In basketball, teams use many different plays to score. One of the most essential pieces of these plays is the screen. The screen can free up open shots, drives to the basket, better passing lanes, create matchup advantages, and even draw fouls on the opposing team.
But what exactly is a screen in basketball?
A screen is when a player uses their body as a barrier to their teammate’s defender, giving their teammate more space to move. Players setting a screen will set up next to a defender, allowing their teammate to dribble that way. There are two types of screens: on-ball and off-ball.
The screen is used everywhere – from children’s leagues to the NBA Playoffs. From 2015 to 2019, the Golden State Warriors made five consecutive NBA Finals and the screen was a vital part of their offense. Stick around because we’re going to unpack everything there is to know about screens in basketball.
Different Types of Screens in Basketball
Screens can be on-ball or off-ball.
On-ball screens are set for the player who has the ball (the ball-handler). In an on-ball screen, the screener stands to the side of the ball handler’s defender, facing the defender.
The ball-handler dribbles past the screener, away from his defender. The screen creates more room for the ball-handler to shoot, drive to the basket, or pass to a teammate.
On-ball screens are effective because it forces the second defender (the screener’s defender) to make a difficult decision:
- Do they guard the ball-handler, which may leave the screener open to score?
- Do they continue to cover the screener, which may leave the ball-handler open to score?
Putting defenders in this situation is key to getting open, high-percentage shots.
There are two common types of on-ball screens, defined by what the screener does after setting the screen. These are commonly known as the pick and roll and the pick and pop.
In a pick and roll, the screener runs (rolls) toward the basket after setting the screen. The ball-handler has the choice to shoot, drive, or pass to the screener for a layup. The video below shows Anthony Davis setting a screen for LeBron James.
After the screen is set, note the following actions:
- LeBron’s defender runs into Davis, giving LeBron space to dribble toward the basket.
- Davis’s defender slides over to stop LeBron, leaving Davis open to run toward the basket.
- LeBron passes to Davis for the dunk.
In a pick and pop, the screener moves away (pops) from the ball-handler to get open for a jump shot. The ball-handler has the option to shoot, drive, or pass to the screener for a jump shot. The video below shows Joel Embiid setting a screen for J.J. Redick.
After the screen is set, note the following actions:
- Redick’s defender runs into Embiid, giving Redick space to dribble toward an open spot behind the three-point line. Redick will have an open shot if another defender doesn’t pursue him.
- Embiid’s defender slides over to cover Redick, leaving Embiid open behind the three-point line.
- Redick passes to Embiid for the three-point shot.
Off-ball screens involve two offensive players who don’t have the ball. In an off-ball screen, the screener stands to the side of his teammate’s defender, facing the defender.
The teammate runs around the screener. The off-ball screen creates more room for the teammate to run to another spot on the floor.
Off-ball screens are popular in the Golden State Warrior’s offense. The following video shows how Warriors players set screens on Klay Thompson’s defenders, giving him more space as he runs to open spots on the floor.
These off-ball screens create room for Klay to catch the pass and take an open shot.
How to Set a Screen in Basketball
The purpose of a screen is to free up space for a teammate. To properly set a screen, the screener must become a barrier that successfully impedes the movement of his teammate’s defender. Do all of the following to set a screen:
- Stand next to your teammate’s defender. Your body should be facing the defender.
- Stand still and keep your feet planted.
- Keep your arms down. Do not use your hands to block or hold the defender.
- Keep your feet planted until your teammate runs past you. The defender may run into you.
- After your teammate slips past you, you are free to run toward the basket or step out for an open shot. You could also set another screen for a teammate.
What Is an Illegal Screen in Basketball?
In basketball, an illegal screen occurs when the screener creates illegal contact on the defender while setting the screen. This results in a turnover and a personal foul on the screener. An illegal screen can be caused by any of the following types of illegal contact:
- Holding the defender with your hands or arms.
- Pushing or hitting the defender.
- Tripping the defender as he tries to go past you.
- Moving your feet as the defender makes contact with you.
- Leaning your hip, arm, upper body, or shoulder into the defender as he tries to pass you.
What Is a Moving Screen in Basketball?
A moving screen is a type of illegal screen in basketball. In a moving screen, the screener initiates contact with the defensive player, resulting in a foul and loss of possession.
Moving screens most often occur when the screener is still moving his feet, or if he is leaning his hips or upper body to further block the defensive player. You can still commit a moving screen even if your feet are set.
Defending Screens in Basketball
Because the screen is such an important tool in offenses, knowing how to defend the screen is just as important. There are several ways to defend against screens. During an on-ball screen, the defense can go over the screen, under the screen, or switch.
Going over the screen is a strategy used when the on-ball defender wants to continue covering the ball-handler and prevent an open jump shot. In going over the screen, the on-ball defender goes around the screener (the screener is now between the defender and the basket).
This strategy keeps the defender close to the ball, but it may leave an open lane for the offensive player to drive.
Going under the screen is a strategy used when the on-ball defender wants to continue covering the ball-handler and prevent a drive to the basket. In going under the screen, the on-ball defender shifts behind the screener (is between the screener and the basket).
This will allow the ball-handler space to take an open shot, but it gives the defender a good angle to prevent the drive. Going under is often a poor strategy for guarding good three-point shooters.
Switching occurs when the on-ball defender stays with the screener, and the screener’s defender covers the ball-handler. The two players are “switching” their defensive assignments.
Switching is often the quickest way to maintain defensive coverage on each offensive player. Switching has its disadvantages, however, as it may create matchup problems for the defense.
- Switching a longer and slower center to cover a quicker point guard may allow the point guard to blow past the center.
- Switching a guard to cover a center may give the center room to catch a high pass. The center may also post up and back down the smaller defender.
A more advanced concept in defending against screens is “hedging”. Hedging is an action taken by the second defender (the screener’s defender) to defend the play until the primary defender recovers from the screen.
In a hard hedge, the secondary defender temporarily covers the ball-handler to prevent an open shot. Once the primary defender returns to the ball, the secondary defender shifts back to cover the screener.
In a soft hedge, the secondary sags off to block the paint, just in case the primary defender didn’t recover to the ball in time.
Best Screeners in the NBA
The Portland Trail Blazers operate heavily on screens. Guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum need just a little bit of space to create open shots.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert led the NBA in screen assists with 471 during the 2019-2020 season. Gobert’s effectiveness as a screener helped Utah lead the Western Conference in True Shooting %.
A screen assist occurs when a player’s screen leads directly to a teammate scoring.
At the college level, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams use the pick-and-roll on almost every possession. Izzo’s offense relies heavily on good decision making from his experienced guards and physical post players who are comfortable with lots of contact.
The screen is a staple in basketball. It’s versatile and difficult to defend. Entire offensive schemes are based on setting screens.
The next time you see a buzzer-beater in the morning sports highlights, there’s a good chance the hero was helped by his teammates setting screens.