Motion Offense – Reading The Defense

By Randy Sherman

It is time to start reading the defense!  You cannot practice reading the defense in a downscreen often enough.

Think of every single downscreen like an at-bat in baseball. The hitter learns more about the pitcher. There are different ball and strike counts to learn from each time a batter goes to the plate. The Minor Leagues exist just so prospects can get “at-bats” and be exposed to different pitches and scenarios.

The downscreen is much the same. Every time there is a downscreen set in practice it is a learning opportunity. Review them on film as well. Was the set up effective? Did the screener basket cut? How did the defender play the downscreen? Did the cutter make the correct read and corresponding cut? Did the screener second cut?

We’ve already learned the basics of the downscreen, and practiced the four cuts that are used in motion offense with folding chairs and no defenders. Let’s advance by adding a defender to only the cutter.

In 2/1 downscreen, the player on the slot with the basketball is the screener (1). The player on the wing is the cutter and he/she is defended (2).

The wing starts at or above the “motion line.” (NOTE: If you have a practice court, consider taping this line on it. The baseline of a volleyball court that passes through the lane about a foot or so below the free throw line is a good tool as well.)

The purpose of the drill is to begin teaching cutters to read the defense. I often see downscreen action and cutters make incorrect cuts or do not read the defense. This is the beginnings of a remedy.

Begin by specifying to the defender (X2) how you want them to defend the downscreen. Learning first with a fixed read limits initial confusion. Defensive options include:

  • Lock and Trail
  • Overplay on high side and try to beat cutter over the top of the screen
  • Go under, or ball side, of the screen
  • Get taken out by the screen

Consider spending a specified number of minutes for each option during the drill. For teams and players new to motion offense, I recommend working in this order and telling the defense they must play the screen a particular way. It is an elementary first step.

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The screener passes to coach and makes a quick basket cut with the near foot then goes and downscreens. Teaching points for screeners in this drill:

  • Pass and make a quick basket cut then downscreen
  • Jumpstop into the screen with a wide base looking to tie up the defenders feet
  • Call your action. “Joey! Joey! Downscreen!” and use a non-verbal cue (throwing up a fist)
  • Hold the screen then make the corresponding second cut
  • When setting a downscreen, the screener’s back is pointing towards top of key
  • Second cutter’s rules: If cutter makes and inside cut (curl, back), screener makes and outside cut. If cutter makes an outside cut (out, straight), screener makes and inside cut (slip).

Teaching points for cutters:

  • “Walk the arc” (Don Meyer) – this refers to setting up the cut and using a change of tempo to use the screen effectively. Players should walk into the set up and get to the plane of the screener.
  • Get into your defender. Close the space between them and you
  • Sprint the cut directly at the screener and miss the screener late!
  • Watch the defender, not the ball.
  • Call your cut! (“Curl! Curl! Curl!”)
  • Tight cuts score!

Let’s give special attention to the out cut. The out cut is run when the defender goes ball side, or under, the screen. Often, players make a straight cut read here and the cutter may make a catch but his/her defender meets them at the ball.

Recognize that when the defender goes ball side of the screen the screener must change the angle of the screen and pin the defender in the lane. The screeners back is now pointed towards the sideline. The cutter pushes out to the wing where they began, aligned directly behind the screener.

Make sure you run the drill on both sides of the floor. Optimally, you would have a rotation from offense to defense. Work all players as both screeners and cutters…for now.

This is another basic drill for motion offense that can and should be reviewed throughout the year in and out of season.  Come back to it as you noticed cutters making poor reads in your offense.

Also, emphasize the concept of second cutters in this drill. It will all make more sense as we advance to 2/2, but begin building the habit during this controlled drill. Even though they are unguarded, you can mix it up by passing to the second cutter after the cutter runs their action. On second cuts to the outside, make sure screeners get good separation. (bust the arc)

The Next Step

The advancement of this drill is to allow the defender to cover the cutter however they want. Ideally, the cutter walking the arc sets him/her up for success.

Run 2/1 downscreen live only after you feel your group is getting the fundamentals down. When your team is ready, allow the wing defender to play live. They can play the screen any of the four ways. This a great tool for teaching reads from the mistakes they will make.

Emphasize that the defense can only play the screen one of four ways. It is up to the cutter to make the corresponding read.

Each of these downscreen actions are a teaching and learning moment for both the screener and the cutter.

There are two places to continue this motion offense discussion, ask questions and offer your own ideas:


LinkedIn Discussion Group:

Use the Twitter hashtag #MotionOffenseTips as well!

Any questions: Happy to talk hoops any time day or night! If you would like to be added to the motion offense mailing list, email and let me know!

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Randy Sherman is the owner and founder of Radius Athletics - a basketball coaching consulting firm - where he consults with basketball coaches at all levels on coaching philosophy, practice planning, Xs & Os and teaching a conceptual style of basketball. While a head basketball coach at the the interscholastic level, Sherman's teams won 197 games in nine seasons.

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