Pick and Roll
The pick and roll is one of the oldest, most commonly used, and meaningful offensive plays in basketball. But perhaps because it is so common, and seems so natural to most fans and players, less experienced fans can be confused by the way commentators talk about the play and so miss out on a complex, significant, and integral part of the sport. Such was the case with my wife, who despite her ardent love of the sport, didn’t grow up playing or observing it closely. Talking with her about the pick and roll and, especially, the way it is described during broadcasts, really opened my eyes not only to how much we “experts” take for granted in our language about the game (which can be a pitfall of expertise in any area), but how carelessly we gloss over complexities and, in the process, unintentionally exclude many fans. Why, for example, is the “pick” called a “pick” (no answer for that one, sorry)? How interesting (and confusing) that we say a player is setting a screen or pick as though he were using some actual object when it is his own body that it is the object he is using. We say roll, I suppose, because of the pivot and rotation of the screening players body away from the defender as he moves down the lane, but really, if you’re not a native of basketball, you’d probably come up empty if you were looking for a thing called a “roll” in the play. Obviously, the confusion only grows given the multiple complexities unfolding in the course of a pick and roll, especially given the way that broadcasters like Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy talk about it. In any event, given all this, it seems right—and a useful exercise in making the familiar seem unfamiliar, which I view as critical to deeply understanding anything—to respond to my wife’s query by offering my own modest take on the technical, historical, and cultural aspects of the pick and roll.
Pick and roll (also known as screen and roll) refers to an offensive play in basketball involving two teammates, one with the ball (often a smaller player) and the other without (often a bigger player). The teammate without the ball sets his body against the ball handler’s defender so as to separate him from the ball handler. This is the called the pick or screen. It is designed first of all to create open space for the ball handler who, depending on what follows from this initial action, may be free for an open jump shot or a drive all the way to the basket for a lay up.
In order to prevent these two outcomes, the player defending the screener may switch onto the ball handler, leaving the ball handler’s defender with the responsibility to switch, in turn, onto the screener. If a delay in this second switch occurs or if the screener is bigger than the defender who is now screening him, the screener may cut toward the basket in hopes of receiving a pass from the ball handler. This cut is known as the roll.
And here’s a video showing it in action.
What I’ve just described only includes the basic elements of the play. A number of other things can and regularly do occur when two offensive players set up a pick and roll, depending on the reactions of the two defenders involved, on the skill sets of the two offensive players involved, and on the positions and abilities of the other six players on the floor. In fact, strictly speaking, no two pick and roll executions every play out in exactly the same way.
Nevertheless, certain similar patterns recur frequently enough to constitute named variations. For example, if, as is increasingly the case in today’s NBA, the larger screen-setting offensive player is also an effective perimeter shooter (like Kevin Love of the Cavaliers), he might elect to “pop” out to the three point line after setting his screen instead of rolling to the basket: this is called a pick and pop.
Or, if the ball handler is a strong dribbler and adept and scoring in the lane (like Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul or Derrick Rose) he might knife through the two defenders toward the basket (called “splitting the double”) and then either score or throw a lob to his screening teammate who trails behind.
Regardless of how it plays out, the aim is always to generate a relatively uncontested shot by forcing the defense into disadvantageous matchups.
There is no consensus among historians about who first employed the pick and roll. But it is certainly one of the oldest plays in the sport. It appears to have emerged sometime in the 1920s among professional players in regional leagues that existed briefly along the Eastern seaboard of the United States. According to FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History,
while teams might barely last a season intact, pairs and groups of players often stuck together for years, and their familiarity with each other led to the development of the pick and roll, or, as it was known at the time, the buddy system. The most accomplished practitioners of the early two-man game were Barney Sedran and Max Friedman.
In fact, a description of something closely resembling the pick and roll and involving Sedran, appears in the 1922 volume Scientific Basketball by Nat Holman, a great pro player of the era who went on to coach national championship college teams at City College of New York. Though part of a more complicated play initiated by a jump ball at center, we can see in the description something like the embryo (circled in red in the diagram below) of what would later be refined as the pick and roll.
Holman describes the pick and roll portion of the play above after Sedran (represented as “1” in the diagram above) holds the ball on the right side of the court, having just received it from Holman (represented as “2” above):
Without any personal contact, I cut off Sedran’s man, while the latter would dribble around to the basket without any opposition; 4 would go down the floor and either follow Sedran’s shot or take a pass from him.
Later, in the 1970s, in his classic book The Essence of the Game is Deception, columnist and basketball thinker Leonard Koppett identified the pick and roll as was on of the three basic situations by which “a player can get ‘free’ of a defender.”
In today’s game, as Jonathan Abrams reported in an excellent New York Times article explaining the resurgence of the pick and roll, “No other play in the N.B.A. creates such havoc, no other play is used as often” because “With effective teams, the defensive strategies are limited. There are just too many options with the pick-and-roll, too many height and quickness mismatches for the offense to take advantage of. The defensive thought process turns simple, if futile. Sometimes, it just hopes that the team running the pick-and-roll misses whatever shot it chooses to take.”
The pick and roll is like a microcosm of the game as a whole. To begin with, it involves all the fundamental offensive skills: dribbling, passing, moving without the ball, and shooting. But also, the various elements at work in successfully executing the play permeate the sport as a whole and contribute to its distinctiveness among sports. The combination of individual skill and creativity with cooperative teamwork required for the play in a certain sense define the central dynamic of the sport. Second, the pick and roll takes a predefined, structured pattern (the pick) as the basic matrix out of which players adapt to the limits established by the defense (and the rules, of course) to generate opportunities through improvisational, split-second decision making.
The pick and roll thus involves the exercise of creativity and the generation of new forms in tandem with (as opposed to in spite of) constraints. In this respect, the pick and roll works like any artistic endeavor. Just as a poet creates new verbal forms within the constraints of language, meter and rhyme, or the composer may create new musical forms within the constraints of a given theme, or the architect creates new spatial forms within the constraints of existing space, resources and program, players involved in the pick and roll work within given constraints to make a play. In a well-executed pick and roll, in other words, we can see at work all the elements that make basketball a kind of aesthetic playground offering examples of creativity and beauty.