Ball Screen Revolution: Part 2

Looking back at the 2000-07 national title games & changes in college hoops

In last week’s newsletter, we looked at how increased spacing — due largely to role players shooting more threes — has changed NBA shot selection and shot efficiency.

The same is true at the college level, but perhaps not to the same extent as the NBA.

This may sound strange given how the college and NBA games have evolved, but — on average — college basketball used to have significantly better spacing than the NBA.

During the 2000 season, the Houston Rockets led the NBA in three-point attempt rate, with 24% of their field goal attempts coming from behind the arc. By contrast, the Rockets would have ranked 280th (out of 318) in DI basketball during the 2000 season in three-point attempt rate.

NBA coaches and players were far slower to embrace the three-point line (and spacing) in the early 2000’s. And of course, it must be noted that the college line was — and still is — shorter.)

So when we watch old college games and compare them to present-day games, spacing isn’t necessarily the very first thing that jumps out. Instead, it’s the ball screen that stands out. Both from and offensive and defensive perspective:

  • Offenses set significantly fewer ball screens

  • Defenses defended ball screens extremely aggressively

We’ve covered this change in a newsletter from last summer (The Ball Screen Revolution). Here’s the most important graph from that research.

But as one NBA superstar once said…

So today, we’ll dive into the film behind the ball screen revolution.

I watched all eight national championship game from 2000 to 2007 and picked one ball screen play from each season. The clips show how the game evolved

2000: Blitzing the screen

Not only were fewer ball screens used in the early 2000’s, but opposing defenses were obsessed with taking them away whenever possible.

In today’s world of drop coverage and passive defense while guarding ball screens, it’s interesting to see nearly every team aggressively blitz or hedge the ball handler.

On the clip above, #43 Granger sets a pin down for #42 Peterson immediately after setting the ball screen.

The short roll or the pop — which make it difficult to get away with blitzing a ball screen if the screener is a shooter or playmaker — weren’t nearly as common back in 2000. This is what it now looks like when a defense puts two on the ball against Michigan State.

2001: Roll replace

Led by Shane Battier and Jay Williams, Duke was way ahead of its time. In 2001, 42% of Duke’s shot attempts were from behind the arc. No Coach K team has finished over 40% since then.

Not only that, but Duke used a significant amount of ball screens within their motion offense. A favorite concept of the 2001 Blue Devils was roll replace — an action we still see plenty of today.

On Duke’s version, #4 Boozer rolled to the basket and #31 Battier replaced to the top of the key.

Arizona hedged the ball screen and then stayed high to switch out to the top of the key, but Battier was was a modern day 4-man. As a result, his ability to stretch the floor gave Duke a very modern feel.

2002: Flex roll replace

The 2002 national championship game between Maryland and Indiana was rough on the eyes. Both teams wanted to play inside, but struggled getting the ball to post players without turning it over first.

On top of that, there were very few ball screens set by either team.

Instead, I chose a clip from Maryland’s Elite Eight game. Against UConn, Maryland used a similar roll-replace action as Duke out of their flex offense.

This play was also highlighted in our flex offense newsletter.

2003: Ball screen, cross screen

When ball screens were set during the early 2000’s, there was almost always some other type of action going on between the remaining three players on the court.

In other words, the ball screen was just one part of the play. Nowadays, it’s often used as the only means of creation on a possession.

The set play below shows a widely-used ball screen concept from the time period: Cross screening in the paint while the ball screen occurs.

Normally, the first option for Syracuse would have been to pound the ball inside to #15 Anthony on the cross screen. But #13 Duany alertly finds #1 Warrick on the pop.

2004: Empty stagger

Georgia Tech was blown out during the 2004 national championship, but I was impressed at how well Paul Hewitt’s offensive scheme holds up to modern basketball.

To begin possessions, Georgia Tech used “empty” ball screens for Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum with a stagger screen occurring on the weak side.

On the example above the ball screen was rejected for a baseline, but the Yellow Jackets ran this action about 10 times in the national championship game against UConn.

2005: Spain

North Carolina has been running what is essentially “Spain” action within their secondary break for decades. In 2005, #32 Rashad McCants nailed a three off of the action at the start of the national championship.

According to Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, Larry Brown was the coach who showed Dean Smith the Spain wrinkle.

2006: Pick and Pop

The 2006 Florida Gators were another team ahead of its time, but for different reasons than 2001 Duke; Florida used ball screens to get Joakim Noah and Al Horford going on the move towards the basket.

In the 2006 national championship, Noah was dominant out of simple pick and pop sets. He punished UCLA bigs for hedging out onto the ball.

While watching so many defenses during this time period blitz the screen, the question that kept going through my head was: “Why don’t they just pick and pop against the blitz every single time?”

Florida was the first team to bring that to life.

2007: Spread

And finally, 2007 was the first example I found of just the basic — but hard to guard — spread ball screen that now dominate’s today’s game.

Towards the end of the first half against Florida, Ohio State ran spread ball screens on back-to-back possessions with Greg Oden.

On the first play #1 Conley found the shooter open in the corner.

With #42 Horford getting sucked into the paint for Florida, we can see the power of the spreading out around the perimeter.

On the second play, #14 Butler assumed the point guard responsibilities.

Interestingly, #34 Speights is essentially in drop coverage for Florida — although I’m not sure that was really supposed to be the coverage.

Oden finished the play with a powerful dunk.

Ohio State would go back to the spread ball screen later in the second half. This time again for the Conley-Oden combination.

So there you have it… Some examples of the game evolving before our eyes.

By no coincidence, the spread ball screen has been one of the biggest X’s and O’s storylines from both Virginia and Baylor in each of the past two national championships — not to mention it is/was an essential part of Villanova’s offense.

While the ball screen making its way into college basketball was a slow process, it’s now changed the game for good.

Thanks for joining us on this trip down memory lane!

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