BETTER LATE THAN EARLY:
PATIENCE, SPACING AND USING A SCREEN

By

Brian McCormick, Director
High Five Hoop School (CA)


Mondays mean one thing: ESPN's Big Monday. And fortunately for us aspiring coaches, ESPN televises the University of Utah almost every week, providing an opportunity for coaches to watch one of the best motion offenses in the country, while listening to Jimy Dykes extol Britton Johnson's game and the difficulty of guarding a 6-9 "gazelle."

Patience creates success in the Runnin' Utes four out, one in motion offense. Coach Majerus constantly emphasizes how important it is for the cutter to wait and be patient, believing it is better for the cutter to be late than early using the screen. The Utes' patience separates their offense from other teams running similar motion offenses. This patience makes the cutter more difficult to guard because the defense will almost always play their hand, allowing the Ute cutter to move accordingly and assuring him an opening. In many instances, this patience creates a backdoor opportunity as the defense cheats to fight through the screen while the cutter is setting up the screen. Once the defensive player loses sight of the ball, he is done, and the Ute player cuts backdoor for the lay-up.

The Utes run their offense from the NBA line extended to ensure proper spacing ("Offense is spacing, and spacing is offense," says Majerus). They try to keep all four players high (above the last hash) in order to create space for cuts to the rim and also to isolate their post player. With the lane clear, there is room for players to curl to the basket, cut back door, or drive to the basket. The NBA line spacing is optimal but may need to be changed depending on the range of your shooters.

In order to begin teaching the principles of motion offense, I believe it is imperative that players learn to set up and use a screen properly. Almost every young player is taught the generic wing screen down for the post interchange, and invariably, that is the standard down screen and cut that players will utilize. Therefore, I do not teach a straight cut, as I believe players will naturally revert to this cut, and I want them to become more dynamic offensively when using a screen.

The first step is to teach the players the basic cuts they can make off the screen and explain when they would want to utilize each cut. The player has four choices: tight curl, loose curl, flare, or back door. The cut depends on the defensive player. If the defensive player fights over top on the ball side, high side of the screen, the offensive player should flare. If the defensive player trails the cutter, he should tight curl. If the defensive player cheats or overplays on the screen, the cutter should cut backdoor. And if the defensive player tries to fight through the screen between the cutter and the screener, the cutter should rub shoulder-to-shoulder off the screen and loose curl.

I start by placing a chair as my screener a couple of steps off the lane even with the first hash mark. I work with the players to set-up the screen, having them take their time and then make a hard cut. The change of pace helps to create the opening. A player going slowly who makes a quick jab step in one direction will likely get his defender off-balance and help the screen work more effectively. The players alternate between a backdoor cut, a tight curl, a loose curl, and a flare. The passer works from the top of the key, and each player has to call out his cut as he makes it. A tight curl will take the player right toward the front of the rim; a loose curl to the elbow; a flare to the three-point line; and a backdoor cut to the rim.

After the players have the motion of the cuts (and the footwork for the catch-and-shoot, as these are shooting drills as well), I add a screener and a live defensive player guarding the cutter. The cutter must use the screen to create a scoring opportunity. Because there is only one defender, the cutter need only concentrate on setting up the screen and reading the one defensive player, but he does not have to worry about help defense or switches or hedging. In this drill, it is 1 vs. 1, and the offensive player has only one dribble. His main goal is to create an open shot by using the screen, dribbling only to get a better shot or drive away from the closeout.

Eventually, I work to 2 vs. 2. The ball starts with one player on the lane line extended beyond the NBA three-point line and the other player even with the second hash at the NBA three-point line. The player with the ball must pass to the passing line (coach) at the other lane line extended and then set the screen for the second offensive player. After the initial pass, the play is live.
The goal again is for the screen to open up either player for a shot. The cutter must read the defense and use the screen accordingly, while the screener must be an offensive threat as well, as "the screener is almost always open." The screener should roll in the direction of the cutter's defensive player, effectively setting a moving screen and forcing the defensive player to fight around a much larger area. If the screener's defensive player cheats, he should open to the ball for a pass.
If the screener's defender hedges high to stop a curl cut, the screener should slip the screen for a backdoor cut. If there is a switch by the defense, the screener should roll to the basket, keeping the defender on his back.

This is the progression I use to initiate players into a motion offense. After playing 2 vs. 2, I go 4 vs. 4 cut throat with varying rules. For example, every time a player passes the ball he must screen away; or a player can score only off the curl cut. The different rules concentrate effort on the cuts and motion we have practiced.

I believe a team that can play a solid motion offense is very tough to guard, as every player will possess good court awareness and will move without the ball. This makes the University of Utah a tough team to defend and a good team for aspiring coaches to watch whenever they play on television.


Thanks to BASKETBALL SENSE, the Magazine for Winning Coaches, for permission to use this article. Information about BASKETBALL SENSE can be obtained from www.basketballsense.com.