Pick and Roll Defense

Defending the Pick-and-Roll

By Hal Wissel

As mentioned earlier, the pick-and-roll (also called a ball screen) is one of the oldest plays in basketball and is currently being used more than ever. At the professional level, the pick-and-roll has become a primary part of the offense for most teams. It has also become a part of college and high school play. In the pick-and-roll, the picker sets the pick and then rolls (cuts to the basket) for a possible inside shot off a pass from the ball handler. If the picker is a good shooter, a pick-and-pop may be used; in this option, the picker pops out for an outside shot rather than rolling to the basket. The pick-and-roll—whether the offense uses the pick to penetrate and pass inside to a post player or to pass outside to an open three-point shooter—has become arguably the most difficult play to defend in today’s game.

Various methods are used for defending the pick-and-roll. Regardless of the method of defense being used, it takes all five defenders to defend a well-executed pick-androll. Two primary defensive players defend the pick-and-roll: (1) the player guarding the player with the ball and (2) the player guarding the player setting the pick. The other defensive players, most often positioned on the weak side, must move into help positions and be able to give help as needed. However, a weak-side help defender cannot move too far away from a hot shooter positioned behind the three-point line and give that shooter an open three-point shot. How you defend the pick-and-roll action is determined by the abilities of your opponents and how they want to use the pick-and-roll to score.

To defend the pick-and-roll, you and your teammates must be able to communicate and help each other. The defender on the opponent who is setting the screen must alert the defender being screened by calling out the direction of the screen. The defender should call out “Screen right!” or “Screen left!” The defender on the screener should also communicate how the screen will be defended by calling out the defensive coverage that will be used. For example, if your teammate is defending a good shooter and you want this teammate to fight over the top of the screen, you would call out “Get over!” If your teammate is defending a good driver, you would call out “Go under!”

Four players are directly involved in the pick-and-roll, two offensive players (the screener and the player with the ball, who will use the screen) and their two defenders. To make it easier to understand the methods for defending a pick-and-roll, we always refer to the player with the ball (the player who will use the screen) as the first player. If the defender on the ball goes over the screen, this is called fighting over the top or simply going second. If the defender on the ball goes under the screen, this is called going under or third. If the defender on the ball goes under both the screener and the screener’s defender, this is called going fourth.

You have numerous ways to defend the pick-and-roll, but you should master one standard tactic first before learning other methods. Most coaches want defensive players to master the hard help-and-recover defensive method before making an adjustment in pick-and-roll coverage by using another method. Five basic methods for defending the pick-and-roll are: hard help and recover, soft help and recover, trap, squeeze, and switch.

Hard Help and Recover

When your opponent sets a screen on a teammate who is guarding a good shooter within shooting range, you should use a defensive tactic called hard help and recover to help your teammate stay with the shooter. Call out the screen and get right up on the screener in order to jump out into the ball handler’s path (figure 1).

This “showing hard” action will prevent the ball handler from getting into the middle, called turning the corner. By showing hard, you will delay the ball handler or force her to veer wide when dribbling. This will give your teammate

time to stay with the dribbler (go second). When you show hard, you should keep a hand on the screener so you can stay with the screener if the screener releases early or slips to the basket. After giving hard help, recover back to the screener, unless you get too extended and another teammate rotates up to pick up the screener. In this case, you should rotate back toward the basket and look for an open offensive player.

When you are the defensive player being screened, you should work hard to stay with the dribbler by fighting over the top of the screen. Work to get over the screen by first getting a foot over the screen and then the remainder of your body. You will be more difficult to screen when you are fighting hard to stay with the dribbler rather than being soft when screened.

Figure 1 Hard Help and Recover
Hard Help and Recover

As shown in figure 1, offensive player 4 sets a screen for offensive player 1. Defender X4 shows hard by stepping into offensive player 1’s path, giving teammate X1 time to fight over the top of the screen (go second) and stay with the dribbler. Defender X5 rotates to screener 4 rolling to the basket, and defender X4 rotates back to offensive player 5. Weak-side defenders X2 and X3 give help and then recover to the players they were originally guarding.

Error: When you give hard help to your teammate who is attempting to fight over the top of the screen, you get beat by the screener releasing early on a slip to the basket.

Correction: When you show hard, keep a hand on the screener so you can stay with the screener if the screener releases early or slips to the basket.

Error: Your teammate attempts to fight over the top of the screen but gets beat by the ball handler driving off the screen.

Correction: Show hard by stepping out into the path of the dribbler to delay the dribbler or force her to veer wide. This will give your teammate time to stay with the dribbler. When you are the defensive player being screened, work hard to stay with the dribbler by fighting over the top of the screen.

Soft Help and Recover

When your opponent sets a screen on a teammate who is guarding a good penetrator within shooting range, you should use a defensive tactic called soft help and recover to help your teammate stay with the penetrator. Call out he screen and drop back off the screener in order to “cover the turn” of the ball handler’s path (figure 2). This soft help action will allow you to be in better position to defend the roll of the picker and also help your teammate when the dribbler attempts to penetrate with a drive. However, this tactic provides less help against the ball handler, who can create a jump shot off the dribble. After giving soft help, you should recover back to the screener, unless another teammate rotates to pick up the screener. In this case, you should rotate back toward the basket and look for an open offensive player.

When you are the defensive player being screened while guarding a good penetrator, you should work hard to stay with the dribbler by going under the screen. The decision to go under the screen is also based on the distance from the basket that the screen is set. If the screen is set outside of the dribbler’s shooting range, you would obviously go under the screen. When the screen is set closer to the basket, you should work hard to fight over the top of the screen if the dribbler is a good shooter.

Figure 2 Soft Help and Recover
Soft Help and Recover

As shown in figure 2, player 4 sets a screen for player 1. Defender X4 shows soft by dropping back off the screener to give teammate X1, who goes under the screen (goes third), help against penetration (covering the turn). Defender X4 is also in a better position to defend the roll of the screener, player 4, or rotate back to player 5 when teammate X5 rotates to pick up player 4, who is rolling to the basket. Weak-side defenders help ad recover to the players they were originally guarding.

Error: Your teammate is not alert to being screened by your opponent.

Correction: As your opponent moves to set a screen on your teammate, you must call out the screen and its direction.

Trap

Trapping the ball handler is a more aggressive coverage for defending the pick-and-roll, and it involves more risk. In addition to the actions of the two primary defenders (one defending the ball and one defending the screener), the other three defenders must be alert to give help and rotate. Two methods are used for trapping. The method involving the most risk is for you to trap the dribbler before the screen is set. The method used more often is for you to trap the dribbler when the ball handler is just coming off the screen. With either method, the risk is that the ball handler will be able to make a quick pass to the screener on a roll to the basket or a pop for an outside shot. This is why another teammate—in most cases, one near the basket—must rotate to the screener.

Figure 3 Trap
Trap

As shown in figure 3, player 4 sets a screen for the ball handler, player 1. Defenders X1 and X4 trap player 1. When player 5 flashes to receive a possible pass out of the trap from player 1, defender X5 must deny the pass. When a pass is being attempted (the ball must be in the air) to screener 4 popping to the corner, weak-side defender X3 rotates to defend player 4. Weak-side defender X2 must be in position to rotate to either player 2 or 3.

Error: On a defensive trap, the defender near the basket rotates to the screener popping out to the corner, but the pass is made to the offensive player whom the defender left, and this player gets an open shot.

Correction: The defender near the basket must not rotate to the screener until the ball is in the air.

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