Player Development: Using Ball Screens Effectively

By John Leonzo

Although the pick and roll action has been a mainstay in the NBA for years now, it has recently trickled down to all levels of basketball and is an extremely common offensive action. There are many benefits to using pick and roll actions in your offense, but most of the time our players miss these opportunities because they are underprepared on how to utilize the ball screen action.

Some of the advantages to using ball screen actions in your offense are:

  • Allowing a talented penetrator a chance to get to the rim
  • Creating an opportunity to score inside via passing to the roll man
  • Getting a stud post defender out of the paint
  • Creating favorable matchups if the defense elects to switch
  • Forcing multiple players to guard the ball, opening up other passing opportunities

All of those benefits can help improve your team’s overall offensive efficiency, but this will only happen if your individual players are able to utilize and exploit the advantages afforded to them in pick and roll actions. In this article, we are going to focus on the ball handle solely and discuss some key elements for players to focus on in pick and roll.

Anytime a ball screen occurs, the ball handler should look to do the following:

  • Refuse the screen and get to open space with the dribble
  • Split the gap between the screener and the screeners defender
  • Use the screen and turn the corner, beating a slower player downhill
  • Coming off with pace and forcing a switch and then exploiting the matchup

In order to get into the pick and roll and utilize the above-listed options, the responsibility of the ball handler is to complete the following:

  • Set up the screen
  • Survey the floor to locate open space prior to using the screen.
  • Lose their on-ball defender (either by refusing the screen or using the screen)
  • Get a small advantage for your team by drawing multiple defenders
  • Making the appropriate pass or drive to turn the small advantage into a big advantage

Setting up the screen:

There are many opinions in regard to how a ball handler sets up his man to be screened, but my personal philosophy is that the ball handler wants to be even with the screener. By being even with the screener, the on-ball defender is in position to get screened, the ball handler has space to attack downhill if he refuses the screen, and he is able to use the screen by coming off at an attacking angle. If the ball handler gets below the screen, the on-ball defender is allowed more time to ride or push the ball handler away from the screen, and the ball handler also has less space to refuse the screen should they elect to do so. Placing the defender even with the screen allows for all of the pick and roll options to be utilized.


A critical piece of pick and roll player for a ball handler is to maintain vision of the court at all times throughout the play. Most turnovers occur because vision is lost or distorted, so by maintaining solid vision the ball handler becomes more of threat to make a positive play with the basketball. As the ball handler is setting up the screen, they should also be scanning the floor to locate the following:

  • Where is the screeners defender
  • Where is the nearest help defender
  • Where is my best shooter
  • Where is my worst shooter

By making a map of the floor in their head prior to coming off a ball screen, the ball handler can “make the game slow down” and complete a positive play with the ball.

Lose the on ball defender

Once the screen has been set up and the ball handler has vision of the floor, they now need to use the screening action to lose their on-ball defender. There are three ways that the ball handler can do this:

  • Refusing the screen
  • Splitting the screen
  • Using the screen and burying the defender into the screener

If a ball handler cannot lose their defender, they cannot play in pick and roll. Losing the on-ball defender creates a small individual advantage for the ball handler, and maintaining vision throughout the play will allow the ball handler to create a big advantage by moving the ball to a more threatening location.

Keep the advantage

Once the ball handler creates an advantage, it is now their responsibility to maintain the advantage by moving the ball to the most dangerous part of the court. This area will change possession by possession depending on the various positions of the help defenders. The ball should never stop in once a pick and roll action occurs until it is shot or passed. The dribble is a means of creating havoc for the defense, and continuing to attack with the ball allows the offense to extend and keep the advantage.

Drill to teach using ball screens

Pick and roll is a very complex action that requires many moving parts. Therefore, a simple, unguarded pick and roll drill is not the best way to learn the different “reads” and elements of pick and roll. To learn the “reads” a ball handler actually has to read a defender. Starting live, however, is not wise either as it is vital that the ball handler see and feel what it is like to get the moves right prior to going live. Below you will find a three-step drill progression for using ball screens.

Teaching Drill:

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Learning Drill:

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Competitive Drill:

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The teaching, learning, and competing progression model is a great way to work towards mastery of any basketball skill. All of the drills listed above can also be manipulated in such a way so that you can teach and encourage other aspects of the game. A few ways that you can mix up the drills above would be to limit the amount of dribbles, decrease the space, start off the catch, or let the defender foul. I hope that the points discussed in this article benefit you and your team. Please let me know how I can be helping you!

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John Leonzo

John Leonzo is the CEO of John Leonzo Basketball where he seeks to provide the highest quality training for both players and coaches. Through on the court training with players and online courses for coaches, John is able to make an impact in all the areas of the game.

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