Why is the Pick and Roll So Effective in Basketball

This post may contain affiliate links, meaning we get a commission if you make a purchase through our links, at no cost to you.

Spread the love


The pick and roll (PNR) is one of basketball’s most potent offensive actions. Its simplicity, versatility, and potential for creating scoring opportunities make it a formidable tool in a coach’s playbook. 

When executed properly, the PNR can be the result in a variety of successful outcomes. So, it’s no surprise that some of the top scorers in the NBA, both as the ball handler and as the roll man, score so many points off this simple play.

Pick and Roll ExplainedPick and Roll Explained

The pick and roll is a two-man offensive tactic. At its most basic, it involves one pick setter (Player A) setting a screen (pick) for the ball handler (Player B). Player B starts dribbling towards Player A, who stands firm like a statue, positioning themselves between B and B’s defender. That’s your pick. The idea is to block (or ‘screen’) the defender, cutting off their ability to follow Player B.

But the play does not end once Player B is free from his initial defender. As soon as the pick is set, Player A sprints into open space or charges towards the basket. That’s your ‘roll’.

If all goes according to plan, Player B now has a few options: a dash towards the basket for a clear shot, a pass to Player A—who’s ideally en route to the net—or, if the defense collapses, dish out to an open teammate on the perimeter.

Types of Pick and Roll Plays

The PNR gives Players A and B options once the pick has been cleared. These options make things more interesting as they give birth to the different types of pick-and-roll plays.

High Pick and Roll

In a high pick and roll, the screener sets a pick at the top for a quick ball handler. The ball handler dribbles around the screen while the screener rolls to the basket, often with a smaller defender on him due to a switch. The ball handler then has the option to attack the basket with a dribble drive or pass to the roll man. Either way, the goal is to get an open shot at the basket.

Wing Pick and Roll

Typically, a wing pick and roll is initiated by a bigger and stronger wing player instead of a point guard. Bigger ball-handlers are typically more of a threat as a slasher and inside finisher, which typically attracts the weak-side help. This way, the ball-handler’s gravity essentially gives a quick catch-and-shoot opportunity for weak-side players. If the ball handler is a good enough passer, this wing pick-and-roll offense can consistently result in an open three-point shot from either the weak-side corner or wing.

Drag Pick and Roll

The PNR isn’t just for set plays; it’s also a favorite among coaches who prefer early offense. For example, the Single Drag Pick and Roll play is favored by Mike D’Antoni in his Seven Seconds or Less offense with the Suns led by Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. In this play, the pick is set in transition. The Drag PNR is especially effective because it catches opposing big men out of position to defend the ball handler. You can even execute a double-drag PNR by using another screener on the same side. Doing so makes it harder for the on-ball defender to follow the ball-handler while allowing the two screeners to read and react to their defenders.

Horns Pick and Roll

Speaking of two screeners, you can use a second screener to set a pick on either side of the ball handler. Doing so allows him to use either one, depending on the situation.

Spain Pick and Roll

First, the primary screener (Roll Man) sets an on-ball screen for the ball-handler; simultaneously, a designated shooter plants a back screen on the Roll Man’s defender. As the Roll Man finishes his screen action and rolls towards the basket, the shooter’s back screen stops the initial Roll Man’s defender from reacting in time. Then, the ball-handler can pass to an open Roll Man beneath the basket or to the shooter, ready for a three-pointer. 

Flat Pick and Roll

If you have a ball handler with an explosive first step, then a more neutral flat screen can be an effective option. Instead of setting a pick on either side of the ball handler, the screener sets up his pick directly behind the on-ball defender. This allows the ball handler to choose which side to attack the rim. 

History of the Pick and Roll in Basketball

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first pick and roll was designed and executed, it’s quite easy to imagine how it could have been drawn up in the early days of basketball because of its simplicity. What we do know for sure is that it’s been in the NBA for as long as it’s been in existence – from Boston’s Bob Cousy and Bill Russell in the 50s to the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry and Draymond Green combo. And ever since then, teams have been slowly raising their PNR frequency.

Since the NBA began tracking game data, we know that the pick and roll frequency has risen by 57% from 2006 – 2016, from 14.5% to 24.5% of all plays run in a single game. It is used even more in the European leagues, with about 30% usage frequency. And with players like Trae Young and Luka Doncic bursting into the scene, the pick-and-roll utilization would likely continue to rise over the years.

Over the years, it has evolved from a basic two-man game to an advanced offense involving the entire team. It’s no longer just about setting up a screen for the guard to get open. Now, it’s also about using big men as facilitators, shooters, and passers. In a way, the growing popularity of pick and roll and the variations that branched out from it, such as the Pick and Pop, is what gave rise to today’s transcendental talents, such as Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.

Why is the Pick and Roll So Effective in BasketballWhy is the Pick and Roll So Effective in Basketball?

What makes the pick and roll even more fascinating is that it’s easy to spot when teams run it. It’s just really difficult to stop it. So, why is pick and roll so effective, let us break it down for you here:

1. Creates Space

The pick and roll is all about teamwork, freeing up the ball handler and forcing the defenders to scramble to come in with the help defense. It creates chaos for the defense, resulting in open shots even for players not involved in the pick.

2. Exploits Mismatches

Switching is one way of defending an open ball handler during a pick and roll. However, this coverage can create favorable match-ups for the offense, pitting athletic guards against slower, less nimble big men. And for the Roll man, the PNR often leaves them defended by smaller players who they can easily shoot over.

3. Simple & Adaptable

It’s intuitive and easy to execute even in the youth ranks, but it can also be altered for various situations on the court, making it challenging to defend.

4. Opens Scoring Opportunities: A good screener is a valued asset on a team because they can easily give ball handlers an open shot with a perfect set pick. And if the defender successfully navigates around them, he’s free to roll to the basket or pop out for an open jump shot. Both scenarios can lead to high-percentage shots. 

5. Gets the Defense into Foul Trouble: The PNR is also a great way to fish for fouls. A big man with a smaller defender can use his body to create contact and draw a foul. On the other hand, a quick jump-shooting ball handler often gets fouled by less agile big men trying to contest their shot.

Tips on How to Execute Pick and Roll in BasketballTips on How to Execute Pick and Roll in Basketball

Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean executing it well is easy. A poorly timed PNR, for example, can result in an illegal pick or a turnover. So, to maximize your chances of scoring, here are some pointers:

1. Practice timing to avoid illegal screens

Because it’s so lethal, the NBA and other leagues have imposed a couple of rules to prevent teams from abusing the pick and roll. One of them is an illegal screen, which occurs when the screener is still moving when contact with the ball handler’s defender occurs or if he sticks out his arm or legs in an unnatural way to hinder the defender from getting to his assignment.

2. Draw out the defense’s best paint protector

You can raise the efficacy of the PNR by using whoever the defense’s best paint protector is guarding as the screener. This essentially pulls them out of their comfort zone, increasing your team’s chances of scoring.

3. Keep off-ball players ready to shoot: Weak-side help defense is one of the most effective ways to defend the PNR. However, it requires the defense to leave some off-ball players open to help stop the screener and the roller. If the ball handler can find a good passing angle, they must be ready for a catch-and-shoot situation.

4. Invert the PNR by using guards as screeners: With big men like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic, who have excellent ball-handling skills, you can invert the PNR by using a guard as a screener. This can create mismatches on the floor that these playmaking big men can fully exploit.

5. Keep the defense guessing by trying PNR variations: Pick and pop and the pick and slip are variations of the PNR that both deserve a spot in your offensive arsenal. They are effective ways to get a shot up in the middle of the defense and can be used as counters if you’re having difficulty executing your PNR.

Pick and Roll DefensePick and Roll Defense

Each of these defensive strategies has its pros and cons and would be used based on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s the responsibility of the coach and players to find the most effective strategy based on their matchup.

Hedge and Recover

The roll man’s defense “hedges” by briefly leaving their check and stepping out to impede the progress of the ball handler. This helps to slow down or disrupt the ball handler’s movement off the screen.

This so-called “hedge” is intended to stall the ball handler momentarily, disrupting their rhythm and path toward the basket. Then, the defender who hedged will “recover” by quickly returning to their original assignment, hence the term “Hedge and Recover.”


The defender guarding the ball handler shifts to cover the screener, while the defender initially guarding the screener switches to guard the ball handler. This is the simplest way to defend the PNR, but it introduces mismatches that can be exploited by the offense.

Drop Coverage or Sag

In this strategy, the defender of the screener drops close to the basket, clogging the driving lane for the ball handler while the on-ball defender tries to recover from the screen.

Trap or Double Team

Defenders attempt to trap the ball handler immediately after the screen, trying to force a turnover or a bad pass.

Go Under

The defender tasked to man the ball handler goes beneath the screen, as opposed to over. This strategy is generally applied when the ball handler is not a significant outside shooting threat.

Who are the Best Pick and Pick-and-Roll Players in NBA HistoryWho are the Best Pick and Pick-and-Roll Players in NBA History?

With the PNR being in existence for decades, some duos in the game have become so proficient at running it that they are considered some of the best at it. Here is a list of the top pick-and-roll players in NBA history: 

John Stockton and Karl Malone

The Utah Jazz duo were inducted into the Hall of Fame together, having been an integral part of their team’s success for over a decade. They were both excellent at executing the PNR, with Stockton being arguably one of the ball handlers in the history of the sport. On the other hand, Malone is a scoring machine who can finish on the inside as a roll man or pop out for a mid-range jump shot when needed.

Tony Parker and Tim Duncan

Parker and Duncan’s PNR plays are some of the most lethal plays in the 2000s. Their pick and rolls were able so potent that they were able to help the Spurs beat a Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers at the height of the powers in the 2003 Western Conference Finals. Tim Duncan was an excellent roll man and an even better mid-range shooter with his patented bank shot whenever the defense denied him the roll. But if there was anything that made their PNR effective, it was Tony Parker’s quickness, basketball IQ, and ability to finish around the rim.

Steph Curry and Draymond Green

Curry’s unique abilities as an elite shooter and an effective scorer off the dribble, combined with Green’s exceptional basketball IQ and playmaking, make this duo exceedingly dangerous when executing the pick and roll. Defenses scramble whenever Curry clears a screen, as a tiny sliver of space is enough for the greatest shooter of all time to launch a jump shot. His gravity gives Draymond Green ample space to catch a drop pass. Green can either choose to attack the rim or make a pass to an open teammate. This play has essentially given rise to the Golden State Warrior’s supremacy in the late 2010s.

Wrapping Things Up: Why is the Pick and Roll So Effective in Basketball?

With a 24.5% utilization rate in the NBA, there is no other play action that is more impactful in basketball than pick and roll. And while it’s primarily a two-man game, this play also gives off-ball players an opportunity to get open

It’s a great play to run if you need to get your team’s momentum going. It gives replicable outcomes if the defense fails to adjust and can be tweaked to create different opportunities. 

If it’s executed correctly, it can create space for the ball handler, lead to mismatches, or scoring opportunities for other players. And when the defense gets too aggressive, PNRs also generate a lot of fouls.

Because of these benefits, the PNR has become one of the go-to plays for some of the best teams in the NBA, such as the Steph Curry era of the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs of the 2000s, and the Utah Jazz of the late 90s that nearly dethroned Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

So, whether you’re a fan of this simple yet effective two-man game or not, there’s no doubt the pick and roll is will continue to be a huge part of the game. And if you’re trying to be a better basketball player or coach, it’s important to learn how to execute it properly. This might just get you that coaching job or roster spot.

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Picture of Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

If you found this helpful, help us out by sharing this post!


Readers of this post also read...

How is the NBA All-Star Team Selected

How is the NBA All-Star Team Selected?

Getting into the All-Star game is no simple feat. For some players, it may take several seasons of high-level play to get the nod. However, other exceptional talents come into the league with so much...

Read More
What Does DTD Mean in Basketball?

What Does DTD Mean in Basketball?

Basketball is a world of its own with unique terms or jargon, in and out of the court. Through the years, more terms have been developed to represent specific things about the sport, and understanding...

Read More

Get our top basketball tips to become a better baller

Enter your email to get access to our best tips for success.