Mastering the Pick and Roll

By Cody Toppert

Keeping offense simple but structured allows players to work instinctively within a system.  In past newsletters I have discussed Horns action and Pitch early offense action but while both Horns and Pitch can be executed quickly, often times getting into action within the first 6-8 seconds of a possession and attacking the first available advantage can lead to quick but good shots for a respective team.  Often times these advantages are fond through transition ball screens or Drag screens.  Additionally if a good shot is not found, late shot clock situations result in high PNR or Side PNR action to close a possession.  So thanks to John Stockton and Karl Malone, the ball screen dominates the NBA and almost all levels of basketball.  The unfortunate thing is the lack of break down teaching that takes place on this important aspect of the game.  Just like we drill lay ups or shooting, we as a sport need to drill the PNR.

From grassroots to the Pros, even the NBA and especially the D-League there may be 3-5 PNRs set on a given possession and for some the search for that advantage seems as foreign as advanced econometrics.  What separates the top PNR players in the world, and a lot of international players, is their ability to maintain pace as the ball handler and find the advantage then play the advantage.  It is an old soccer adage in Spain “Juega la ventaja” or play the advantage.  Some of the best in the international game include Milos Teodosic, Marcelino Huertas, Vassillis Spanoulis and Pablo Prigioni (now New York Knicks) among others.

The types of Screens

In transition

  • Drag
    • A single screen set in transition by a trailing big.
    • See sets using transition drag screens in the FastModel Play Library HERE
  • Double Drag
    • Double high ball screens set by the bigs in transition.  Usually first screener rolls and the second screener pops.

One the Side

  • Side
    • SPNR – A ball screen set on with wing, typically free throw line extended, with screener’s shoulders square to the sideline.
    • Drill Series out of Floppy:


  • Drill Series out of Horns Elbow Action:


  • Step Up
    • A ball screen set sending the ball handler to the baseline, typically with the screeners back to the baseline.

In the Middle

  • Horns
    • Two high angle screens typically set by the bigs while they straddle the three-point line, allowing the ball handler to use the screen to either direction.
  • Flat
    • A high ball screen et with the screener’s back to the basket (crack to the rack), allowing the ball handler to attack downhill quickly.
    • Drill Series:



The Coverage

  • Vertical Hedge
    • When the on ball defender forces the ball handler into the screen, passing over the screen and the screener’s defender hedges out with shoulders square to the sideline, forcing the ball handler back towards his basket.
  • Soft Hedge
    • When the on ball defender forces the ball hander into the screen, passing over the screen and the screener’s defender hedges shoulders square to the opposite baseline.
  • Low Show, Zone
    • When the on ball defender forces the ball handler into the screen, passing over the screen and the screener’s defender remains back, buying time for the on ball defender to square up the ball handler.
  • Push, Jam
    • When the screener’s defender remains between his man and the basket, physically pushing the screen towards the other basket.  The on ball defender then sends the ball handler to the screen and passes under both the screener and the screener’s defender (two).
  • Ice, Flat, Blue, Down
    • When the on ball defender forces the ball handler away from the screen and the screener’s defender remains back as the handler is funneled towards him.
  • Blitz
    • When the on ball defender passes over the screen and the screener’s defender double teams the ball hander looking to force a turnover.

The Solutions

The below terms are simple and easy ways to remind players how to attack a given screen, based upon the coverage and decision that appears to be best for the team.

  • Turn it
    • A term used to let the ball handler know to attack the screen and get downhill.  If the handler is able to turn it he should be able to attack the nail or the kill box area (in the paint), allowing him to create scoring opportunities or receivers.  This is usually applied to a Flat or Soft hedge.  The handler should attack the top foot of the hedge man and attempt to get outside his feet in two dribbles, a race to space.
  • Snake it
    • A term used to let the handler know that using and curving back around the screen is open.  Often times this option is open when the on ball defender fights over the screen and the screener defender is in a low show position.  This provides space to go over the screen, get downhill and cut back to the original side, i.e. attack the screen from right to left, use it and “snake” back to the right.  In this instance it is important that the big does a good job of adjusting his roll to find the open lane or space.
  • Twist it
    • A term used to let the screen know to change the angle of his screen at the last minute.  At the highest levels the pick and roll coverage can vary greatly based on personnel.  As a result a team may wish to force a player to a direction, force a player away from a PNR etc.  Thus the screen can assist the ball handler with getting downhill by twisting his screen at the point of the screen, taking a right to left screen and turning it to a left to right screen and visa versa.  Great screens know how to get their ball handlers downhill.
  • Flip it
    • A term used to describe rescreening the ball handler.  The best time to rescreen the ball handler is when the on ball defender chooses to go under the screen.  By flipping it, the screen can assist the handler with finding and attacking an angle, once again getting downhill.  A conversation with one NBA coach informed me that if the defender passes under the screen they would automatically flip it and rescreen.
  • Advance it
    • A term used to let the handler know to get off the ball quickly with the pass, often times to the other side of the floor, for a quick reversal but most likely to take advantage of an early hedge and a slip by the screener.  The ball handler would use the screen and swing to or advance the ball to the next player who can then look to hit the roll man streaking to the basket.
  • Pull it
    • Is a term used to describe to the ball handler the need to back it up or bounce off.  By backing it up the ball handler can reevaluate, possibly create a closeout and allow the screener time to adjust his angle on the screen.  A great time to do this is when attacking a hard or vertical hedge.
  • Cut it
    • Is a term used to let the ball handler know that his best solution is to reject the screen.  Unless a team is icing (flatting, bluing) a ball screen, it is usually the on ball defenders responsibility to force the ball handler into the screen (vicariously taking away 50% of possible solutions by taking away an entire direction).  An over anxious defender can subsequently be susceptible to the offensive player “cutting” back the other direction.  The screen must then space cut, to find the open lane or area.
  • Drag it
    • Is a term used to incite the ball handler to take several additional dribbles past the screen in order to evaluate or “drag” out the PNR coverage.  This can often times create an angle for a pass to the roll man or a kick back to the lifting guard and a created angle for a post entry.

The Necessities

  • Pace
    • It is very important when attacking the PNR that the ball handler has great pace.  What does this mean?  The ability to change speeds (not go too slow, not go too fast).
  • Poise
    • I like to call it “poise in the pocket”, being able to get downhill, not rush, maintain your dribble and find that ever-elusive advantage, then attack it.
  • Purpose
    • In order to be a threat in the PNR, the handler must also have the ability to make the pocket pass with both hands, make the hook pass or outside pivot pass to the pop man or the lifting guard, draw defenders and kick to receivers, shoot the sit behind three-pointer, shoot the midrange pull-up, shoot a one and two foot floater, and draw fouls.  If you can execute 3 of these 5 then you have a chance to be pretty good in the PNR, if you can execute all 5 then may soon find yourself on an All-State commercial.
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Cody Toppert is a former standout player at Cornell University, who played 8 years professionally and now serves as Assistant Coach/Offensive Coordinator for the RGV Vipers, NBA D-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets. The Vipers are D-League leaders in many offensive categories, including 113.7 Offensive Rating and 54.5 eFG%.

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Dec. 17, 2014 – St. Louis, Missouri, U.S – St. Louis Billiken guard ASH YACOUBOU (3) uses the screen from St. Louis Billiken forward MILIK YARBROUGH (4) to get away from University of Texas-Pan America guard SHAQUILLE BOGA (5) during a non conference game between St. Louis University Billikens and the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) played in St. Louis, MO. at Chaifetz Arena. Where St. Louis defeated UTPA 75-69 (Credit Image: © Richard Ulreich/ZUMA Wire)

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