The play starts with Washington Wizard’s Marcin Gortat setting a screen on teammate John Wall’s defender, giving Wall enough open space for a drive to the basket where he has options as the defense breaks down.
Wall can shoot, he can pass to an open teammate at the three-point line, or he can throw the basketball to Gortat, who has options, too: he can take a point-blank shot or make a pass to an open shooter.
All those options were made possible because of Gortat’s screen, one of the most common, important and unheralded basketball acts in the NBA.
“We believe setting screens leads to winning plays,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd said during the first-round of the NBA playoffs. “It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but we take pride in setting screens.”
A screen, as defined by the NBA Rulebook, is “the legal action of a player who, without causing undue contact, delays or prevents an opponent from reaching a desired position.”
Without quibbling here regarding what constitutes a legal screen – the screener is supposed to be stationary and cannot move laterally or toward an opponent being screened – Gortat is one of the best in the league.
The NBA tracks “screen assists,” which is a screen that directly leads to a made field goal, and Gortat led all players during the regular season with 6.2 screen assists per game and leads all players in the playoffs with 9.8 screen assists per game, according to NBA.com/stats.
“The way the game is being played with so many great shooters all over the floor, you need that big who can get screens, is comfortable setting screens and enjoys setting screens, knowing there’s a chance you’re not going to get the ball but your team is going to get a great shot,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “(Gortat) does that. He gets John and our guards open looks. He gets our shooters open out of our screens away from the ball.”
Gortat is one of the most prolific screeners in the NBA, setting 22.5 on-ball screens per game during the regular season, according to STATS SportVU Data.
“I became a better screener by watching guys like Kendrick Perkins, Dennis Rodman,” Gortat said. “I spoke with a lot of coaches who taught me how to set screens. It’s just not about me setting a good screen, but the guy who handles the ball has to score to make me look good. A lot of people make me look good, too.”
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert set a league-high 33.8 on-ball screens per game during the regular season, according to SportVU and about 25 off-ball screens. New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is at 32.8 on-ball screens followed by Charlotte’s Cody Zeller at 30.6.
There is a menacing art to setting screens, also known as picks, which require strength, stamina and quickness. Often a big man starts the offensive set near the basket, runs to the top of the three-point , sets a screen and rolls to the basket.
“You have to have the toughness,” Brooks said. “You have to sacrifice your body and handle that play after play after play. You put yourself in a position where you’re vulnerable and you have to protect yourself.”
Not all players want to set screens. “Some players get there and they will ole it just because they don’t want to get hit. Some guys don’t like to be touched,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
Beyond taking the physical beating, the ball-handler and screener must have a connection with both players understanding where and when to set the screen. Does the screener want to force the defender over or under the screen? Timing and chemistry are essential.
“You have to force the opposing guard to trail behind the ball-handler,” Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson explained. “If you have the defender trailing behind the ball-handler, you’ve done your job creating separation.”
In Cleveland’s case, if the defenders focus on Kyrie Irving or LeBron James, Thompson is often open for an alley-oop. “If you’re a good dynamic roller in the pick-and-roll, you’ll be effective,” Thompson said. “Being athletic plays in my favor.”
A player doesn’t need to be a big man to set a solid pick. Casey and Kidd cited former Utah Jazz great John Stockton as a guard who set punishing screens. “No one liked playing against him because he was going to set a screen and yes, it was going to be physical. But that’s what screening entails,” Kidd said.
Cavs star LeBron James – known for his scoring and passing on the offensive end – is a capable screen-setter. He’s averaging 2.3 screen assists in the playoffs and traced his willingness to set screens to his time with Miami Heat. The Heat needed James to play off the ball, which required setting screens.
“You’ve got be willing to not only sprint into screens but set a good one,” James said. “You don’t always get the ball, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting your teammates open.”