Considering alternatives to switching on screens
A varsity coach once was explaining why he demanded that all teams in his program switch on all screens.
“You know,” he says at one point, “John Wooden and Denny Crum switched on all screens.”
Unspoken is the fact that Wooden, a coach of 10 NCAA championship teams and numerous superstar players at UCLA, and Crum, a two-time national title winner known for recruiting versatile athletes to fit his system at Louisville, were about as far from the reality of most middle and high school coaches as you can be.
Wooden and Crum did not have to concern themselves with their 5-foot-2 point guard switching defensive assignments with their 5-foot-10 center. These two giants of the game were directing men, many in their 20s, capable of absorbing defensive strategies developed after watching hours of game film and pouring over detailed scouting reports.
So what’s a middle school coach to do when it comes to navigating his inexperienced players through the various screens they could face during the course of their season? In one opinion, it’s better to fight than switch. Here’s the reasoning, but first a nod to switching.
This isn’t to say that switching isn’t a viable way of defending screens. Many outstanding teams in high school and college do extensive switching. It’s a maneuver that requires practice and communication to not only defend the player coming off the screen, but to prevent a quick pass to the screener on the slip or shape up for an easy score.
And there are times when the opponent or game situation dictates that a switch is the best move in a particular case.
But to determine how you want to coach your young team, you must first decide what you are trying to accomplish with your players. Keep in mind a couple of important goals: effort and accountability.
Refuse to switch
Switching on all screens presents the danger of developing laziness and a lack of accountability in your players.
Coaches know that switching isn’t inherently a lazy maneuver. To do it right requires a strong effort. But kids are kids, and a lot of them, particularly those in schools with relatively mediocre programs that don’t emphasis work ethic enough, often don’t understand the concept of playing hard, particularly on defense. For them, switching is taking the easy way out against a screen.
Switching also removes accountability. Instead of the concept that I’m going to work my tail off to stop my opponent from scoring, I could end up guarding two or three different players on the same play.
Advanced players can play the switching game and understand the value of great defensive effort, but unless you’re blessed with relatively mature basketball minds in your younger players, they may not see this.
A more obvious problem with switching is mismatches. Few teams at the middle and high school levels have players so similar that they can literally guard any position on the court. One of the most terrifying scenes for some coaches is the one explained earlier, where my ponderous center is now guarding the other team’s point guard, while my undersized point guard finds them self buried in the post trying to check a big player who is a foot taller.
You could argue that it would be good experience in their development to guard different positions on the floor. The counter argument is while practice would be a great place to develop all aspects of defensive prowess in your players, switching in game situations before they have reached this advanced stage is only putting them in a position to fail.
Going behind screens
If you don’t want to switch, you’re left with two choices in most off-ball screening situations: Chase the cutter off the screen, or go behind it. Both are legitimate options, so let’s look at what could happen in each case.
The counter move for a player being chased around a screen would be to curl cut. This move takes him or her into prime scoring area, and trying to negate this by showing with the screener’s opponent opens up a slip by the screener for a layup.
On the other hand, the counter when a defender goes behind the screen in a downscreen situation is the flair cut toward the 3-point line. Against more advanced players, this could open up some real good looks for great shooters. In most cases at the middle school level, a long outside shot by your opponent is what you’re hoping for.
Going behind the screen would seem to be the way to go against most middle school teams, as the counter puts the player receiving the screen into their lowest shooting percentage area.
The coach must decide how he or she wants to handle the ball screen. There are multiple options to choose from if they decide against switching this play.
They may decide to switch on block-to-block screens if the coach finds their team is having trouble with this maneuver in game situations, considering that a defensive misplay in this case would lead to an easy layup. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to work on switching in case it’s needed in a late game situation to defend against a 3-point shot, or against an opponent that is particularly adept at outside shooting.
The bottom line is switching is a legitimate defensive strategy and it has its place at all levels of basketball, but what a coach does on a regular basis with their middle school team ought to be with a goal in mind. That goal is to develop hardworking, accountable players who take pride in their defense. It’s hard to find a team at any level that doesn’t possess these attributes.