What Is A Screen In Basketball?

In basketball, a “screen” or a “pick” happens when a player on the offense blocks a defender to free a teammate on the offensive to let them receive a pass or take a shot. 

To be specific, it’s a legal block in which a player on the offensive, be it the center, a guard, or a forward gets in the way of a defender to assist an incoming teammate in catching the ball or attempting to score. The player doing the blocking is the screener, and their teammate receiving the ball or taking the shot is the cutter.

Basic Types of Screens

Depending on the type of pick, a screener might stand next to a defender, behind them, or just wait in the right spot for the cutter to run a defender off against them. Some of the more advanced screen formations might also add some flourish and diversions. For now, let’s take a look at some of the most basic types of screens.  

Before we continue, it’s strongly recommended that you get a good understanding of all the player positions in basketball as well as all the parts of a basketball court. It will make it easier to follow along. That being said, let’s start with the:

Back Screen

The screener stands behind the defender. When the cutter sprints for the basket, the defender will follow and run into the screener. This specific screen is often used to set up an open layup for the off-ball cutter so they can catch the ball and score in one go. 

We start with the back screen because even though it’s the most basic pick, it still requires a fair deal of speed and stealth to pull off without alerting the defender, which is pretty much the same principle behind the more elaborate screens. 

Ball Screen

It refers to any screen set up to help a player in possession of the ball cut away from a defender. 

There are plenty of screens designed to help an off-ball player prepare for an open layup. The ball screen is one of the few picks meant to free a cutter in possession of the ball and ready to attack the hoop. 

Cross Screen

Similar to the back screen, this pick is also about setting up a screen behind a defender, only in this case, the screener runs horizontally across the paint in front of the basket and waits for the cutter to run past the defender. The defender will turn around and find the screener in their way while the cutter sprints past them to finish an open layup by receiving a pass from another teammate in the wing. 

Down Screen

The down screen or pin down is meant to free a cutter coming from the loop to take a shot from the perimeter. For example, let’s say you have a cutter running from the baseline trying to get open, but a defender is chasing close behind. The screener steps in between them, and now the cutter can receive the ball and take a shot free of cover. An easy way to tell if it’s a pin down is if the screener is facing the baseline. 

In most cases, the cutter in a down screen will be the shooting guard, the best shooter in the team. 

Advanced Techniques

Basketball is a fast-paced sport with a lot of contact, so screens are usually not too intricate, but some variations involve an extra screener or two to make it more challenging for the defense. There are too many to mention, let alone to explain in detail, especially since most teams add their twist to them, but just so you have an idea, let’s go over some of the most popular advanced screens. 

Double Screen

This pick consists of setting a screen with two players standing right next to each other. The cutter runs around the screen to receive the ball from another teammate and shoot for the hoop. This screen set usually involves the shooting guard as the cutter trying to score from the three-point line

Elevator Screen

Just like the name suggests, this pick has a double screen moving like an elevator door. Two screeners stand shoulder to shoulder; as the cutter approaches, they open a gap between them to let their teammate cut through. As soon as the cutter runs between them, they close the gap on the defender. This makes the defender run around the screen and buys the cutter a couple of seconds to receive a pass and continue the play. 

Hammer Screen

This pick is all about setting up a shot from the corner. It involves one screener but is bound to take the defense by surprise.

An off-ball player waits in the perimeter of the weak side of the court for the screener to stand by the defender. The off-ball cutter runs the defender off on the screener on the way to the corner. The ball-handler makes it to the low-post on the opposite side of the court and passes the ball to the cutter in the corner, who will then take a shot. 

Needless to say, this scheme is usually reserved for the best shooter in the team

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How To Set A Screen In Basketball

Anticipate the play

When setting a screen in basketball, you need to do your best to predict in which direction your teammate is going to run so you can have a better idea of where to stand to block the defender. Keyword: stand.

Hold your position

Remember: your job as the screener is to become an obstacle for the defender, not chase them. Get in position and do not move. If the defender runs into a stationary screen, no problem. If the screener leans in even a little bit towards the defender, the ref will most likely call it for a moving pick.

What is a moving pick or an illegal screen in basketball? As the name implies, it’s an offensive foul where the screener moves from their position to block a defender. 

That’s why it’s so important that you read your teammate and their defender as accurately as possible, so all you have to do is stand still where you need to. 

Protect yourself

As a screener, you’re in a collision course, so there’s obviously a chance of getting hurt. You’ll want to stand firmly with your feet wide. That way, you won’t get easily knocked down. Also, even if you’re wearing protective gear, it would be wise to cover your groin area and/or tuck your arms into your chest. Besides protecting yourself, it also serves another purpose: there’s no way the ref will call a foul on the account of you pushing or grabbing the defender.

Make contact

The whole point of becoming a screener is to free your teammate from a defender, which inevitably comes down to making contact. Why? So the defender doesn’t slip around the sides and catches up with the cutter.

Conclusion

A screen or a pick in basketball occurs when an offensive player stands in the way of a defender to free a teammate from cover. The player setting up the screen is the screener, and the teammate receiving it is the cutter. 

To set up a pick correctly, the screener has to read the cutter’s intentions and stand still where they think the defender will run to. The screen then gets in position in a firm, wide stance and braces for impact. 

Drill as many screen setups as you can with your team. Eventually, every player on the team will be able to read their teammates more easily and accurately. Do that, and you’ll keep the other team guessing your every move. 

Justin D. Johnson
Justin D. Johnson
Justin is a PhD student at Stanford University and has been a basketball youth coach for over ten years. He is passionate about sports, cinema, astronomy, and sharing knowledge.