Round 26 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague featured one of the regular season’s most-anticipated games as first-place CSKA Moscow visited defending champ Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul. In front of almost 13,000 fans at Ulker Sports and Event Hall, Nando De Colo hit a last-second pull-up jumper to lift the visitors to victory in a game that more than lived up to expectations and certainly felt like a potential Final Four preview.
The Rise of Pick-and-Roll Play in the EuroLeague: Part 1
De Colo’s game-winning shot was the result of a pair of offensive actions that were not only representative of CSKA’s game plan on Friday night, but a reflection of pick-and-roll play becoming an increasingly important tenet of offensive strategy in the EuroLeague. Colloquially known as the “two-man game,” the pick-and-roll could be looked at as just that, an isolated action run by a ball-handler and a screener, but its application and use are expanding rapidly.
Over the course of its 81-79 win, CSKA generated 16 of the 70 possessions it used in the half court directly out of the pick-and-roll, with the ball-handlers using 13 possessions and the roll men using three. Their pick-and-roll ball handlers created another seven possessions indirectly with passes to spot-up shooters and cutters. In a unique twist relative to an average game, CSKA also exploited the mismatches created by defensive switching against the pick-and-roll in one-on-one situations on 12 possessions, including De Colo’s game-winner. In total, pick-and-roll play had a hand in 45% of CSKA’s possessions in the halfcourt as ball-screen action played a very prominent role in head coach Dimitris Itoudis’s game plan.
Itoudis and CSKA are far from the only EuroLeague team leaning heavily on pick-and-roll play. As the graph above suggests, CSKA ranks fourth this season in the percentage of half-court possessions that have derived from the pick-and-roll. Though some teams rely more heavily than others on their ball-handlers and roll men to score the ball directly, nearly every EuroLeague team is clustered neatly between 40 and 50 percent of their offense being derived in some manner from ball-screen actions. It has not been uncommon for teams to generate two-thirds of their points within their half-court offense from pick-and-roll play this season nor has it been surprising to see the league’s most dynamic guards contribute over 20 points in a single game with their scoring and passing out of ball screens alone. High-level guard play has become an increasingly critical part of a team’s offensive success and a deciding factor in many games all year.
The rise of pick-and-roll play to the apex of basketball strategy is a recent and ongoing phenomenon, even in the EuroLeague, which tends to be on the cutting edge of offensive play-calling and design. The graph above shows that, over the last decade, teams are not only looking to their ball handlers and screeners to score more frequently, but they are also finding a growing percentage of their offense from passes out of the pick-and-roll.
The merits of the pick-and-roll from a tactical perspective are very straightforward on the surface. A well-set screen forces the player defending the screener to make a decision on how to contain the ball handler. As pick-and-roll play has evolved as the focus of EuroLeague offenses, the guards controlling the action and the measures taken to stop them have evolved as well. Now more than ever, EuroLeague teams run the pick-and-roll knowing how the defense will respond and looking to capitalize on the mistakes of not just the first defensive rotation, but the second or even third ones. Ball-handlers are tasked with significant responsibilities not just to score themselves, but to put pressure on the defense, make complex reads, and whip the ball all over the floor to capitalize on even the smallest mistakes.
Few basketball leagues in the world can match the level of game-planning and execution that occurs in the EuroLeague. Many games feature the nuance and subtle gamesmanship of a high-level chess match, and the current weapon of choice among the league’s coaches is the pick-and-roll.