Revisiting the High Ball Screen

Several years ago I went on a rant about the high ball screen – an offensive scheme featuring one or more bigs near the top of the circle trying to free a dribbler for a long jumper or drive down the lane.

For a full-blown critique you can revisit my original post but basically I find it congests the court, takes too long too unfold, and seldom results in a basket.

A short time later I discovered a fantastic piece posted by another basketball blogger, Scott Ginn, over at In a satirical piece entitled Dear High Ball Screen, Let’s Just Be Friends, Ginn questions the effectiveness of the maneuver and supports his claim with an interesting statistical analysis of the 2012 NCAA championship game between Kansas and Kentucky. Here’s what he discovered.

• Total number of High Ball Screens (HBS) attempted: 39

• Total number of direct baskets: 4

• Total number of indirect baskets: 2

• Total number of non-related baskets on a HBS possession: 2

In short, according to Ginn the HBS created six baskets the entire game. It was successful (directly and indirectly) only 15% of the time.

I was intrigued by Ginn’s analysis and decided to go a step further. I charted the 2014 and 2015 Final Fours, six games involving six schools – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Florida, Connecticut, and Michigan State – using Ginn’s statistical categories and adding a few of my own.

• High Ball Screen followed by another HBS: No FGA

• High Ball Screen followed by a turnover: No FGA

• High Ball Screen followed by a foul: No FGA

• Direct Baskets: a score by either the ball handler receiving the screen or the screener (rolling, popping, etc.) after setting the screen.

• Indirect Baskets: a score by any player as a result of the screen, but not directly related to it. This happens when the screen creates turmoil in the defense and a score results. Or, if the ball handler uses the screen, then pitches for a shot. Or, even if the screener gets the pass and finds an open shooter once help arrives.

•Non-Related Baskets: those scores on any possession where a HBS was used, but had nothing to do with the score. For example, a HBS is set, the defense stops it, the offense resets (calls a play, runs a motion, etc.), and scores. That basket had nothing to do with the HBS except that it occurred on the same possession.

And the results?


In six games at the highest level of competition the high ball screen produced direct and indirect field goals only 17% of the time – not significantly different than what Ginn discovered. That’s a lot of work to generate 35 field goals in 240 minutes of competition.

I’m reminded of an old basketball adage: Don’t drive into a loaded defense. The high ball screen does exactly that. With the screener comes a second defender and because the maneuver occurs so far from the basket the defense can load up with additional defenders from the help side. Unless you have a Steve Nash or Steph Curry on your squad, complimented by a big man who can move and shoot, you’re likely to generate lots of dribbling and not much scoring.

A Picture is Worth…

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 11.57.15 AMIs there a more dramatic explanation for why this season’s rule changes – while steps in the right direction – were insufficient to reverse the decline in pace and scoring in any significant way?

I don’t mean the embarrassed looking Hall of Famer and coaching extraordinaire Mike Krzyzewski during last season’s Final Four but the stool on which he’s perched and what it represents: the ascent of the coach from the bench to the court, the shift from coach as teacher to coach as participant.

In effect, today’s game is presented as strange theatrical production in which the director shares equal stature with the performers. He’s on the stage with them, shouting instructions and modifying the script as the play unfolds, and in the process, leaving little room for the actors to actually act. That’s what we have in college basketball today.

The coaches are smothering the game. Continue reading…

Decline & Fall

So far, so good.

The twenty-five rule changes implemented this season – especially those intended to increase pace and enhance “freedom of movement” – seem to be working. We ended last season with only five teams averaging 80 or more points per game, none scoring more than 85. By mid-December this season, seventy teams were averaging 80 or more, seven of them in the 90’s.

Still, I have my doubts. You don’t reverse a forty-year decline in one season.

Just how deep is the hole we’ve dug? Continue reading…

By Request

During the last couple of weeks, in response to a series of posts on the decline of scoring in college basketball and my attempt to trace the reasons for this disturbing trend by probing Austin Carr’s record-setting performance in the early 1970’s, several readers have requested information on the Stack or Isolation Offense. Over the weekend I was flattered to hear from basketball aficionado, Herb Welling.

Coach Welling, as you may know, has been called the “minister of information” in coaching circles and has been featured several times in the media, most prominently in Grant Wahl’s 2008 Sports Illustrated article on the evolution of the Dribble Drive Motion offense.

Herb first became acquainted with when researching the matching zone defense and discovered my piece on coach Gene Sullivan’s strategy. In recent days we’ve shared several emails and phone calls, discussing the origins of Sullivan’s equally interesting Stack offense.

I promised him that I would provide a deeper dive into the subject and am pleased to offer it now in a “quick and dirty,” Q & A format. In the future I’ll post a more comprehensive and polished essay.

In the meantime, I hope this initial piece proves helpful and prompts further questions and commentary.

Click here to read Stack Offense Q & A