What Is a Pick and Roll in Basketball? And How to Run One

A youth basketball player drives to the rim.

Basketball is much more than a one-on-one game. Five players work together on both offense and defense to score as many points as possible while limiting the points scored by the opposing team. On offense, several common plays are run to give the offense a leg up on the defense. Of these, the pick and roll play is especially effective and is used heavily in today’s game.

So, what is a pick and roll in basketball?

A pick and roll is a play in which one player sets a pick for another player and then rolls towards the basket. This play can result in the ball being passed to the rolling player or kept by the ball-handler. Pick and rolls are effective and widely used throughout all levels of basketball.

As effective as the pick and roll can be, there are still some good defenses that can counter it. Offenses can also use several variations of the play that change its positioning on the court. All of the nuances involved in the play will be covered in this article – you’ll be an expert by the end of it!

What Is a Pick and Roll?

A pick and roll is run by two offensive players, typically between the point guard and a big man. However, it can be used by any two players together.

The play is effective because it relies on defenders to effectively communicate who and where they are defending, as well as match up well against different types of offensive players within the course of a single possession.

While they are a relatively simple type of play, pick and rolls are commonly run at all levels of basketball. This is not only because of how easy the plays are to run but also because of the wide amount of variation and creativity that pick and rolls allow for.

Why Is It Called a Pick and Roll?

Like many other plays in the game of basketball, the name ‘pick and roll’ is simply describing what happens during the course of the play. After all, there is first a ‘pick’, and then a ‘roll’.

However, the phrase ‘pick and roll’ can describe more than just that specific type of play and can be used to refer to the rest of the variations of the main play as well.

History of the Pick and Roll

The pick and roll may have been popularized only recently, but its origin may be considerably older than you think.

While the term “pick and roll” wasn’t recorded until the 1960s, the concept itself was first invented in the 1910s by Nat Holman and Barney Sedran. Homan and Sedran played for early professional basketball teams together and popularized several key concepts like the pick and roll.

However, the play didn’t enter the popular basketball world until the 1980s, when it was made famous by dynamic duos like John Stockton and Karl Malone, as well as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Now, pick and rolls are used by nearly every team in the NBA in some way or another, especially as players continue to develop versatile skills that increase the variability of the offensive scheme.

Why Are Pick and Rolls Effective?

Pick and rolls are used more and more in today’s game of basketball and are even considered the dominant form of offense in the NBA. You might wonder – why are pick and rolls so effective?

The main reason that pick and rolls are effective is that they create favorable matchups for the offense. If a point guard and a center run the pick and roll, they will usually match up against similarly sized defenders. Then, if a pick causes the two defenders to switch, both offensive players will be matched up against the other’s original defender.

The switch in defenders creates an advantage for either offensive player, depending on what they decide to do with the ball following the initial pick. The smaller guard, now matched up against a larger defender, usually has an advantage in terms of ball-handling and quickness. They are then able to get around the defender easier and finish at the basket.

In this scenario, the larger center would now be matched up against a smaller defender. They would have an obvious advantage around the rim and be able to score easier as the smaller defender can’t contest their shot as effectively as their original defender would’ve been able to do.

Another effective aspect of pick and rolls is that it gives offensive players momentum heading towards the basket. Analytically focused basketball minds (and common sense) will tell you that the easiest place to score in basketball is as close to the rim as possible.

Pick and rolls allow either the screener or the roller an opportunity to possess the ball on the way to the basket, creating this type of high percentage opportunity. Combining both the matchup advantage and the concept of being closer to the rim, you can then see how pick and rolls will also create lots of fouls and opportunities for free throws.

There’s a lot of contact involved with the initial pick itself, but once the action gets close to the basket the contact only increases as defenders try to recover and contest a shot. A foul close to the rim leads to free throws – another easy opportunity for points for the offense.

Finally, pick and rolls are effective because they create several different opportunities to move forward with the play. Not only can the offensive players move toward the basket, but they can also rotate out to take a shot from the outside, or pass away from the main action to another offensive player.

How to Run a Pick and Roll

A coach and his youth team.

In a pick and roll, the ball-handling player first brings the ball up the court and stops just above the top of the key, facing the basket. By dribbling and moving with the ball, they are able to create separation and create room for a pick, also known as a screen. 

Here is where the second player enters the play. Coming over from somewhere else on the court, the second player approaches the primary on-ball defender. This player can then set a pick on the defender, angled back towards the basket.

Ideally, the pick will be set on either the left or right back hip of the defending player. This creates the best angle for either a drive by the ball-handler or a roll by the screen-setting player.

On a typical pick and roll, the ball-handler will attack to the side of the opposing player where the screen has been set. By dribbling across to this side, they cause the on-ball defender to be walled off by the screen. This either causes the defenders to switch or for the dribbler to get around the edge and get to the basket.

Meanwhile, the screen-setting player will roll toward the basket, ready to receive a pass or a lob from the ball-handler. Oftentimes, they will end up matched up against a smaller player as a result of the switch and are thus better positioned to score than they would be against a smaller defender.

Pick and Roll Offense

A pick and roll is a relatively simple play to run, requiring only two players and a simple screen to work effectively.

However, for the play to operate at its maximum potential it is important for the two players involved to possess a large amount of versatility and decision-making abilities. This furthers the confusion among the defenders and causes them to give additional space to the offensive players, even if they switch.

Pick and roll offense is also heavily dependent on effective offensive spacing, both to set up the play and to allow for the screener and the roller to move throughout the play.

The other three players on the floor during the pick and roll should all remain active off the ball and pose an active threat to the defense, requiring them to respect the players who aren’t directly involved in the play. This allows for the necessary space for the pick and roll to operate.

Finally, offensive players setting screens as a part of this play need to make sure that they are following the rules of screens. This especially means making sure that they have their feet set and do not move while the ball-handler utilizes the pick.

Pick and Roll Defense

Pick and rolls are notoriously difficult to defend. However, there are a couple of accepted methods to defend the play.

Defenders might switch in their defense of a pick and roll. This means that each individual defender switches to guarding the other player involved in a pick and roll. This limits the impact of the screen set as part of the play but opens up some matchup disadvantages in the process.

Defenses also might utilize ‘drop coverage’. This type of defense is usually used when neither player on a pick and roll is an outside shooting threat. In drop coverage, the player defending the screening player immediately backpedals toward the basket once a screen is set, limiting the offensive players’ ability to drive towards the rim.

Finally, defenders may just try to fight directly through a screen and remain with the players that they were originally defending. This is a tough ask for many players and requires strong and athletic players to break through the screen of a larger player while staying in front of their man.

Even so, this is typically the best method to defend a ball-handler who is a good outside shooter, as other defensive tactics may allow them space to launch an open three-pointer.

Best Pick and Roll Players in NBA History

Lebron James shooting free throws.

The pick and roll might be commonplace in today’s NBA, but there are still several duos and players that rose above the rest in terms of their effectiveness and production.

Generally, the Utah Jazz duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone is considered to be the all-time greatest pick and roll duo. Not only did they popularize the play and showcase its deadly versatility to the rest of the NBA, but they put up big numbers while doing so.

Stockton’s legendary decision-making and passing ability allowed him and Malone to combine on a wide range of different passing angles and drives to the basket. Stockton led the NBA in assists for nine straight seasons, setting the NBA record with 14.5 assists per game in the 1989-90 season.

Meanwhile, Malone did his part with incredible inside scoring and rebounding abilities. He also had respectable outside shooting ability considering the era and forced defenders guarding pick and rolls to account for several different possibilities. Malone had his best season in 1989-90 as well, averaging 31.0 points per game to go along with 11.1 rebounds per game.

Although the Utah Jazz could never get over the hump and win a championship during this era, the duo of Stockton and Malone set the standard for pick and roll duos to come and still remain the best ever at the play.

Other than the famous Jazz duo, there have been several other fantastic duos at running the pick and roll. Some of the other NBA great duos include Phoenix Suns players Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan of the “Lob City”-era Los Angeles Clippers, and the Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.

What Is a Pick and Pop in Basketball?

We mentioned earlier that there are different directions that players running a pick and roll can take. These different decisions are often the key to the success of the play, and there are several main variations. One of these is called the pick and pop.

But what is a pick and pop?

A pick and pop is a variation of the traditional pick and roll. Instead of rolling towards the basket, in this variation the pick-setter flares back out to the perimeter after setting the initial pick. This can confuse the defenders, who are used to trailing the offensive players as they head towards the basket.

Instead, the pick-setter will be able to move quickly to the perimeter, potentially unguarded. After this play is successful, it opens up more possibilities going forward in terms of variation within the pick and roll.

Pick and pops do require good outside shooting ability from the pick-setter, who is often a big man not accustomed to consistent perimeter play. It’s dependent on having these types of players to be a legitimate threat to a defense.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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