the NBA, with
an absurd guile and vertical pop. His audacity is
While Steven Adams certainly has some drawbacks as an offensive
player and limitations defensively, he's been a very nice fit for
the Memphis Grizzlies. He paves wide open lanes for Morant in a way
that few players can. Often when I watch the Grizz, I see Ja wide
open in space, gunning towards the rim with a big on his heels and
say to myself, "Where is the fifth defender?"
Well, Steven Adams might play a significant part in
He just erases the defender from the picture with his
More on those driving lanes — Adams will set interior screens on
the roll as well, taking the rim-defender out of the picture,
parting the sea in the paint for Morant and guiding to easy buckets
at the rim.
Don't forget about impromptu screens!
Oshae Brissett is a joy to watch, as he takes note of
ball-watching defenders and sets up wide-open shots for teammates
or generates an unwanted matchup for the defense.
I don't quite know how to quantify screening, but it
is something and it's so much more valuable and
complex than it generally is made out to be. As the season winds
down, take note and appreciate some of the really cool things
happening both on and off the ball — the impact on play, and why
I'm still learning more and more about the game each week, and
that's awesome to me. Screening is a whole new world this season,
and I can't wait until the next realization that opens my eyes even
more about the game!