Rewind - The Ball Screen Offense

Feb 11, 2021

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The Ball Screen Offense. You hear it mentioned on almost every college broadcast because quite simply, it's the most common scheme used in the college game. It's also our current offensive scheme. As we documented at length in this year's Season Preview (you all read that right?), Brad Underwood and company ditched the spread offense mid-season last year in favor of a ball screen continuity scheme. The switch was a key catalyst in last season's turnaround, and this year that ball screen offense has evolved into one of the best in college basketball (8th in offensive efficiency per KenPom). What is ball screen continuity? Basically it's an offense predicated on running multiple pick and rolls throughout each possession.

So for this installment of Rewind, I thought it would be fun to look back at last week's wins against Indiana and Wisconsin to highlight a few plays which give some insight into how we approach the ball screen continuity offense and why it's been so effective for us.

Let's begin with how we often begin - with the ball screen weave. It's the action we run to start most games. The name is self-explanatory - a weaving series of dribble handoffs and ball screens. It often looks like wasted movement, but tell that to the defense that has to either fight through or switch screens for 25 seconds. The weave also prevents the ball from "sticking" on one side of the floor. More often than not, something pops open - like this Jacob Grandison three on our opening possession against Indiana…

This is a great example of ball screen "continuity". I count six ball screens or dribble handoffs on this single possession alone, and eventually Indiana is lured into a mistake. Race Thompson and Al Durham get crossed up on a switch late in the shot clock which allows Grandison to come open at the top of the key.

On our opening possession against Wisconsin we ran the same action, and we get Kofi isolated on a "duck-in" against Micah Potter in the low post. This was an open three in the corner waiting to happen had Trent Frazier made a better post feed. (Grrr!)

The ball screen offense allows great guards opportunities to read, recognize, and create. Fortunately, we happen to have a great guard in Ayo Dosunmu. This play from the IU game starts with a simple high ball screen from Giorgi, but you can see how ball screens force a defense into picking a poison.

Indiana does NOT want Ayo to beat them off the screen, so Trayce Jackson-Device hedges aggressively on the ball screen. He overextends, though, and when Giorgi rolls to the basket, TJD has to turn his back to the ball in an effort to recover. This opens a path to the basket and allows Giorgi to seal him off from helping on Ayo who has already turned the corner on his defender on his way for two.

So how do you defend a ball screen? The answer boils down to the decision that each defender against the ball screen has to make. The primary on-ball defender has to decide whether to go "over" or "under" the screen, and the help defender has to decide whether to "drop" in coverage or to "hedge and recover."

We saw the downside to the hedge/recover option in the previous clip, and as we have one of the better rim protectors in the college game, we really don't want him hedging high ball screens 25 feet from the basket. So instead we most often use what is called "drop" coverage. Instead of having Kofi hedge on high ball screens, we simply drop him down into the lane. This will allow mid-range jump shot opportunities, but that's a much better option than letting ball handlers get downhill toward the basket.

Here you see Kofi "drop" down the lane to defend against D'Mitrik Trice coming off the ball screen.

Trice burns us on the jumper, but we're going to be just fine giving up long twos against most teams.

So now, about that "over vs under" the screen question. If the ball handler being screened is a good shooter, the general rule is to fight over the top of the screen. If the defender instead goes under the screen, it's likely going to leave enough space for the ball handler to shoot. If the ball handler is not a viable outside threat, then going under the screen is the better option as it checks dribble penetration. As this pertains to one Andre Curbelo - the book is kind of out there on him. He's much more a threat to drive than to shoot. However, in this clip Indiana gets beat because the two players defending the ball screen are not on the same page.

On the ball screen from Giorgi, we see Thompson sag into "drop" coverage - which is the right call against Curbelo, but Durham chooses... poorly. He goes over the screen, and allows Curbelo a driving lane. Giorgi once again does his part by sealing off Thompson, and Curbelo gets an easy layup. This is the definition of a scouting report mistake.

Another wrinkle of the ball screen offense is called "roll and replace". In roll/replace - which works best with two bigs on the floor - one of the two bigs starts the action by setting a high ball screen. After he screens, he "rolls" to the basket (or pops to the perimeter) while the other big comes back up to the top of the floor to "replace" him. This action often leaves the rim unprotected...

Here Coleman Hawkins sets a ball screen for Ayo, and then "rolls" to the corner while Kofi "replaces" him up top. The rim is now open for business. Kofi slips a screen and the only available help is three late arriving Badgers who become cannon fodder as Kofi elevates up and over all of them. Ouch. This is ball screen offense at its essence. Drill the possession down to a simple two man game and when you have two of the best players in the country running that game, things are likely going to go well.

As quick word on ball screens and zone defenses. While typically thought of as a weapon against man-to-man defenses, there are plenty of ball screen actions that work just fine against a zone as well. Zones are especially susceptible to back screens as the defenders' focus and sight lines are trained toward the top of the floor. In this clip (had to go the Penn State game to find some zone defense) the simplest of back screens from DMW forces the second line of the zone defense to shift up toward Ayo - leaving Frazier open in the corner.

Let's have some more fun with high ball screens.

In this clip, there is a dribble hand off/screen to get Ayo the ball on the top of the floor, followed by a Kofi high ball screen for Ayo. As soon as Kofi sets the screen, Wisconsin is dead in the water. Brad Davison and Aleem Ford are cheating in the lane, and have to choose between leaving the rim open or recovering back to the arc. Ford leaves to tag Grandison, Davison abandons the rim to tag Adam Miller, and with Kofi rolling, it's game over.

I have no idea where Micah Potter was going.

In this next one, watch Curbelo signal to Kofi that he wants a ball screen (at :03 in the clip). You then see the now familiar roll to the basket from Kofi, but this time TJD manages to recover and get back between Kofi and the rim. However, a ball reversal back to DMW allows Kofi the angle for a duck-in that turns the tables on TJD. Kofi misses the first attempt - but things worked out OK.

I'll finish this little ball screen primer with the most fundamental action of the ball screen offense - the pick and roll. It's only been around since well, forever, and to this day if run effectively, it's almost indefensible. Let's all enjoy watching Kofi destroy Indiana again.

Once again, TJD hedges way too high on the ball screen, and Kofi has an easy roll to the basket after a slick little slip of the screen. Give a little nod to DMW as well for dragging his defender away from the lane to clear the runway (except for the tiny Kristian Lander who understands and accepts his fate).

And then, of course, the play which turned out to be the game winner in OT. We run almost the identical action...

This was a sublime pocket pass from Curbelo for sure, but you'd think TJD would have learned by now. Good night Hoosiers.


burkcules on February 11, 2021 @ 01:37 PM

Fantastic write-up! I've learned so much about the game of basketball since you started doing the Rewind posts.

Looking forward to many more of these.. especially in late March! :)

JohnnyKarate on February 11, 2021 @ 03:36 PM

Still can't get over how amazing that pass was from Curbelo on that last one. Not many guys can make that pass - that's what makes him special.

San Joaquin on February 11, 2021 @ 04:12 PM

That write up fantastic, Walkon. worth the subscription by itself. As a former coach and longtime metrics enthusiast, the deep dive you provide in my view is second to none.

arie_0444 on February 11, 2021 @ 06:11 PM

Fantastic article! Well organized! Thanks Tyler!

Giovantischixstripz on February 11, 2021 @ 06:31 PM

Great as usual! The weave was getting a lot of hate early last year as useless motion, I love how you point out why its done and why it works. I think it also showed why we struggled to generate offense in the 2nd half vs Baylor, because they are so talented defensively that they were able to switch all those screens 1-5 without creating real mismatches (their center Tchamwa tchachwa stonewalled Ayo in space multiple times)

HNLINI on February 12, 2021 @ 01:09 AM

Yep, and switching also is generally far less tiring and physical than chasing, so you can keep your best players from getting exhausted on the defensive end. Teams that can switch all five have a significant advantage, but few teams can effectively switch all five.

IBFan on February 11, 2021 @ 06:47 PM

Very nice, thank you

Dr. Chim Richalds on February 11, 2021 @ 07:37 PM

Great article! Love these explainers Tyler - I learn a ton every time.

HNLINI on February 12, 2021 @ 01:20 AM

Really great stuff! If you could write a similar explainer on how (using Illinois' personnel/game tape/offense) we should attack specific zone defenses (e.g, 2-3, 1-2-2, 1-1-3, matchup zone) on the interior (e.g. other than outside zone busting shots), that would be really helpful.

Sometimes I see what we are doing against the different zone defenses, but because I don't know what we are trying to do, I can't tell whether the error is in scheme or execution (though to be fair, we seem to be far better this year than past years against the zone).

GalesburgIllini on February 12, 2021 @ 01:58 AM

Best article I have read in some time.

iluvrt on February 13, 2021 @ 01:00 AM

Thanks so much Robert. You are the best.

illinisludge on February 13, 2021 @ 04:03 AM

Can you describe the nature of the pics we set? They do not look like a firm pics. They look like slip pics. What’s the thinking on what type of pic are you set?

Walkon on February 17, 2021 @ 09:45 PM

This is a great observation. On a podcast I listened to last summer Stephen Gentry did a deep dive on our ball screen offense. He mentioned that they slip 80% of ball screens - by design. He said it limits offensive fouls and is more conducive to a free flowing offense. Screens away from the ball require getting into the defender, but ball screens can be just effective with minimal contact.

illinisludge on February 13, 2021 @ 04:03 AM

Can you describe the nature of the pics we set? They do not look like a firm pics. They look like slip pics. What’s the thinking on what type of pic are you set?

Robdmd on February 17, 2021 @ 02:18 PM

Wow! This is great stuff! Thank you!

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