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Wake Forest 'DEFENDS' the Pick & Roll

A look at how to defend one of the key components of modern basketball offense.

Bryant Crawford (13) and Devin Thomas (2) set a trap on NC State's Cat Barber
Bryant Crawford (13) and Devin Thomas (2) set a trap on NC State's Cat Barber
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The game of basketball is in large part currently defined by the pick and roll. A team’s success is often determined by either how well they execute the pick and roll or how well they defend it. Wake Forest is no different, and it has been interesting to see the progression of this year’s team and their proficiency in defending this core concept of offensive basketball.

Every coach must make a choice regarding how he or she will defend the pick and roll.  In order to have a better feel for the choices that Coach Manning is making it may be a good idea to discuss the different philosophies and why or why not they are a good fit for this Wake Forest team.   I began writing this article a few days ago after the North Carolina State win, and will now finish it after the Virginia Tech loss, which makes it a somewhat interesting commentary on the different philosophies that Manning has undertaken regarding the pick and roll.

SWITCH the Screen: A coach will choose to switch screens when he feels confident that his five defensive players can replicate each other’s defensive skill set.  When you have physical guards and nimble post players this can be a good strategy.  It probably goes without saying that in general, Wake Forest is not a team built to switch a ball screen.  Codi Miller-McIntyre is Wake’s only physical guard, and Devin Thomas is the only post player truly capable of staying in front of a guard.  Wake has been very ineffective this year switching the screen.  This is partly due to personnel and partly due to poor fundamentals.  The post defender is often to flat when switching and the ball handler is able to gain the edge and either dribble past or draw a foul.   During the Virginia Tech game Wake was forced to switch due to a lack of recognition on the post defender’s part, and it rarely produced positive results.

GO UNDER the Screen: In order for this option to work you must be defending a poor shooter from the perimeter.  Since guards who can’t shoot usually aren’t in high demand, this strategy is rarely employed and is only used on a specialized basis.  When employed the post defender must, and I emphasize MUST, crowd the play and force the screener to bump out.  This will in essence turn the screener into a hedge against his own dribbler and allow the guard defender to come under the screen without having to retreat too far into the lane.   Manning does not use this, and he is wise not to, although in my opinion this would probably be a better option than switching.  If Wake could focus on bumping the play out to 25 feet instead of 20 feet then going under the screen is a more attractive option, but as long as the screen is being set around the three point line it is defensive suicide to go under the screen.

SHOW and RECOVER: In this scenario the post defender extends laterally and SHOWS a presence to the ball handler, but does not hedge.  This is useful against a slower ball handler who can shoot.  The guard defender must fight extremely hard to come over the top of the screen, and in addition the help side guard must be able to pinch in to prevent penetration.  Manning used some of this against Virginia Tech, and the results were pretty disastrous.  Wake was not able to contain penetration, and in addition were still slow to rotate to the screener.  The idea behind a SHOW instead of a HEDGE is that it allows the post defender to recover more quickly to the screener.  As a general rule, I don’t see this Wake Forest team as able to consistently implement any of these first three options.

HEDGE and RECOVER: The most often implemented and most effective method of defending a ball screen is the hedge and recover.  There are two key components to this strategy and interestingly enough they aren’t simply hedge and recover as the name would suggest.  The first movement is the HEDGE by the post defender.  This defender must force the dribbler to retreat without allowing him to split the defense.  Wake Forest’s post defenders are simply not reacting quickly enough to the ball screen.  In order to be effective the post defender must be on the outside hip of the screener before the dribble begins to make his move.  Without proper position, the Deacon defense is at a disadvantage from the beginning.  Secondly the guard defender must do a better job of getting SKINNY and slide between the screener and the ball handler.  A good way to envision the movement of the guard defender is to imagine it as if a person was moving to a seat at the dinner table and sliding behind the chairs and in front of the wall.  The guard defender must make his body as skinny as possible and avoid contact while using the space created by the hedge to get back into the play.  If the guard defender is caught fat, the Wake post defender will be forced to stay on the hedge to prevent dribble penetration, and the entire rotation will suffer.  One of the major weaknesses of this year’s team is our ability to hedge and recover on a ball screen.  Until Wake is able to fix this weakness their defense will continue to be exploited.

TRAP: Manning employed this tactic against North Carolina State with a lot of success, and to be honest I am a little surprised we didn’t see more of this against Virginia Tech.  Trapping the ball screen requires the entire defense to immediately go into rotation, but for a team that has struggled to rotate this can be a good consequence.  The key to a proper trap is always the post defender anticipating the screen, and getting low and wide to force the dribbler to retreat.  When a post defender knows he doesn’t have to recover right away, and can instead trap the ball, he is more aggressive and more fundamentally sound with a singular focus on his role.  Indecision is the enemy of team defense, so by forcing the rotation there is no doubt what the on ball defenders are going to do, and to what the help defenders will consequently be doing.    It was clear that Manning’s philosophy against N.C. State was to prevent Cat Barber from gaining the edge and force him to give up the ball.  Against Virginia Tech, Wake made the decision that the screener would get an open look and Wake would live with the results.  Unfortunately for Wake the screener that has hit five three pointers all season made his first two attempts and went four for five from beyond the arc for the game.  Our defenders were unsure how to guard and indecision led to poor play the rest of the game.

In conclusion I think it is clear that Manning is attempting to figure out what this Wake Forest team does best on defense.  Pick and Roll defense is greatly affected by the personnel on the floor.  A great scheme is useless with poor defenders, and this Wake Forest team has several poor defenders.  While the Deacons work on improving their hedge and recover defense I would suggest Manning use more traps on the ball screens.  The Deacons would have won that game with a better effort on ball screens.  Too often the ball handler is turning the corner versus the post defender, and too often the recovery is coming too late to properly defend the off ball action.  Wake Forest post defenders must anticipate the ball screen more quickly and the guard defender must work on getting skinny and fighting over the top of the screen.  The Deacons NCAA dreams and NIT hopes rest on better perimeter defense.