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Pick-and-roll timing is everything for big men playing with Trae Young

Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Pick-and-roll and its offshoots are the foundation of NBA offense in the modern game. In 2019-20, the average team finishes a possession with pick-and-roll about 34 percent of the time; ten years ago, the Orlando Magic led the league in pick-and-roll usage at 30.6 percent. The offensive success of the Mike D’Antoni Suns in the late 2000s and the increased Moreyification of the league as a whole have pushed teams further and further toward pick-and-roll, even if D’Antoni and Daryl Morey currently oversee a Houston Rockets team that runs the second-fewest pick-and-rolls as a proportion of total possessions.

The Atlanta Hawks are on the exact opposite side of that spectrum – they run the second-most pick-and-roll in the league. That should come as no surprise to those who have watched them; when you have Trae Young on your team, pick-and-roll is going to be a major part of your team’s offense. He’s one of the premier pick-and-roll operators in the game today, with the handle, ability to score at all three levels, and the passing technique and vision to pick apart defenses. Moreover, he doesn’t have enough physical advantages to be able to operate in an isolation-heavy system; running him off of various screens, both with and without the ball, is the best way to maximize his skill set and therefore maximize the team’s chances of winning on a nightly basis.

The other side of every Hawks’ pick-and-roll doesn’t receive as much attention or coverage, unless it’s John Collins jumping from the dotted circle to throw down a lob from Young. It’s just sort of generally assumed that Young does the work in pick-and-roll and anybody on the receiving end of one of his passes is like an observing bystander who happened to be called into action.

While Young clearly does the lion’s share of the work and it’s understandable why he receives the majority of the plaudits, there are a lot of hidden-in-plain-sight skills that go into being his pick-and-roll partner. Collins, Alex Len, and Bruno Fernando (plus Damian Jones, should he return to the rotation) are simultaneously tasked with getting Young the space he needs to be dangerous as a scorer and find their way to the basket, where they can provide a passing option for their second-year point guard.

Collins’ return will provide Young with his best pick-and-roll partner currently on the roster, as his athleticism enables him to be in nearly two places at once – he can set a hard screen for Young at the top, then explode into the paint and draw all kinds of defensive attention, without ever touching the ball. Len and Fernando don’t have that same athletic profile, which means they have to win with other skills.

Len gets by with his massive frame; at 7’0 and listed at 250 pounds, the Ukrainian big man isn’t the quickest laterally nor the most explosive vertically, but he can carve out a ton of space in the paint and demands attention when he’s rolling in behind the opposing big man. His size also makes him a key weapon on the offensive glass.

Fernando is in many ways Len’s opposite. He’s listed at “just” 6’9 and 233 pounds, which puts him on the smaller side of the center spectrum. He makes up for it with more burst athletically, which shows up on both ends of the floor and is a key reason why the Hawks traded up to grab Fernando with the No. 34 pick in June’s draft.

Len and Fernando have also had the chance to develop another key aspect of their pick-and-roll partnership with Young in recent weeks: timing. It’s not often discussed in the conversations surrounding the very best pick-and-roll big men in the league, but timing can be everything for a rumbling center in the fast-paced version of basketball played these days. At this point, Len has better timing on his rolls to the rim than Fernando, though that is absolutely to be expected when factoring in the experience gap between the two players.

In general, a rolling big man has two options when setting a ball screen or working in the DHO game with a guard: he can slip to the basket early or he can stay put and set a solid screen. Each has their pros and cons, and the best bigs are able to read the guard’s defender to make the right play more often than their competition.

It is in this area that Fernando sometimes struggles – he can often pursue contact on the screen, even if it leaves him somewhat out of the play and unable to truly create an advantage for his teammate. It’s such a small thing that it seems incredibly nit-picky to even point it out, but it can make all the difference between an easy bucket and a missed opportunity for the Hawks.

On the above play, Young is handling the ball against Brooklyn’s Garrett Temple, with Fernando standing at the top of the key to set a drag screen for his point guard. Young has an advantage and turns the corner, but instead of moving with him, Fernando waits just that one extra beat to chip Temple, then begins his roll to the rim. By the time he catches up to the play, Jarrett Allen has already contained Young’s drive and can start his recovery back to Fernando, leaving Young without any good options. Furthermore, Fernando’s roll draws no weak-side help from Spencer Dinwiddie or Joe Harris, both of whom are glued to their marks on the perimeter. Young eventually finds Fernando, but the advantage is gone and Allen stuffs the rookie big man at the rim.

Compare that to this play from Len in the second quarter against the Nets:

Len leaves his post about a half step earlier than Fernando did on the previous possession and it makes all the difference in the world. As Young is turning the corner, Len recognizes that he already has Temple beat, so he begins his roll to the rim as soon as Young gets past him:

As a result of Len’s slip to the basket, Nets center DeAndre Jordan can’t smother Young’s drive the same way Allen did in the previous clip. Jordan backs up as far as he can in an attempt to cover all of Young’s options, but Len rolls right in behind him for the easy dunk. Len’s early slip to the basket, made just a half step earlier than a regular roll after a strong screen, was the key to this play, as the cascading effects on Jordan’s defensive positioning were caused by Len’s presence ahead of Young on the roll.

Later in the game, Len once again slips out of the screen a beat earlier than normal, putting Allen on his heels and opening up Young’s signature floater. Len’s positioning out in front of Young doesn’t exactly turn him into a lead blocker, since he’s not directly making contact with Allen, but his presence ahead of the play pushes Allen back toward the basket and creates the seam for Young to get to the floater. If Len had stayed back to ensure he got a hard screen on Dinwiddie, then he would have been behind the play and Allen could have stymied Young’s drive, as he did in the first clip.

An early roll can free up players other than Young, as well:

Len once again rolls early, getting out ahead of Young and behind Jordan, who is playing further up the floor in a bid to take away Young’s pull-up ability. This necessitates a third defender entering the proceedings, as otherwise Len will have an open dunk. Rodions Kurucs is that third defender, but that leaves Cam Reddish open in the corner, which is where Young delivers the ball. A slightly more accurate pass would have created an easy catch-and-shoot look for the rookie, but the fact that Reddish was even open in the first place had a lot to do with Len making that quick roll to the rim and forcing help.

Most any strategy employed on a basketball court has positive and negatives aspects to it. Not setting a hard screen can leave the Hawks’ diminutive point guard susceptible to his defender catching up and blocking him from behind:

In this clip, Len doesn’t necessarily slip hard to the rim, but he doesn’t get a great deal of contact on Temple and stays even with Young on the roll and presents him with a passing option if he wants it. Allen does a wonderful job of staying in position to prevent the pass as well as an easy layup, which buys time for Temple to get back into the play and swat Young’s shot away. With a more solid screen, Temple would have needed more time to recover and Young likely could have gotten this floater off, though the cascading effects of Len staying put in order to set the hard screen would have brought Allen closer to Young and perhaps prevented the floater in a similar way.

One of Young’s premier skills is his pull-up ability, particularly from deep. It’s a huge part of his overall reputation and helps to create the hard traps he sees from other teams with more aggressive defensive schemes. Young’s pull-up triple is nearly always opened by a hard screen (unless he pulls out his newly minted right-to-left crossover, which nearly always leaves defenders lurching the wrong way):

Len sets a much harder screen on Dinwiddie in the above clip, which puts Young in perfect position to stop at the three-point line and fire away. This is where Young gets to make his read of the situation, as it’s his choice whether he turns the corner hard to the rim or takes an extra sideways step to look for the pull-up jumper. A quick glance over his right shoulder shows him that Len stayed with the screen, giving him all the daylight he needs to toss in a rainbow from beyond the arc.

The inherent risk of staying home to set a solid screen is in the overall efficiency of the plays created by doing so. In general, a pull-up jumper from a pick-and-roll ball handler is not a particularly efficient shot, though Young threatens to break that theory with his performance this season. Through 29 games played for the club this season, he’s put up an insane 123.2 offensive rating on pull-up jumpers in pick-and-roll, per Synergy, good for second in the league among 21 players with at least 75 such jumpers. Of course, when the sample size is that small, a single make or miss can vault a player up or down the rankings by many places, so his success in this area so far this season is not to be taken as a foregone conclusion moving forward.

Still, one of Young’s best offensive skills has long been his pull-up ability, the threat of which changes how defenses operate late in games and creates seams all over the court. Even if he comes back down to Earth with his pull-up shooting – his overall pull-up shooting is at a much more modest 106.4 offensive rating, which is still very good when compared to the league but isn’t necessarily a model for long-term offensive success – it makes sense for the Hawks to continue to build that threat in opponents’ minds and ensure that they take him seriously when he comes off a screen with enough of an opening to shoot the ball immediately.

Setting a softer screen or slipping altogether likely presents a higher expected value than staying home to create an easier pull-up jumper, as a big man rolling ahead of his guard puts a lot of pressure on the defense no matter what the coverage is. As we saw in the above examples, whether the Nets were conservative or aggressive in the pick-and-roll defense, the Hawks were able to create significant threats at the rim and from the perimeter when Len rolled quickly to the rim and was able to get out in front of Young’s drive.

The answer to this question is similar to the answer to nearly every either/or question in the NBA: a mix of both is the best way to handle it. Setting a few hard screens early in a game can lead to defenders expecting hard screens and taking more circuitous paths to avoid them, which opens up easier pull-up jumpers or creates an even easier 2-on-1 opportunity with a well-timed slip. Throwing in a few quick slips to the basket will keep the defensive big man on his heels, unwilling to commit so heavily to trapping Young on the perimeter.

Knowing when to do which and how the defense is going to react is a massive part of the growth of any young big man playing with Young, as the Hawks run a ton of pick-and-roll and don’t look particularly close to stopping. Fernando’s growth as a screener will include a lot of work in this area and as he and Young become more comfortable together on the floor, each will be able to read the defense and each other to make the right plays.