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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Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

“I will never, ever play the game the other way. We’re not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I’d throw up.” – Tim Cluess, Iona head coach

Imagine a world where, at your profession, you control the pace of your work. Sure, maybe you do so right now, but it isn’t true for most of us. The vast majority of what you do is at a plodding pace, one where you’re forced to get creative to hit a goal in an efficient manner. Occasionally, though, an opportunity comes about: a way to get things done that offers a fast pace, higher efficiency, and, generally, a more fun outcome. If everyone else is working at a slower, more deliberate pace 85% of the time and only doing the fun, quick stuff for the other 15%, you’d like to increase the amount of time you spend on the fun and easy stuff, right? Congrats: on part one of a seven-part series, you’ve solved college basketball.

It would be nice if it was that easy. Like most sports, points come at a premium in college basketball. Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to score in transition than in half-court. The average transition offense in D-1 puts up 1.11 points per shot; average half-court, 0.994 PPS. That’s a difference of eight points in an average D-1 game. Why don’t more teams play fast, then? Because:

    • It’s just about impossible to play an entire game in transition.
    • Unless you have a really, really deep team, you’re going to have to slow the game down somewhat to keep your players from falling over.

However, playing faster and scoring more points is starting to equal better efficiency. The ten fastest teams in D-1 in 2018-19 averaged 1.066 PPP; the ten slowest, 1.03. This has greatly shifted from the 35-second shot clock era. In 2014-15, the last year of the 35-second shot clock, only four of the ten fastest offenses in America ranked in the top 100 in efficiency; five of the ten slowest did, with none ranking below #245.

While it’s impossible to build the perfect offense, even for transition, we can at least look at what ties the best offenses together to form an easier path forward. This series isn’t about building the perfect basketball offense. It’s about making your offense better. This edition includes interviews with Whitman College head coach Eric Bridgeland and West Virginia Tech head coach Bob Williams. If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain team’s section, you may do so here: