Basic Concepts: Pick and Roll

Having watched UCLA set offensive basketball back about fifty years in the first half of last night's game (I didn't watch the second half, as the outcome wasn't in doubt, and really, I'd rather stab myself in the eye with a fork), it's worth taking a few minutes today to discuss one of the most important plays in basketball, the pick and roll. This was the Bruins' undoing on both offense and defense, so it's appropriate to explain how it's supposed to work.

The play itself is extremely simple, and involves two players on the offensive team. One of the two, usually a guard, starts the play with the ball, while the other offensive player, usually a forward or center, starts play somewhere between the ball and the basket. Both offensive players are assumed to be guarded by defenders playing man-to-man defense (you can use a variant of the pick and roll against zone defense, but that's a more advanced topic).

The essence of the play is this: the man without the ball runs to somewhere near the man with the ball, and establishes himself in a set position. The man with the ball then dribbles along a path that takes him close to the position of set player, ideally causing the defensive player guarding the man with the ball to collide with the set offensive player. This is the "pick" part, sometimes also called a "screen."

The "roll" comes in after the collision between the defender and the man who set the pick, when the offensive player releases from his set position and "rolls" toward the basket.

At this point, the offensive team has a multitude of options, depending on what the defense does. If the defender guarding the man who set the pick doesn't react, the man with the ball has an unobstructed path to the basket. If the defender guarding the man who set the pick jumps out to prevent a drive to the hoop, then the man who set the pick should have an open path to the basket, and the man with the ball should pass to him. The man with the ball can pull up to shoot a jump shot over the pick, or the man who set the pick can pop back out for the open jump shot.

There's one key feature about this play, though, that UCLA appeared not to understand: One or both of the offensive players need to actually intend to score as a result of the play.

I have never seen offensive basketball as inept as what UCLA was doing last night. Time and again, they ran this play that featured a pick set by a big guy up near the top of the key, and they looked like chimpanzees who had been trained to go through the motions without actually understanding the play. The guard with the ball would dribble toward the pick in a really casual manner, and even if he managed to get the defender to run into the pick, he never made a serious attempt to go around the pick and move toward the basket. The guy setting the pick either didn't roll at all, or would roll in such a slow and desultory way as to put absolutely no pressure on the defense. Then the guard would dribble the ball back out to the top of the key, and they'd start over.

UCLA on offense was an absolute horror show. I've seen middle-school kids run the pick and roll better than that. These guys are college players, and it's April, for God's sake. What have they been doing in practice their entire basketball-playing lives? And that appeared to be the only play they had-- they'd try it about twice per possession, and then end up with one of the guards dribbling around as the shot clock ran down before forcing a bad shot. Florida's a good team and all, but UCLA didn't make them work on defense at all-- it was like they didn't quite realize that they were supposed to be attempting to score.

The pick and roll contributed to their undoing on the defensive end as well. This was through what the announcers continued to refer to as "the hedge move," which is a warped form of the actual defense against the pick and roll.

One standard way to defend the pick and roll is for the defender guarding the man who set the pick to "hedge" against the drive, by stepping up quickly to prevent the guy with the ball from going to the hoop, and then quickly drop back to pick up the man rolling to the basket. As the man who set the pick rolls, that frees the defender who was initially on the ball to recover his original defensive assignment.

UCLA uses a variant of this, in which the defender guarding the guy who set the pick not only jumps out quickly to stop the drive, but aggressively attacks the man with the ball, bumping him so as to put him off balance, and prevent a pass to the guy rolling. Lots of schools use this-- Duke does it a fair bit-- but UCLA has elevated it to a comic spectacle-- the defender doing the "hedge move" will put both hands up in the air, indicating to the referee that his is not fouling the offensive player with his hands, while using his lower body to knock the ball handler off balance with a series of pelvic thrusts like a demented Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.

"That doesn't sound precisely legal," you might be saying. Well, it's not. As convincingly demonstrated by the referees in the early going, who called a bunch of fouls on that, and pretty much shut UCLA down. Not only did this put a couple of UCLA's best players on the bench early, but it put the Bruins off their defensive game in general, and allowed Florida to get good shots.

But really, the utter lack of anything resembling a Division I quality offense is what sank UCLA, at least in the first half. And there's just no excuse for that.


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It was agony to watch. I had a friend over who'd done his postdoc at UCLA.

The agony was most intense when UCLA would steal the ball, and then not know how to take advantage of the possession.

After the first 8 or 9 minutes, during which UCLA seemed to be doing to Florida what they'd done to Indiana and Kansas, Florida figured out what you've just described.

We turned the sound off, and mostly talked about Science Fiction, and Scalzi's write-in campaign for SFWA President.

We couldn't take our eyes of the trainwreck, but didn't need to hear the obvious on audio as well.

The Ohio State game was sloppy, but energetic. Monday's final should be intense.

We already knew UCLA sucks. What you failed address is how damn ugly Lorenzo Mata is. Not just ugly, fugly. And not just fugly, fucla fugly. He's one ugly mother...

I was looking forward to a stare-down between Mata and Oden.

My wife went to Southern Cal, and has told me that UCLA stands for U Chumps Loose Again...

If you saw NC State play this year they did an excellent job of running the pick and roll. Once you see it run well, it is painfully to watch it done poorly. (I'm a NC State grad, so I'm not objective on this part)

The one thing I'm left wondering about after that, um, spectacle last night is how on earth did UCLA beat Kansas in the regional final?

By Tom Renbarger (not verified) on 01 Apr 2007 #permalink

UCLA had a good team this year, if they could do a little more of that pick and roll you talked about and keep Afflalo out of foul trouble, they might have had a shot this weekend.

UCLA vs. Fl = Deer in Headlights.

But Lord don't let the Buckeyes lose to Florida again.....