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An explanation of why we need to appreciate screening more

An explanation of why we need to appreciate screening more

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 market.

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 Knight.

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 screen.

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 offense. 

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!

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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 roll.

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 advantage.

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 impressive.

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 Collins!

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 chamber.

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 dangerous.

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 absolute terror. 

Buddy Hield is a very good off-ball mover and one of the best shooters in basketball, but this shot is not clean without Taylor.

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 the offense.

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 Bam Adebayo.

Adebayo sprints into early offense DHO's with the Miami Heat's movement shooters. 

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 change.

Ja Morant is one of the most punishing drivers in the NBA, with an absurd guile and vertical pop. His audacity is unfathomable. 

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 that!

He just erases the defender from the picture with his frame. 

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 it's happening.

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!

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