Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 2: Ball Screens

Ball screen usage (alternately, pick plays, pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, etc.) has exploded over the last decade. It’s not a perfect number, but we can at least get a solid estimate via Synergy Sports. Per their measurement of ball screen possessions that include passes, the 2008-09 college basketball season saw an average team usage of about 9.8%. In just ten years, this has more than doubled to 24.8%. That’s a crazy jump!

Surely, if teams are using it this much more, this must be because it’s also exploded in efficiency, correct? Well…not really. From that same data set via Synergy, the average team’s PPP has only increased by 0.008 over the last decade. That’s not even a one point jump for every 100 possessions, which is surprising considering the ball screen’s widespread usage. Have we reached ball screen oversaturation? Is this the peak of the pick-and-roll?

Considering it’s the easiest set to run in basketball, we probably have some growth still to go. The rate of growth has slowed in the last half-decade – from 18.9% in 2013-14 to 24.8% last year, with just a 0.2% jump from 2017-18 to this season – but it’s still going up. As teams see the benefit of running these simpler sets and see its frequent usage by recent champions, coaches will likely continue to make ball screens an offensive focus.

Plus, the rates haven’t yet caught up to the most important league of all: the NBA. Their P&R usage has risen from an 18.1% P&R usage a decade ago to 31.1% in 2013-14 and 32% this season. Their curve has flattened, as you can tell. It’s actually dropped from its peak in 2015-16 of 34.8% of all possessions. If the NBA’s reached peak P&R, we can assume college will do so soon enough. However, that time likely isn’t now, and you can continue to tweak and differentiate what you do from others for better results.

The three teams you’ll read about take three very different approaches to ball screens. Northwest Missouri completely eschews the most popular ball screen of all, the continuity. Oregon and Kelly Graves use the wings, and a secondary passer, to their advantage. At Saint John’s in Minnesota, Pat McKenzie runs a tight motion offense with tons of spacing. All this being said, these three teams combined for a 94-10 record this past season, all of them having wildly efficient ball-screen offenses. What they’re doing is working, and it’s worth investigating why it works.

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