Simmons says defending the ball screen is a balance of athleticism and communication.
Simmons says defending the ball screen is a balance of athleticism and communication.
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Lucas: Offseason Emphasis
Release: 07/11/2013

By Adam Lucas

Carolina won't have to deal with Shane Larkin during the 2013-14 season, as the Miami point guard was chosen 18th overall in the recent NBA Draft and will play for the Dallas Mavericks next season.

But Larkin still had a major impact on the Tar Heels' summer workouts. A 2012 NCAA rule change allows coaches to provide two hours of basketball instruction each week. Sometimes, the coaching staff has chosen to use that time to observe offseason pickup games, like last month's basketball camp game between former players and the current team.

In July, however, they've used that time for actual skill instruction. The Tar Heels have had two team practice days, most recently Monday of this week. That's where Larkin plays a role, as one of the areas of emphasis was defending ball screens.

That's the play Larkin used to great success in averaging 19 points per game in three contests against the Tar Heels last season. "Shane Larkin picked us apart on that," Luke Davis said Wednesday afternoon.

Part of the reason for Larkin's performance is that Larkin is a very good player. But it's also true that defending ball screens seemed to be a season-long Tar Heel bugaboo.

"I can't tell you how many times the coaches got into us about ball screen defense," Davis says.

It's an incredibly simple play. But it's also incredibly effective when run well, and very difficult to defend. That's why it's become a staple at every level of basketball. If at some point a team develops a foolproof defensive strategy against it, offenses will continue to evolve, but until then, the Tar Heels have to figure out a way to cope with it.

This is how Davis describes the defensive conundrums presented by the play:

"If you're a guard, you have to deal with somebody standing in your way trying to set a screen," he says. "They're trying to create space for the guard. And it's hard to contain the guard without the help of the big man who is guarding the screener. You don't want to switch and have two mismatches. That's why so many teams do it, and why it's so effective."

Carolina wasn't totally helpless against the play last year. Most notably in a road win at Georgia Tech, they tweaked their defensive approach and had some success preventing dribble penetration.

When the play is defended well, it can lead to bad shots, which often lead to fast break opportunities, which are the perfect fuel for the Tar Heel offense. Jackson Simmons knows exactly how a ball screen would be defended in a perfect scenario.

"The big man would force the ballhandler out and change his path," Simmons says. "He'd stop the penetration. And once he shows, the big man would recover with his hands up, in case the ballhandler is trying to hit the screener with a pass. You have to be active denying that pass. The man on the ball would get over the screen and under his man and would keep his man from driving baseline. That's how it would unfold in a perfect scenario."

That's the same formula the Tar Heels used to stop the play last year, and it's the same approach they'll use this coming season. This week's summer session was devoted to introducing those principles to the freshmen, and reinforcing them for the returning players.

"Defending the screen on the ball is about communication and it's about want-to to not allow yourself to be broken down," Simmons says. "It's great to have athleticism. But if you don't have want-to and communication, that play is going to break you down."

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.


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