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Game Awareness: A Look At The Phoenix Mercury's On-Ball Screen

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In his recent newsletter Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Brian McCormick had an extended description of how the Phoenix Mercury used on-ball screens against the San Antonio Silver Stars in the Western Conference Semifinals.

While the piece caught my eye because I was thinking about how the Seattle Storm might prepare to defend the Mercury in the upcoming Western Conference Finals, I was doubly interested because of a post on his blog that was also made yesterday.

From the newsletter (reprinted with permission from McCormick):

Tactical skills are used to disorganize the defense. When setting an on-ball screen, the action can disorganize the defense in several ways: switching the screen creates match-ups problems; poor communication leads to dribble penetration and forces help; trapping the ball handler forces the other three defender to rotate and defend four players; and more.

Offensive success occurs when the team creates and then takes advantage of the disorganization. In the PHX game, when the point guard immediately passed to the screener, the offensive team allowed the defense to switch without punishing the mismatches or forcing the other three defenders to rotate or scramble.

For instance, Tameka Johnson used a screen by Tangela Smith; on the switch, Sophia Young switched to Johnson while Hammon switched to Smith. Smith is a three-point shooter, but the quick pass allowed Hammon to stay tight to Smith and not give her room to shoot, while Johnson did nothing to exploit her mismatch against Young. Smith possessed the ball at the top of the key against a quicker guard and ultimately passed to another player. However, this player was not wide open, as the defense was not disorganized by the on-ball screen.

Ball handlers should use two dribbles on all on-ball screens. The first dribble is to turn the corner off the screen: every time a player receives the on-ball screen, her mentality should be to turn the corner and penetrate. If she turns the corner, the second dribble enables her to extend away from the defender.

If she tries to turn the corner and gets cut off, she forces a switch, and the second dribble extends the defense - the second dribble forces the defender to make a decision: she cannot hedge and recover if the ball handler extends with a second dribble.

As she extends the defense, if the defender leaves the ball to recover and prevent a mismatch, the ball handler has an open shot or an open lane before her defender recovers. If the screener's defender stays, the ball handler has a mismatch, and the screener has a mismatch.

In the PHX case, since Smith is essentially a jump shooter, she is unlikely to take Hammon into the post (in Game 2, they made this adjustment and rolled Smith to the basket to post-up Hammon). Therefore, the best play is for Johnson to square up on Young and attack her with the dribble.

If Johnson gains a step on Young, she forces another defender to help: the mismatch leads to penetration which breaks down the defense and forces the defense to scramble. The defense is unlikely to help away from Diana Taurasi, so Johnson's penetration likely leads to a lay-up for Candice Dupree or a shot for Penny Taylor or the defense simply chooses to take its chances with Johnson finishing at the basket against Young.

These possibilities happen simply because the ball handler keeps her dribble alive and extends the defense to create more space. Ball handlers must be aggressive when using the screen and keep all their options available rather than committing to the pass as soon as they hit the screen.

At the core of this account is that in Game 1, Johnson followed a routine of passing out of a pick and roll instead of responding to the opportunity presented by the situation (the potential to put pressure on the defender by keeping the dribble).

This is not a critique of Johnson as much as an example of what McCormick described in his blog as game awareness -- the ability for a player to respond creatively (considering multiple alternatives and choosing the best one) to the situation as it unfolds vs. merely running a scripted play. Creativity not only maximizes the opportunity to score on a give possession, but also disorganizes the defense. McCormick describes it in his blog as the difference between players labeled as "NBA" and "FIBA" players.

Game Awareness Skills, the FIBA World Championships and College Basketball Recruiting « Basketball Coaching & Youth Basketball

Now, players like Kevin Durant play well in any situation. However, across the Internet, bloggers, media and coaches have argued about what players fit better in the International game and who is a “FIBA player” vs. an “NBA player. Players like O.J. Mayo are labeled “NBA players” while players like Chauncey Billups are described as good fits for the International game.

When I hear people describe a high school player as an “up-tempo” player who does not fit into a slower tempo program, I figure that the player is unskilled and lacks game awareness. After all, what types of players excel in transition? Who excels in the half-court?

Transition situations create a numbered-advantage for the offense which makes decision-making easier. With youth players, I play advantage games because they are not expert decision makers so they need more time and space to make decisions and execute skills.

With experienced players, I use disadvantaged drills to challenge players’ skills. For instance, to practice ball handling, I use 1v2 and 2v3 drills which condense the space and time. Expert players need to play in smaller spaces and need to play quicker because they play against bigger, faster, longer players who cover more ground.

We can debate whether McCormick's assessment of individual players is correct, especially with regard to Johnson -- clearly he notes that Johnson executed the play better the next game meaning that he's not claiming that she "lacks game awareness" based on this small sample. But heading into the series with the Seattle Storm it's something interesting to watch - game awareness is certainly something that Sue Bird exhibits and the Mercury's halfcourt offense may be dependent on it.