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How Shaka Smart's Ball Screen Offense Works for the Texas Longhorns

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Ball screens are creating high quality scoring chances for a suddenly dangerous Texas offense.

Ridley-Taylor ball screens are a major part of Texas' attack.
Ridley-Taylor ball screens are a major part of Texas' attack.
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

After the first nine games of the season, Shaka Smart's vision for this Texas basketball team is starting to emerge. On defense, Smart has only partly implemented the full court pressure defenses for which he is known, and is likely to only dabble with the press for this season. (The Horns rarely pressed in Saturday's win over North Carolina.)

On the offensive end of the floor, Texas' offense is built on the kinds of ball screening sets Smart used at Virginia Commonwealth University. After Saturday's win over North Carolina, I thought it would be a good time to look at three of Texas' most-used offensive sets, all of which revolve around the ball screen.

Horns

You can make an argument that the "Horns" play is something that the Longhorns should have been using for years, if only because of its name. Horns is one of basketball's most basic and common plays; you will see it used at every level of the game. It is particularly dangerous when a team has a strong low post player, and a second big man who can shoot and handle the ball. This makes it well-suited to the combination of Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert.

The photo below shows the initial alignment for Horns. The two big men set up near the elbows, while the wings stand in the corners. The ball handler (in this case Isaiah Taylor) can initiate a ball screen with either of the two Texas big men.

No matter who Taylor uses, the play will proceed more or less in the same way. Cameron Ridley will roll to the basket while Connor Lammert will flash to outside the three point line.

In the photo below, Taylor has chosen to use Lammert's screen. Note what is happening here. Lammert's man is helping to contain Taylor (as is typical with ball screen defense). This will give Lammert a chance to pop open while Ridley dives to the basket.

In the next image we see the situation after Lammert has popped and received the ball. Texas is now in a very good position. A skilled player like Lammert has a number of options available to him. It is this sort of action that makes Lammert -- who can shoot, pass, and dribble -- so valuable to the Texas offense. If open, he can shoot the three or attack off the dribble. He can reverse the ball to Demarcus Holland on the wing, and set a ball screen. Or he can enter the ball to Ridley, who is sealing his defender in the lane.

In this case, Lammert puts the ball inside to Ridley, who gets a chance to score with two feet in the paint. North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks does a good job to prevent Ridley from getting even deeper position (Meeks is one of the few D-I big men who is strong enough to do this to Ridley), but Ridley makes a nice turnaround shot anyway.

As you watch games, you will see Texas run this basic Horns set a lot, particularly when the offense resets and the Longhorns need to generate a quick shooting chance.

Back screen -- ball screen

There are a variety of ways that teams defend ball screens in the modern game. Virtually all of these approaches require some sort of coordinated effort between the defender guarding the ball handler and the defender guarding the screener.

To hinder this coordinated defensive effort, Texas frequently runs some other offensive action prior to initiating the ball screen. This initial action is designed to get the man defending the screener out of position, making it more difficult for him to help contain the ball handler.

The first example of this I want to show is a play that Texas has run a lot this season, where a back screen is used to set up a ball screen. I don't know who first came up with this play, but I first noticed it being run by Louisville a a few years ago.

Let's pick up the action of this play below. In this case, Eric Davis, Jr. has the ball, and Lammert is screening down to free up Javan Felix.

Felix comes off the screen and receives the ball, as shown below. As this happens, Cameron Ridley is preparing to set a back screen for Davis.

The photo below shows the moment as this back screen is being set. There are few actions that threaten a defense as much as a back screen, as if successfully executed it typically results in a layup. Because of this, back screens generally attract a lot of defensive attention. (Coaches looking to free up a good offensive player will sometimes have him set a back screen.) Here, Cameron Ridley's defender is laying back to prevent an easy layup off the back screen.

Immediately after Davis clears the screen, Ridley moves to set a ball screen for Javan Felix. In the photo below, note just how far away Ridley's defender is -- he is in absolutely no position to help guard the ball handler.

After Ridley buries the defender with his ball screen, and Felix makes a dribble to the left, Felix is left open for a three point shot, which he drains. Ridley's defender had no chance to contest the shot.

Down screen -- ball screen

The final play that I will show is one that Texas has run many times each game through the early part of the season. If you watch the Longhorns play enough, you will learn to recognize this play by the initial action shown below.

The play starts off with the ball up top, and a wing (labeled "First Screener" in the image below) setting a screen for one of the Texas big men (who in this case is labeled "Ball Screener.")

This initial screen is not intended to free the big man to receive a pass, but is instead designed to slow up the defender who is guarding him, putting him in a bad spot to help out on the ball screen.

After the down screen is set, the Texas big man (Shaquille Cleare in this example) sprints out to set a ball screen. The down screen delays his defender.

In the next photo, we see the alignment just before Cleare is preparing to screen for Taylor. Note that his defender is a few steps away from where he would ideally be for covering this ball screen.

As the screen is set, Cleare's defender has made a decent recovery. Cleare buries Taylor's defender with a tough screen, and prepares to roll to the basket. As he rolls, Lammert will flash to a point outside the three point line and prepare for ball reversal.

If we advance a few more frames, we reach the point illustrated below. Cleare is rolling to the rim, and will look to seal his defender. Taylor sizes things up and decides to reverse the ball to Lammert.

When the ball goes to Lammert, we find that Texas is in a configuration very similar to the one illustrated with the Horns set above. This ball reversal to Lammert is an available option in pretty much every high ball screen play that Texas runs. Lammert has the same menu of options as before, and again he puts the ball inside, as Cleare is establishing good position in the paint.

When you look at this play, consider all of the crap Cleare's defender has had to deal with. First, he had to fight through a screen, which slowed him on the way to help out on a ball screen. Then he had to work in concert with his teammate to contain Isaiah Taylor. Finally, he had to get back to his man and try to prevent him from gaining low post position. That is three difficult tasks in about four seconds. It is no wonder that Cleare was able to pin him deep, and that Texas ultimately earned a trip to the free throw line.

Many of Texas' post touches will come off of actions like this. By using the ball screen followed by ball reversal, Smart is giving his big men a chance to establish deep position near the basket. Of course, this is largely made possible because of the way in which Lammert threatens the defense with his ability to shoot or drive to the basket. If his defender could instead hang back, it would clog up the paint, making this entry pass difficult.

I want to show one more example of this play, where again the stress put on the big defender is just too much to deal with. In this case, we set things up as Ridley is coming off a screen and running out to set a ball screen for Javan Felix.

As the screen is set, we again see that Ridley's defender is out of position, after fighting through a screen.

In this case, the defender overruns the play, sprinting to try to catch up, and Felix will go right past him to break down the defense.

As Felix penetrates into the lane, we see the role that the two wings have in this play. A common way to space the floor on high ball screens is to put three point shooters in each corner. This puts each defender in a position where he has to choose between guarding the three point line, or helping on penetration. Eric Davis' defender decides to help, which leaves Davis wide open in the corner for a catch-and-shoot three.

What ball screen sets accomplish for Texas

The purpose of all of these various sets is to get the Longhorns a good shot with a minimal amount of trouble. Part of the reason why ball screening is so popular is that teams frequently get a decent shot with only one or two passes, which reduces the risk of a turnover.

For Texas, the ball screens, when successfully executed, are likely to produce one of three basic outcomes, depending on how the defense responds:

  1. Dribble penetration to the rim to create a shot close to the basket or draw a trip to the free throw line.
  2. A kick out to an open three point shooter.
  3. Ball reversal and either a shot or a deep low post touch.
All three of these outcomes are good ones for the offense. When the shots fall (as they did against North Carolina) the Texas offense will be rather effective.