Basketball Take: Ball-Screen Defense

First, if you don’t know, I’ve started a sports podcast with a friend of mine, John Farrar.  It’s called “The Unofficial Visit.”  Our hope is to cater to the #EducatedFan that is passionate about sports, but also wants to break it down above and beyond some of what you hear on sports talk radio.  You can find us by clicking on your the podcast app on your iPhone, searching “The Unofficial Visit,” then you can download and listen.  Follow us on Twitter @TheUNOVisit or like our Facebook page.  Click here to listen to our most recent episode:

Now, onto ball-screen defense!

I think post ball-screen defense has become this mystical “holy grail” in recent years as if it’s this impossible thing to discuss and execute.

OK, a little preface and background before I get into my point.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a handful of practices at MSU over the last ten years. During that time frame, I have notes on 3 specific times I’ve been allowed to see a ball-screen defense breakdown session. In the last one the coaching staff was discussing 4 options for how to defend it (can give you my takes on the merits of these if anyone is interested):

1. Ice – you are denying the guard from using the ball screen. This can be by the guard jumping to the high side or the post showing really high to turn dribbler the other way.
2. Jam – post player jams right up next to ball screen so the guard can go under. Post has to press up close and quick so space for guard to get under and around
3. Feather – It’s a “soft” lateral or hedge, meaning the post defender uses a lateral step to flatten the ball handler and prevents a big man from getting caught in the long recovery of a hard hedge.
4. Switch – They practiced in only with certain personnel as I’m not sure I’ve ever seen us switch a guard to post ball screen (at least intentionally).

I have also been fortunate to attend other D1, 2, 3, and CC practices across the state of Michigan at least 8 colleges. Since I took a break from coaching, I’ve attended at least 5 different high school program practices. I’m simply sharing that background as I think it is meaningful when I share my take.


* Ball screen defense is important. Don’t get me wrong. It’s VERY important and more so now than at any point probably in the history of college basketball. It used to be all about defending screens away from the ball. With the way the game and offenses have evolved, it’s much more about stopping the dribble drive and ball screens.

My Point: Using simply ball screen defense, exclusive to the post position, as the sole reason a player is playing so much more than another, is something I have a hard time understanding.

I will relate it to MSU this year as I watch so many of those games and to protect some Cedar kids who played for me because I have vivid memories of this as well!

* Additional info
– There were times when Nick Ward struggled on ball screen defense this year. But I would content he struggled in other areas of post defense too. Fouling. Containing his man off the dribble. Getting pinned too deep in the post. Moving on “air time” to help side (especially when a dribble drive ensued). Transition D. Pinning just ball screen defense as the reason Goins NEEDED to play is lazy and lacks analysis.

– Goins is better at almost all of those things listed than Nick (outside of positioning in low post defense). Kenny HAD to play because of A LOT of things Nick was working on defensively, as well as foul trouble, as well as some shot selection things, as well as mental errors in offensive sets Nick had.

– I don’t think there was as great of a difference in ball screen defense from the best post player on this roster to the worst. Throw Goins, Ahrens, VanDyk, Bridges, and Ward in the same pot. For anyone to say Goins is GREAT at post ball screen defense is on a take that I HIGHLY disagree with. MSU uses the “feather” a lot and Kenny was not great in that this year. His knee injuries and lack of lateral movement made the recovery to the big tough for him. His man got dunks (B1G game vs. Minny and tourney game vs. Kansas) on those plays as he simply didn’t read quick enough or couldn’t move quick enough to recover. As Ward improved, I would argue the gap between Ward and Goins in ball screen defense tightened significantly. But I would say that Kenny was the best of the group all year long and was one OF MANY factors that led to him playing more.

– The way MSU runs ball screen defense may be different, but I don’t think is significantly more complex than other colleges in this state. Having seen many of them practice and execute it, I can say that with confidence. This take that “playing ball screen defense for MSU is so much harder than anyone else” is just a false narrative

– As we look into next year, you will hear this nonsense about Gavin Schilling having to play simply because of his ball screen defense. B.S.  He has to play for about 10 reasons of things he is really good at, ball screen defense simply being one of them. He runs the floor like a deer. He can defend every 5 and some 4’s off the dribble. He may be our best screener. He offensive rebounds like a beast. He plays post position defense better than anyone on our roster. I could go on. Yet, you will hear more about post ball screen defense more than others….that is what I think is B.S. It’s a lazy narrative that lacks depth in basketball analysis.

In addition: If someone says player X is playing over player Y becasue of how they play ball-screen defense, don’t simply accept that fact. Probe further. Ask which component of ball-screen defense they are weak at. My 5 keys to good individual ball screen defense:

1. See the ball screen coming and communicate it. This means you are actively involved in the possession, physically and mentally, see the play developing and call out the screen
2. Know the coverage and communicate it. “Ball screen / Ice it” would be a phrase you could hear and need to hear often.
3. Mentally execute the coverage. Get your mind to put your body into the position the coverage dictates.
4. Physically execute the coverage. You may be asked to “feather” and know that, but you still need to physically recover.
5. Read the play as you may have to adjust. The play seldom goes as planned or in film, you must adjust on the fly.

There’s my take on ball-screen defense….the joys of a Saturday morning on spring break.