The Ball Screen Revolution (HV Weekly: 8/9/2020)

Why ball screen usage has more than doubled over the past decade in college hoops.

Welcome back to the Hoop Vision Weekly!

This week, we take a crack at explaining the massive increase in ball screen usage throughout the college hoops landscape, including the players who made the most use of the “Ball Screen Revolution” in recent years.

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The Ball Screen Revolution

The defining stylistic change over the past 10 years of college basketball — besides the surface-level increase in three-point attempts — has been the explosion in ball screen usage.

During the 2010 season, an average of just under nine plays per game (per team) ended with a ball screen. Over the past decade, that number has more than doubled and will soon pass 20 ball screen plays per game.

(More on play type trends in the All-Decade Week series from back in December.)

The increased offensive reliance on ball screens has been accelerated even further by a change in defensive philosophy as well. Not only do offenses set more ball screens than ever before, but defenses also allow offenses to set them.

In the past, a majority of defenses played aggressive against ball screens — hard hedging or blitzing to prevent the ball handler from using the screen.

Below is a clip of Gonzaga’s continuity ball screen offense from the 2013 season. San Francisco hedges with both big men and sinks into the paint with help defenders.

San Francisco’s coverage largely takes any potential decision making away from the Gonzaga guards. Both Kevin Pangos and David Stockton were forced to pick up their dribbles after just one step in the direction of the screen.

Hedging hasn’t disappeared from the game completely — a handful of the top teams in the country still use it on a consistent basis — but the average ball screen coverage has become far less aggressive over the last decade.

It’s those changes in both offensive and defensive philosophies which made plays like the one below now possible.

In the clip above from the 2018 season, New Mexico is running the same general offense as Gonzaga in the first clip. But with Colorado’s passive coverage — and New Mexico’s emphasis on pace — the offense sets four ball screens in a matter of 12 seconds.

For a team seemingly setting so many ball screens, the New Mexico style of offense doesn’t really behave in the manner you might expect. Ball screens are being set, but without the intention to probe (split, snake, reject, change the angle, rescreen) for a direct shot opportunity. It’s a ball screen offense where the least important part is the actual ball screen.

As a guard in that offense, you might have time for one quick look a read — like the roller to the basket or a downhill drive — but not at the expense of holding the ball and preventing a ball reversal. The objective is to keep the ball moving.

That’s a very different mentality from Markell Johnson’s when coming off the spread ball screen in the clip below.

N.C. State and New Mexico are technically both examples of ball screen offenses, but with very different philosophies.

Ball Screen Equity

Free-flowing continuity style offenses inherently tend to be equal opportunity, in that multiple players touch the ball, each with a chance to act as the creator.

(That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. The topic of offensive balance was something I looked at in the OG iteration of this newsletter, way back before I was running Hoop Vision full-time.)

While motion and ball movement for teams without a star creator might be necessary to create advantages, that same level of motion and ball movement (to create advantages) makes less sense for a team like, say, the Lakers.

A continuity offense where Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope receive equal on-ball treatment as LeBron James and Anthony Davis would make little to no sense for the Lakers. There’s likely some value in not becoming too one-dimensional, but the optimal usage for LeBron is surely closer to ball dominant than equal opportunity.

The graph below plots the number of ball screens used by each team on the x-axis and the percentage of those opportunities that were allocated to one individual player on the y-axis — top six conferences only.

  • 25 out of 75 teams had an individual player who was responsible for at least 50% of their team’s total ball screens

  • The average ball screen allocation for a team’s top player was 46%

Last season, Marcus Carr was the high-major player responsible for the largest percentage of his team’s ball screens at 73%. If we expand the sample size to all teams over the past five seasons, there were seven players who crossed over the 80% mark.

Players responsible for over 80% of team ball screens (last 5 seasons):
  1. Jaaron Simmons, 2016 Ohio — 87%

  2. Jaaron Simmons, 2017 Ohio — 85%

  3. Colbey Ross, 2020 Pepperdine — 82%

  4. Jason Preston, 2020 Ohio — 82%

  5. Marlon Stewart, 2020 North Dakota — 82%

  6. Trae Young, 2018 Oklahoma — 81%

  7. Jalen Pickett, 2019 Siena — 81%

The lone high-major player on the list was Trae Young. He also led the country in usage rate and assist rate for Oklahoma. The closest high-major player to Young when it comes to ball screen usage was Jordan McLaughlin — he was responsible for 74% of USC’s ball screens during the 2018 season.

On the flip side of things, the most balanced ball screen team in the five year sample was 2020 New Mexico State. The Aggies’ top four ball screen players — Jabari Rice, Shunn Buchanan, Evan Gilyard, and Trevelin Queen — all used between 17% and 19% of their team’s total ball screens.

NEW #WatchSmarter Video

The increased prevalence of the ball screen is sometimes argued as a negative — as if it creates a more uniform or even simplified game. However, I’d argue the ball screen revolution has in many ways produced the opposite results.

Not only do offenses use ball screens with varying styles and intentions, but they have also added a layer of complexity to the game from a defensive perspective. The revolution has only deepened the schematic chess match between how the two sides of the ball interact.

The brand new 32-minute #WatchSmarter video walks you through the different ball screen concepts and styles used throughout the country by Division 1 basketball players and coaches. The video is broken up into seven different sections:

  1. The ball handler

  2. The screener

  3. The other three players

  4. Spacing and positioning

  5. Spread ball screens

  6. Dummy ball screens

  7. Continuities

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Some of the teams included: Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State, Maryland, Marquette, Saint Mary's, Purdue, FGCU, BYU, Northeastern, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Dayton, Wichita State, UNC, Butler, Michigan, Florida, Virginia, and NC State.

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