10 Keys to Setting and Defending Screens in Basketball

10 Keys to Setting and Defending Screens in Basketball

This basketball coaching article was written by Rice University assistant men’s basketball coach Chris Kreider. 


The goal of any good offense in basketball is to constantly look for ways to put the defense in a disadvantaged situation where decisions have to be made. One of the easiest ways to quickly get an advantage or a 2 on 1 situation is by setting a screen. Defensively, it is all about minimizing rotations and being able to individually avoid and properly defend screening actions within a team concept.

Setting and defending screens are not typically considered one of the more glamorous parts of the game, but as basketball coaches, we know how important they both are when it comes to winning. However, most players are not as convinced and need to be sold on the importance of screening.

So it is our job as coaches to teach concepts and constantly monitor the carryover of both our players and teams when it comes to the components of screening. The fact of the matter is that setting a proper screen can help you win basketball games, while not defending screens properly can help you lose basketball games. Enough said!



Just like anything else, screening takes time, repetition and demands attention to detail. The best way I have ever heard screening discussed is by Gordon Chiesa, who refers to screening as a “partnership.” Both on offense and defense, screening is never one player doing their own thing. It is multiple players working cohesively to create or take away scoring opportunities.

This means that the more basketball players can be on the same page and working together, the more effective screens will be on offense, and the better they will be guarded on defense.



Before getting into the specifics, let’s talk about something that is needed on both ends of the floor when it comes to setting and defending screens: TOUGHNESS. This is non-negotiable! Both mental toughness and physical toughness are required!

On offense, you have to seek contact on the screen, and on defense, you have to be ready to fight through the screen (avoiding the screen is obviously always ideal). Before you can be good at any of the following, a mindset of “fight” and “doing whatever it takes” must first be embraced!

A great way to establish this toughness in your program is to have basketball drills based on promoting toughness. Whether it is fighting through the contact of a pad, a two on two competition game, find time in practice to develop your team’s toughness level. 



10 Keys to Setting Screens in Basketball


Be a Selfish Screener

Want to score? Set a screen! Players willing to set great screens for their teammates will find themselves open and get quality scoring opportunities. The reason why is because the defense must account for the player coming off of the screen. And, in some cases, this is going to mean the screener’s defender having to help.

Setting a screen and getting a rebound are both times when it is okay to be a little selfish on the basketball court. As a screener, look to be selfish by setting great screens and then opening up to the ball, rolling to the basket, re-screening, etc. 


Timing Up the Screen

Be quick to set it! Be slow to accept it! Error on the side of being late, rather than early. This is going to be vital in making sure that players aren’t picking up pointless offensive fouls. Both the player using the screen and the player setting the screen need to be on the same page when executing the timing of a screening action. 


Communication on the Screen

Communicate and never assume! Showing the fist and talking to your teammates on offense is just as important as when you are on defense! The better players can communicate in the screening action, the better they will maximize the screen. The great thing about communication is that it usually just comes down to deciding to do it. So make sure that your players are taking advantage of this skill. 


Be Patient on the Screen

Be patient! Timing matters! Multiple players working together and communicating quickly is the only way this happens! This is especially true for off the ball screens. Your players may execute the perfect screening action, but if the passer cannot make the pass, the screen won’t amount to anything. For ball screens, the ball handler needs to be conscious of the players around them to ensure proper spacing to use the screen. This may require some patience from the ball handler to let the congestion clear. 



It is up to the screener to set a hard and solid screen, and it is up to the player receiving the screen to use it! Avoiding illegal screens depends on the execution of the screen and how everyone works together in the moment of truth! A big part of this key is making sure that all the players involved are doing a great job setting their man up before the screen. The player using the screen needs to set up their defender and come off at a great angle. On the other side of the screen, the screener needs to sprint to screens and take a great angle to help out the player coming off of the screen. 


Set Up the Screen

Set up the screen correctly! Be an actor! Take 2-3 steps away, change speeds, and use the screen! Come off shoulder to shoulder (or shoulder to hip) to make it difficult for the defender to maintain proper guarding position. The better a player can set up their defender before coming off a screen, the more space they will have to read the screen. Also, if the screen is not shoulder to shoulder, the defense will slide through and bust up the whole screen. 


Make Legal Contact on the Screen

Don’t let a screen turn into an “exchange,” make contact! Hold the screen with a wide and low base for 1-2 seconds to avoid an offensive foul. A good term to use with this point is “headhunting.” The screener must be set before making contact, but they need to have active feet, a low wide base, and be willing to adjust and get set right before making contact. The more the player using the screen can create separation before coming off the screen, the easier this will be for the screener to do. 


Don’t Stand

Screen and separate! Getting away from the defense after setting the screen is crucial! Slip, dive, pop, etc., with a sense of urgency! Never screen and stand! This goes back to being a selfish screener. Setting the screen is just the first part. If you want to make the defense pay, you must set great screens and then separate after. It is going to be critical that you can read the defense in situations like this as well. After you screen (or in some cases, as you are screening), you need to read the defense and quickly decide if you should space, dive, slip, etc. 



The ball’s location and the screen, the angle of the screen, and overall spacing on the floor matters! Every screen serves a purpose: whether it is to relieve ball pressure, incorporate false motion to occupy the help defense, or directly results in a scoring opportunity. This means that every player on the floor must be on the same page. If a screening action is happening, the other players on the floor need to stay spaced, interchange, potentially cut, etc. However, you can’t have players clogging up the lane, cutting into a screening action, etc., as this will render the screen useless. 


Read the Defense

The defense will always tell you what to do! Making the appropriate read (pop, curl, fade, turn down, re-screen, etc.) is dictated by how you are guarded and cannot be pre-determined! So the better a player can read a ball screen or account for the defense on an off-ball screen, the more effective the screening action will be. It is critical that the offense is not being robotic and can read the defense in every type of screening situation.



10 Keys to Defending Screens


Be on the Same Page

Have a plan! How are you going to guard pin downs, back screens, flare screens, stagger screens, ball screens, cross-screen down screen action, flex action, etc.? As a basketball coach, it is key that you cover all of these different types of screening actions and make sure that all of your players are on the same page. Just one player out of position or slightly late rotating will open up your defense to vulnerabilities. 

Everyone should recognize the action as it develops and how to defend it! Know the “what,” but constantly remind your players of the “why” so that everyone has an understanding of how everyone’s job is essential within the five-man defensive operation!


Defensive Terminology

Speak your program’s language! Once the plan on how to defend each screen is set, establish defensive terminology so that everyone is speaking the same language! Regardless of what terminology you want to use, it is vital that every player knows it forwards and backward and is clearly communicating through each type of screen.

This will also be vital as you go throughout the course of a game and potentially change up defensive strategies as you go. Whether it is an emergency switch, a scouting report defense on a specific player, having a set terminology will allow your players to clearly communicate on every type of screen and in every type of situation.  


Communicate on Every Screen

Call out the screen! Call it at least three times early and loud! Talk out what you are doing! There should be constant chatter on the defensive end of the floor, especially when talking your way through screens! Not only will this help to make sure that everyone is on the same page for every type of screen, but it is also something that builds up your team’s defense and demoralizes the other team’s offense. 



Any chance you get to dictate the direction or route of the offensive player, do it! For example, in a “choice of sides action,” dictate to the offensive player which way they can go. Do not allow them to choose which side they want to use. This will make it easier to stay connected and reduce the likelihood of a defensive breakdown.

The last thing you want to do is react to an offensive player and the different cuts that they are making. If you are reacting, you will most likely be a step behind the play, and at this point, it becomes almost impossible to guard a good screening action. So you must be dictating and staying connected when defending screens in basketball.


In Sync

Have everyone involved working together and on a string depending on the coverage! There will be a lot of situations when help is needed, even if it is for a quick second. Covering for each other until your teammate is back in the play is crucial. Be ready to help! And be prepared to help the helper!

As the ball moves and offensive players move, every defensive player needs to adjust. If just one of the five defensive players is out of position or late to rotate, it could cause potential breakdowns. This means that defensive players need to account for both their man and what is going on around them.


Stop the Ball

If and when you do have to help and declare the ball in an emergency, never leave the ball until a teammate calls you off! Stopping the ball is always the priority! The last thing that you want is to have players looking at each other like, “I thought you were going to stop the ball?”


Make it Happen

Don’t get screened! Guard every screening action based on the plan, but be ready to make adjustments on the fly. The game isn’t perfect! Fix it! Defensive stops are not always pretty or perfectly executed. Sometimes they take unconventional ways of getting the job done, but almost always, when there is a breakdown, it comes down to effort and being willing to fight to get a stop. So be the basketball team that is willing to do whatever it takes to fight through screens and get the stop. 


Mix it Up

Once again, guard the screening action based on the plan, but be ready to get there using the “path of least resistance.” Using the same route every time allows a good offensive player to get comfortable, so switching it up at times may be the answer. This may be a mid-game adjustment called out in a timeout. If an offensive player on the other team is having success with a way that you are guarding a screen, switch it up on them and remove their comfort zone. 

There will also be times when a play breaks down, and the spacing allows you to decide on the fly and deviate from the plan. This comes back to the idea that the game is not perfect. When it doubt, get there and make the play!


Defensive Scouting Report

“K.Y.O.” When it comes to defending screens or any offensive action, it is essential to “KNOW YOUR OPPONENT!” Shooter or driver? Right-handed or left-handed? Roller or popper?

Understanding tendencies and adhering to the scouting report in screening situations is critical. It is tough to take everything away, but preparation and awareness will help make it as difficult as possible on the offense. This only happens, though, if you are taking the time to study your opponent.


Repetition and Practice

Repetition, repetition, repetition! You can get as creative as you want to when it comes to creating basketball drills to simulate live action. However, an easy way to review how to defend different types of screens is by starting with shell drill to work on a specific action.

Early on, it is an excellent opportunity to teach and build up your team defensive. As the season progresses, it provides a chance to prepare for upcoming opponents as well as to remind and review.

A big key to this is making sure that your basketball team understands the correct way to guard every type of screening action you will encounter. It may take walking through it and then going half-speed before you are really able to get after it, but this learning time will be vital moving forward.



Setting and Defending Screens in Basketball Conclusion

Just like anything else, to be any good at setting and defending screens in basketball, you have to work at it. Remember, we can’t expect our players to know anything that we have not specifically told them. As a coach, it is not just about what you know, but what you can effectively translate to your players. 

On the offensive end of the floor, if you can get your players not only setting and using screens but also really reading the defense and then making the correct play, you will be very difficult to guard. On the flip side, if you have players who are communicating, fighting through every screen, and doing whatever it takes to get the job done, you will be able to limit what the other team can do offensively.

As a basketball coach, you must have a plan, make sure everyone knows it, and then hold everyone accountable to see it accomplished. Because at the end of the day, we will always get what we emphasize and hold each other accountable for. Take pride in setting and defending screens in basketball!




3 Responses

  1. Another way I defend is the hedge, baiting the slip or roll, while my weak side defender jams the middle with an aggressive slide, either jumping the Roll pass or taking a charge.

  2. Brilliant article!
    Covers both offense and defence.
    Defence against screens that totally nullifies offensive screening causes offence to commit illegal screening fouls; easy points after the foul penalty count plus putting offensive players into foul trouble.
    Offensive screens that produce points from any distance are good but those from the 3 point arc are best. If a player is making 50% from beyond the arc then screen plays must up the percentage capability. 70% is greater than 100% from close in

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