Cal Basketball Film Study: How Not to Guard Ball Screens


There’s no doubt that the Washington Huskies had the Golden Bears number in 2011. The Huskies dominated the series, winning by an average of 27 points per game. A big part of that was Isaiah Thomas, who starred at point guard for UW in both meetings. In the first meeting at Haas Pavilion, the game we’re highlighting today, Thomas went off for 27 points and 13 assists. How did he do it? We’ll see soon.

Thomas picked apart the Bears off the dribble and with the jumper, but he also did a lot of his damage off of ball screens. While Isaiah is a fine player and there are reasons why he’s an NBA player, some of the fault has to fall on the Bear defense, or lack thereof. Guarding ball-screens, especially with some talented guards in the conference, will be of the utmost importance in 2011-2012, and learning from the Washington game would be one way to counter the weakness.

Here, Thomas comes off the screen, guarded by the frailer Brandon Smith. Smith slams into the screening Matthew Bryan-Amaning, leaving the responsibility of stopping Thomas from pulling up or driving the basket falls directly on Harper Kamp, who was guarding Bryan-Amaning. Amaning is no threat to shoot the 3, eliminating the pick and pop play, and he’s so far from the basket that he’s no immediate threat to score. Kamp can step all the way up and take on Thomas until Smith recovers, taking away his open path to the bucket and the opportunity of pulling up.

Instead of hedging hard and stopping Thomas, Kamp sags off and cuts off his ability to drive or dish to the low post. The problem is, Isaiah is more than capable of shooting the 3 ball. He pulls up here, wide open due to Kamp sagging, and knocks down a three pointer. In this case, Kamp doesn’t defend the man coming off the screen hard enough, giving him a chance to take that shot. Harper doesn’t even have to worry about his man, who’s not a threat in the play, which means Kamp is free to take on Thomas.

New situation; Cal’s out of the game in all likelihood, needing a stop here to have any hope of making this a close game. Thomas, now hounded by Jorge Gutierrez, is being screened by Justin Holiday, followed by Allen Crabbe. Unlike Amaning, Holiday is more than capable of shooting the 3 and the Bears will have to be watchful of the pick and pop. But as you can probably tell, the screen Holiday sets is poor. Crabbe should be able to get back to his man in time to prevent an unconstested three point attempt.

Fast forward, Thomas has gone past the screen, and Jorge was really untouched and got past the screener. Crabbe makes a freshman mistake and overpursues, setting up a trap of Thomas. Considering the Bears didn’t really do this all year or in this game, this was likely a mistake by Crabbe, trying to avoid another case of Thomas getting to the bucket and UW getting an easy two points. Holiday has faded to his favorite spot wide open, and now awaits a pass from Thomas.

Simple; Thomas makes a relatively easy feed to Holiday, who rises and knocks down an easy 3 point basket uncontested. After over pursuing Thomas, Crabbe has no chance of getting back to his man in time to stop him. Unlike the first play, he goes after the ballhandler too hard, unlike Kamp, who didn’t go in hard enough. It’s a tough balance, but getting it right is a cornerstone of good defensive basketball teams.

Not guarding ball screens properly is a big part of why the Bears struggled defensively against the Huskies, and the rest of the Pac-10 in general. These aren’t two isolated instances; I counted at least seven Huskie buckets just off of ball screens, and that’s unacceptable. As you can see, there’s little margin for error; communication and proper timing is required to do it well, and the Bears lacked it often. The good news is that’s the kind of thing that can be gained through playing together frequently, and with a full year and a summer under this team’s belt they should be a more cohesive unit defensively. That’ll lead to better defense across the board, and especially when the Huskies (or others) try to pick and pop, pick and roll, or screen defenders.

This is another case of breaking down what can go wrong with an inexperienced team on the defensive end, and how it can improved. Hopefully Cal can showcase some improved defensive fundamentals in the upcoming season. Next time around on film study, we’ll likely take a look at some of the things the Bears on the offensive end. Go Bears!