This article was written by Coach Norman De Silva.
It is known by many different names. Blue, Ice, and Down are all examples. No matter what you call this type of ball screen defense, several important concepts remain the same for the coverage to be successful.
The origins of blue-ing ball screens are not entirely known. A few people or basketball teams can probably rightfully claim ownership of being the creators of this defensive strategy. Still, like many things in basketball, it is hard to assign ownership of something that is a logical progression of thought that was bound to be discovered. Who invented the crossover dribble, the slam dunk, or the baseball pass? I’m sure that somebody was the first to do it in a game, whether it was deliberate or accidental, but who knows if that was in a middle school game somewhere in North Dakota 30 years ago or in an NBA game a decade ago?
For this discussion, I will reference the most recounted story of how it came into popularity. The Utah Jazz were looking to defend the Chicago Bulls’ ball screens in the NBA Finals. They were having a challenging time defending their ball screens on the wing, and they came up with a coverage to stop it. The logical thought here isn’t as genius as it may seem when you break it down to the simple question they were addressing. “How do we stop their ball screen?” The answer is so simple it seems amazing nobody else thought of it sooner.
If someone had asked you, “How do you stop something?” you would probably answer, “don’t let it happen.” That is the essence of blue-ing, icing, or downing ball screens, and the same answer the Jazz came up with. “Don’t let the ball screen happen.” The Jazz used colors to signify their ball screen coverages, and this new coverage they wanted to implement got assigned the color blue. Naturally, the name has stuck.
So how do you not let a ball screen happen? Here are the most important teaching concepts that I think can help your team to negate ball screens.
1. Jump to the middle of the floor when the screen is called.
The most logical way to not let a ball screen happen is to not let the player get to the ball screen. In doing so, you must dictate where the ball will go off the dribble: away from the screen. When you are on a wing, this means jumping to the middle of the floor and making it clear that the only way that player can dribble is “down” towards the corner and away from the screener who we presume is screening from the middle of the floor.
If the screen is coming from the sideline or if the screener changes his angle to flat, it is important to remain on the middle side and force the ball handler into the screen. In short, you can’t completely stop a player from screening you unless you run away from them, but you can dictate the type of screen you allow them to set. By jumping to the middle, even if you are screened, you are forcing the ball where you feel it is less dangerous – towards the corner.
2. Control the ball handler by “getting into their body.”
It becomes increasingly difficult to control a ball-handler’s direction with the more space that you grant them. As an on-ball defender, you must climb into the offensive player’s space. Make it painfully obvious that there is only one direction for them to go. Not only do you slow down the offensive player, but you make them uncomfortable. Comfort is so valuable as an offensive player, physically but also mentally.
It breeds confidence. Be a pest. Be an annoyance. It does make a difference. The more space you give, the easier it is for the player to get momentum and build speed. The more space you give, the more ground you need to cover to control the ball handler. When you have more ground to cover, you are much easier to be faked out. The more space a ball-handler has, the more likely they are to be able to “have you on a string” or “put you on skates,” so to speak. The game of basketball is all about space. Make sure you leave the ball handler none.
3. Screen defender is early, loud, visible, wide, and “up to touch” when receiving the ball handler.
Being loud is self-explanatory as to its importance. If the ball defender doesn’t hear the screen is coming, the coverage is blown before it starts. If it isn’t early enough for the ball defender to jump into position, the coverage is ruined. The screen defender needs to be visible and show his chest directly to the ball handler, taking away any straight line to the basket that the ball defender is conceding to take away the ball handler’s options.
You want the ball handler to see this body that discourages them from feeling like they can get to the basket. If you want to stop this player from getting to the rim, you have to be wide. This is the equivalent of being “in a stance” or in an athletic position and ready to move. Get on your toes, get your shoulders down, and have active hands. “Up to touch” is a term we use to define how close your screen defender needs to be to the screener. If you sit too far back and are not within arm’s length of the screen, you leave too much space for the ball handler to gain speed and attack you.
4. Keep the ball in the box.
As I like to call it, the box has 4 walls: the on-ball defender, the screen defender, the sideline, and the baseline. With each dribble the player takes, the box gets smaller. Keep the ball in the box as long as possible, and the only way the ball gets out is with a pass. The most dangerous thing that can happen is if the ball handler “gets back to the middle.” By this I mean, he attacks the screen defender and can get the ball out of the box by getting by the screen defender on the inside.
If the ball handler is going to dribble by the screen defender, the only way they can do this is by going all the way down to the baseline. We do not want to give this up, but if they can’t be kept in front of you, they will have to go by you on the baseline side. Allowing them to get by you on the inside or middle side is just as bad as if they used the screen the way they intended because ultimately, they want to get the ball in the paint with the defense at a one-man disadvantage. Keep the ball in the box!
5. Screen defender does not leave until the ball defender is completely back in front.
Very simple. As a screen defender, you do NOT leave to go back to your man until the ball defender is all the way back in front of his man. If the ball is passed, then the screen defender leaves immediately.
6. Back in front or maintain the box?
As a team, you must have a plan in this regard. Is your on-ball defender trying to get back in front of his man so the screen defender can get back to his man, or do you want your on-ball defender to remain on the ball handler’s inside hip and maintaining the box?
I believe it depends on who the greater threat is – the screener or the ball handler. This may be a game-to-game decision you face based on personnel, spacing, and other factors. Either way, you should have a distinct plan. Keep in mind that if you have your guard fighting to get back in front of the ball handler, you are now more vulnerable to any “re-screen” where the ball would use the screen and get back to the middle, which you were blue-ing to avoid.
7. Nail defender ready to stunt.
Have a help defender on “the nail” or middle of the foul line, ready to “stunt” or jab at the screener if he is passed the basketball to buy some time for the screen defender to get back to his man. If you do not play with a defensive three-second rule, your help defender can be lower and in the paint. No matter where the defender is located, he needs to give a violent jab and recover at the screener when they catch the ball to make them think twice about their ability to catch and shoot, drive, or pass.
8. Stunt and recover or full rotation?
This is another decision that depends on personnel and other factors that could change game to game. Have a distinct plan in place. Is your screen defender getting back to his man when the ball leaves the box while his weak side defenders stunt for each other and recover, or is your “nail defender” switching on to the screener with every weak side defender rotating to the next closest player and the screen defender rotates to the man furthest from the ball?
This depends on your personnel as well as the opponents. If you trust your team to decide and act on the fly, make sure you have a verbal call for the nail defender to communicate that he feels the full rotation is necessary and that the full rotation is in effect. You may want to implement the full rotation if your screen defender is very slow at getting back or if your players are interchangeable and capable of defending multiple positions. My feeling is that if you have time to work with your team, you can train them into making this call on the fly.
Do you have players that are smart enough? Do you have players that communicate well enough? There will be times when the screener pops, and the ball gets to him, and he is so open or at such an advantage that the switch is necessary. If you can allow your team to recognize these moments and decide swiftly and decisively, you are much better off. It depends on your trust level with your team.
How to Down a Ball Screen in Basketball Conclusion
I believe that in basketball coaching, you shouldn’t teach what you don’t know. If you don’t feel comfortable with your grasp of this coverage, don’t use it. Do you have quick-footed big defenders relative to your opponents? Are you a force baseline team or a force top of the key team? If you already force baseline, this coverage aligns with your beliefs and is easier for your guards since they are already forcing that direction when the ball is on the wing. Is the screener a great shooter? Are they better at diving or popping?
Is the ball handler great at drawing fouls off the dribble? Is the ball handler a great skip passer, or is he a great pocket passer to a popping or diving screener? What is the placement of the other three offensive players on the court? If there is a player in the ball side corner, it makes much more sense to blue because the offense has less space to work within the box.
Make sure that whatever you do, like anything else, you have a distinct plan and that your players know exactly what it is. Good Luck.