How to set Screens

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

I recently received an email from Coach Margaret Hart asking for an article on setting screens, or picks. I will use the terms synonymously. While the topic has been covered in previous sections on out of bounds (OOB) plays and pick and roll, it really deserves its own place.

Let's start with a question. Why do plays fail most of the time? They should work all the time. On paper, if each player does his job, the result should be an open shot. In real life, though, a team may need to run several iterations of its offense to achieve the intended result. 

Just about every play I have seen diagrammed calls for screens at some point in the process. What I have observed is that the screens commonly break down. Sometimes the picks fail because the defense did a good job of anticipating the situation. Usually, though, the fault belongs to the offense. The screens broke down and let the defense through.

Here are some reasons screens don't work:

  1. The Gentlemen Guards - There seems to be a gentlemens' agreement among perimeter players that goes like this: You don't crash into me and I won't crash into you. The offensive guard sets a token screen like the play calls for, but it really isn't against anyone. After a moment, the screener moves on to another useless task.
  2. Johnny Jumps the Gun - Player A sets a pick for Player B ... or does he? Player B is already gone taking the defensive player with him. What was gained? Nothing. Wait, wait and wait. Once the screener is established, then go.
  3. Miss Anywhere Will Do - Think about where the player with the ball wants to go. Chances are, a path to the basket would be real nice. But, where does the screener set up? On the side of the ballhandler's defender. So, when the ballhandler drives, there is no one in the defender's path. If the player with the ball drives her defender into the screen, then she is going somewhere other than her intended destination. Choose the screen angle wisely. Make it easy for the driver to rub off the defender and still maintain course.
  4. Hello I'm Here! - What about the player who runs up to set a screen and crashes into the defender? 1st and 10 at the free throw line! The fact is, the screener can be established well away from the ball. He just needs to be there. Its up to the ball handler to bring the defender to the screener.
  5. Appendages R Us - Once your pick is established, you can't gain any more real estate than your entitled to by extending and arm, a leg or a hip. If the ball handler brings the defender wide around the pick, its not the screener's fault. Let the defender go by. An extended elbow is mean, cheap and deserving of a foul. Don't play that way. If you do, your victims will get even. 
  6. Early Finisher - Once the defender makes contact and his progress is impeded, the screener's job is not over. Don't stop yet! What follows is crucial. The screener needs to pivot to face the basket an in doing so, hold the defender behind him (without using your arms, of course). The basic law of defense is stay between you man and the basket. For a moment after the pick, if the player has successfully sealed the defender, this law will be broken and the screener will be open for a juicy opportunity.

Players that can screen are the quiet, yet indispensable contributors. Most plays call for a screen somewhere in the process. When these plays fail, it is usually because the expected screen never happened. Unplanned screens are good, especially when set for a teammate without the ball. Its easier to pick off his unsuspecting defender that it is screening  for the ballhandler.   Screens should be set behind and slightly to the side of the defender. Contact should occur because the offensive player about to be freed herds his defender into the screen.

Here are excerpts from this site. Below are screening tips I copied from ChalkTalk. I plan to add diagrams for screen angles.

From Coach's Notebook article Basic Plays/Pick and Roll: (Diagrams are on that page)

Screeners only need to do these things: A) establish a position behind Player A's defender, but about a third to one side. The screen (or pick) must have a bias, left or right. B) Stand still. Do not run up and crash into the defender. Cross arms to protect chest or groin. Do not lean, push, stick out a knee ... just be there. The screener must establish position, not contact. Some distance between the defender and the screen is fine.

Ballhandler (Player A) drives to the same side that the screener has biased causing the defender to run into the screen.

The driver must cause the defender to move into screen. Two common faults are that the dribbler goes so wide around the screen that the defender follows without impediment or, the dribbler drives to the wrong direction - not to the side the screener set up - and again the defender follows the ball without impediment.

Once the defender makes contact with the stationary screener, the screener must pivot so that he is back to back with the defender, preventing the defender from following his man. Upon contact, the offense will probably be on one forearm or the other. Lean on that forearm enough to take the weight off the foot on that side. Let your forearm slide down some to lower your center of gravity. Then you can pivot easier to seal him out as well as know exactly where he is. The offensive player will have a difficult time going anywhere once you pin him. Another concept I've seen taught in this situation is to pivot and "sit" on the offensive player's leg. I have had screens set on me and been sat upon. Works good.

At this point the screener's defender will usually switch to guard the dribbler. If so, the offense has created an imbalance in its favor. The dribbler is now guarded sufficiently, but due to the switch the other defender has lost his basic position of being between the basket and the person he responsible to guard. The screener has a clear path to the basket.

Player B (the screener) cuts to the basket and receives pass from Player A.

Smart players will learn to take advantage of the many opportunities this play creates. For instance, if Player B's defender doesn't switch quickly, Player A will be open for a drive to the basket or an open shot. Defenders will often sabotage themselves trying to second guess the offense. The offense must practice this play frequently to recognize all the possibilities.

From Chalk Talk, a coaching message board:

Coach asks the group: I have seen many methods of setting a pick taught. Mostly the variations are with the arm positioning. The methods I know of are shown below. Which way do you prefer and why?

  1. Both arms straight down, elbows locked, hands together, (the protect the family jewels pick)
  2. Arms crossed elbows out.
  3. Arms crossed but elbows and arms flat across chest.
  4. Hands shoulder height, just wider than shoulders.


I prefer 2. Arms crossed elbows out. If the arms are away from the chest a bit, they offer some cushioning when the defender hits. Also, if you have your knees flexed a bit, you can maintain balance better. I caution the players not to push away or flare the elbows out because they are inviting a foul call.

I don't like the family jewels option because its too easy to get knocked on your keister.

If the pick is set away from the ball, there's no requirement to take the defender head on. If the screener presents his/her backside, its safer for the screener and more brutal for the defender.

If the pick fails, the fault is usually with the ball handler who didn't direct the defender into the screen.


Arms crossed, elbows out as much as you can get away with...protects the chest..makes for wide screen. John Kresse (College of Charleston) teaches as wide a screen as possible almost with fists together at chest with elbows out to make it wide. This is good as long as you don't get too wide and push out. Also teaches jump stop when setting screen.


I teach keep arms crossed and end. I found this cut down on leaning and "Blocking" instead of screening. I also teach the dribbler to get a close as possible to the outside shoulder of the screener


For girls, I have arms protecting chest. I also emphasize holding the screen until the defender tries to go around, then reverse pivoting into the defender and rolling to the basket. We have the screener call the cutters name as she goes to set the screen, the cutter tries to maneuver the defender into the screen and go by shoulder to shoulder and keep going even if covered (by a switch) to open space for the screener to roll. Against poor teams, the cutter will get open. Against good teams, the screener will get open. Against excellent teams, the screener might get open for a second so the passer must anticipate. We also teach the fake or slip screen against teams that switch quickly. By the way, do you guys call it a "pick" when it is used on the ballhandler's defender and a "screen" when away from the ball? That is the way I have heard it used.