Pick 'n Roll Practitioners

As the undisputed worldwide leader in basketball (apologies to the Chinese Basketball Association),  the NBA has forever been the catalyst for all hoops-related innovation, from the top international leagues all the way down to the high-school level.  Over the last decade - and especially in the past 5 years - the 'pace and space' movement has taken the NBA by storm, completely reshaping the ways GMs assess young talent and assemble their rosters.  The inception of this transformation traces back to the mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and Mike D'Antoni's 'Seven Seconds Or Less' offense, which placed a never before seen premium on floor spacing and the 3-point shot.  There was no greater beneficiary than two-time MVP Steve Nash, who harnessed this newfound level of freedom and revolutionized the point guard position forever through his mastery of one of the oldest plays in basketball - the Pick'n Roll.  

Since that time, GMs have been scrambling to lock down a franchise point guard with the dynamic skillset needed to master the screen-and-roll, which has become an increasingly important component of NBA offenses all across the league.  And with the 'NBA-ification' of NCAA basketball showing no signs of slowing down, the pick'n roll is infiltrating the college game at an alarming rate.

The takeaway for college coaches is pretty straightforward: On average, for 1 out of every 4 possessions, offensive success is determined by how well you execute the pick'n roll.  This simple, yet vital concept puts finding and developing guards who can orchestrate the PnR effectively right at the top of every coach's priority list.

Below, we'll examine which guards in college basketball are used the most in ball screen situations and spotlight a few maestros who have near-perfected the PnR.

In order to properly evaluate and compare individual efficiencies of PnR ball handlers, a minimum threshold of 5 possessions per game was instilled to ensure only players with a large enough sample size of PnR action were considered - this derived a subset of 464 eligible D1 players.  Thus, all rankings depicted below are out of a total population of 464, which in essence removes 75-80% of all other D1 players who are rarely featured as primary PnR ball handlers.

The following heat map chart is a mashup of intriguing PnR player examples from the aforementioned population - here's a quick guide to who is shown below and why:

  • The first section, or first 25 rows, represent the players most commonly used as ball handlers in PnR situations on a per game basis (see 'Poss/Game' column)
  • The second section calls out some notable stars, many of which can be found in the top-100 of draftexpress.com's NBA draft prospect rankings
  • The third section, or last two rows, represent the most efficient PnR players in college basketball - Bogdan Bliznyuk and Riley LaChance - whose teams score at a whopping 1.30 PPP and 1.28 PPP clip when each is utilized in ball screen action.

The 'Poss/Game' column is defined as the number of possessions each game that end with the following:

  1. Player comes off ball screen and shoots OR is fouled in the act of shooting
  2. Player comes off ball screen and passes to a teammate, who then shoots OR is fouled in the act of shooting
  3. Player comes off ball screen and commits turnover
  4. Player comes off ball screen and passes to a teammate, who then commits a turnover

All four scenarios above are factored into the subsequent three columns: 'PPP' (points per possession), 'eFG%' (effective field goal %) and '%TO' (turnover rate).  Thus, all players on this list are in some way helped or hurt by their teammates ability or inability to convert scoring opportunities provided by said player.  For example, Lucas Woodhouse's efficiency (see row 19) is adversely impacted by a relatively incompetent supporting cast - Stony Brook's PPP on possessions with him as the primary PnR ball handler is slightly below average at 0.88, despite Woodhouse himself shooting 45% from distance, converting 90% from the foul line and rarely turning it over. This means the 0.88 deficiency is likely attributable to the other Seawolves' forwards, who don't consistently finish when Woodhouse finds them coming off a screen.  Currently, Stony features 5 players standing 6'6 or taller that play 15+ minutes a game and NONE of them are shooting better than 49% from inside the arc (gross).  The important point is that we must be cognisant of the talent surrounding each PnR ball handler when analyzing the data, given they have a direct impact on the efficiency numbers shown above.

With that context established, here are a few revelations from the data output:

Markelle Fultz is grooming himself for the NBA

This is by no means a "hot take", but it's refreshing to see the data validate that Fultz is in fact a magician in screen and roll action, despite having a questionable cast of characters around him.  Watching the Huskies play is a lot like watching a rec team play in a local YMCA league - zero offensive execution and and even less effort on the defensive end.  The only difference is with Washington, you at least get to watch the #1 overall pick run nonstop pick'n rolls as if he's hosting his own scrimmage a couple nights a week for 40 minutes.

Fultz currently ranks 25th in the country in overall offensive usage, and 39th in PnR specific usage. While Lorenzo Romar deserves 99% of the shade that's been thrown his way this year, he does earn a marginal amount of credit for turning over the keys to Fultz, which is the only hope for this team to be moderately efficient on offense.  Fultz's 1.04 PPP in PnR situations ranks a respectable 27th in the country, but this figure is actually skewed by situations when Fultz has to give up the rock.  By removing two of the specific situations outlined above when the ball handler passes to a teammate (situations 2 & 4) and isolating only possessions when the PnR ball handler is the eventual shooter (situations 1 & 3), Fultz's efficiency jumps all the way to 2nd in the country.  So while the data implies Fultz could certainly be more selfish, he's noticeably focused on making the right play each and every possession (see top-25 ranked assist rate), as if he's 'grooming' himself for the next level...

For a freshman, Fultz's body control and change-of-pace with the ball in his hands is far beyond his years.  Despite being the best athlete on the floor the vast majority of the time, Fultz is often playing at what looks like half speed - but this shouldn't be confused with him being lazy or lethargic.  Jonathan Tjarks summed this up eloquently when scouting him earlier this year:

"It takes most players years to learn when and where to turn on the jets, and when to put it on cruise and glide to the open spot on the floor. Fultz is already at that point as a college freshman, and he plays with a preternatural calm."

Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Jalen Brunson are their teams' most important players

Notice how I didn't say 'best' or 'most valuable' - those accolades would be given to Dwayne Bacon and Josh Hart for the 'Noles and Wildcats respectively.  Bacon and Hart have picked up right where they left off last season and are essentially known commodities at this point - you pretty much know what you're getting on any given night.  The key difference is that up until this year, there were legitimate reasons to be skeptical about how consistent XRM and Brunson would perform in 2016-17. XRM was coming off two roller coaster seasons in which he 'teeter-tottered' between what his true offensive identity should be - a scoring point guard? a pass-first point guard? a combo guard? - and consequently, his efficiency suffered.  Brunson, on the other hand, put together an impressive freshman campaign last year (108 O-Rating), but had the luxury of deferring a good chunk of the playmaking responsibilities to Ryan Arcidiacono and Phil Booth.  In other words, Brunson had yet to prove he could carry the burden of being a full-time point guard and properly conduct one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball.

At this juncture, it's safe to say both ex top-50 prospects have reached the ceiling of their recruiting pedigree.  XRM's current O-Rating of 113.5 is a significant leap from his freshman and sophomore years, while Brunson has posted a gaudy 126.5 O-Rating himself this season. And from the chart above, it's evident that a large portion of this efficiency comes from their PnR prowess - XRM's 1.17 and Brunson's 1.13 PPP in PnR situations rank 3rd and 6th respectively in the country.

You know about Marcus Keene, but you don't know about TJ Williams

While Scott van Pelt has turned Marcus Keene into a cult hero - and rightfully so - TJ Williams may be the best PG in the country that no one knows about.  Both Keene and Williams are currently flourishing in offensive systems that create exceptional floor spacing by stretching the defense with a stable of 'bigs' who can shoot it from deep.  On almost every possession, both will receive a steady dose of high ball screens which bring the two primary PnR defenders uncomfortably far away from the basket.  When they inevitably maneuver past this first line of defense and get into the teeth of the defense, collapsing helpside defenders will open up penetrate-and-kick opportunities for an array of capable 3-point shooters, which is where both Keene and Williams rack up a ton of assists (both rank in the top-50 in assist rate nationally).

The obvious difference between Keene and Williams, which in many ways influences how they play, is their size.  While both are well-built and sturdy enough to absorb contact in the paint, Keene is 6 inches shorter than the 6'3 Williams.  This explains why almost half of all Williams' FG attempts come at the rim, where he's especially effective at drawing contact (top-70 ranked FT Rate) and getting to the foul line.