Everything you need to know about defending a pick and roll in basketball

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Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves.

The pick and roll is an integral part of the game of basketball. That’s why knowing how to properly run it is so important. But do you know what may be just as important? Knowing how to defend the pick and roll. That’s why, in this article, we discuss everything you need to know about defending the game’s most common play.

Three Types of Pick And Roll Coverages

In his book, “Spaced Out: The Tactical Evolution of the Modern NBA,” Mike Prada elucidated pick and roll coverages into three major types. Those three coverages trap, drop, and switch.

Prada also says that you should look at these coverage categories in a spectrum. Prada wrote:

“Think of the first two categories as the opposite ends of a spectrum, with the trap occupying the far left (aggressive) pole and drop occupying the far right (conservative). The many variations of each – described in various sidebars throughout this chapter – fall somewhere between those two extremes. Switching, meanwhile, can be aggressive or conservative depending on how it’s executed.”

So, when discussing the various pick and roll coverages that are used today, it makes the most sense to focus on these three major categories and where they sit on the pick and roll defense spectrum.

Type #1: Traps

As we mentioned above, traps are the most aggressive type of pick and roll coverage. This is because, in traps, the defense is sending two defenders at the ball handler and automatically conceding a 4-on-3 advantage.

In general, there are three potential outcomes that the defense is hoping for when they execute this coverage: 1) that they force a turnover, 2) that they slow down the ball handler, or 3) that the ball handler gives up the basketball.


The hedge (also known as the “show and recover” is probably the oldest pick and roll coverage in the book. In this alignment, the player defending the screener tries to momentarily block the ball handler’s path until the player defending the ball handler can get back in front of them. Then, the screener defender recovers back to the screener.

Another thing to note is that when the screener defender tries to block the ball handler’s path, they are positioned with their back facing the sideline, as you will see in the clip below (video below taken from Dylan Murphy’s Basketball Dictionary):

In more advanced versions of the hedge and recover, the screener defender won’t recover to their original man. Instead, another defender will recover to the screener, and the screener defender will recover to a player that is further away from the ball handler. This makes it harder for the ball handler to capitalize on the 4-on-3 advantage created by the hedge.

The Dallas Mavericks successfully used this tactic in their series upset over the Phoenix Suns in 2022.

Hard Hedge

The hard hedge is basically a supercharged version of the hedge. Like its sister coverage, the goal is to block the ball handler’s path until their defender can get around the screen. The key difference is that here, the screener defender jumps out, for lack of a better word, “harder” at the ball handler in the hopes of forcing a turnover or the ball handler to pick up their dribble.

The one drawback to this is that, since the screener defender is more committed to the hedge, it takes them longer to recover back to their man, which gives the ball handler even more time to dissect the 4-on-3 advantage.

Trap/Hard Double/Blitz

If the hard hedge is a supercharged version of the hedge, the trap is the hard hedge on steroids. In this coverage, both defenders – the ball handler defender and the screener defender – jump out at the ball handler. They stay attached to the ball handler until the ball handler either turns the ball over, gets rid of the basketball, or discontinues their dribble.

This is a super aggressive way to defend a ballscreen, and when executed properly it can produce a high volume of turnovers. However, the downside to this approach is that, as long as the ball handler can maintain their dribble, they have a 4-on-3 advantage that they can exploit.

This play is normally reserved for late-game situations or instances where one team is trailing heavily and needs to put points on the board in a hurry.

Switch Double

I hesitated to put this pick and roll coverage in the trap category but eventually landed on doing so anyway. Here, when the ballscreen occurs, the defense initially switches the action (which is why I considered putting this coverage type in the switch category). But the reason it isn’t in that typology is that immediately after the switch, the original defender returns to the ball handler and executes a double team. Like this:

After the double team, the screener defender rotates back to either their original man or the next closest open offensive player.

Teams use this strategy to combat matchup-hunting tactics that modern-day offenses often like to engage in. The switch double gives ball handlers a different look than they are used to because they initially believe that they have elicited the mismatch they sought out to get, only to soon find out that they will be getting bull rushed by a second defender.

At The Level

I’ve often heard that “at the level” coverage is the pick and roll defense with the fewest tradeoffs. That’s because it gives you a lot of the aggressive elements that other types of traps offer (putting two defenders on the ball) while also maintaining some conservative features (the screener defender is still kind of in a drop position).

In this coverage, when a screen gets set, the big man doesn’t hedge or full-on double. Rather, they stay “at the level” of the screen until the ball handler has successfully navigated the screen. Then, the big recovers back to the screener.

If the ball handler hits the roller before the screener defender can rotate back to them, it is up to the player located on the weakside corner (aka the “low man”) to rotate over and offer resistance at the rim.

While this coverage does come with the fewest drawbacks (at least among traps), it is also the hardest one to execute. Not only does the ball handler defender need to navigate the ballscreen as swiftly as they can. The screener defender also needs to be able to backpedal quickly enough to avoid getting beat by the ball handler before their defender can recover back to them.

The screener defender also needs to keep their hands engaged in order to try and steal/deflect any passes the ball handler may try to execute in this situation. After all that, they need to quickly recover back to the screener.

And then there is the third defender involved in this action – the low man. They need to make sure that their low man rotation is timely (the sooner you rotate over, the better chance you have of drawing a charge). But they also can’t be so early with their rotation that they leave their assignment (the weakside corner shooter) wide open for three.

If you execute this coverage properly, you have a damn good pick and roll coverage to lean on (see the Denver Nuggets). But man, is it a hard technique to master.

Type #2: Drops

As you likely picked up on from reading the section above, all traps (to varying degrees) involve the defense conceding a 4-on-3 advantage. Doing this gives defenses a better chance of creating a turnover, but it also leaves them vulnerable to skilled passers. That’s why Prada refers to traps as being aggressive pick and roll coverages.

With type #2 (drops), we are looking at more conservative ballscreen coverages. The goal of these is to contain ballscreens to a 2-on-2 dance. This doesn’t produce as many turnovers, but it also doesn’t give offenses as many power plays to work with.

Drop/Deep Drop

Yes, the most common type of “drop” coverage is, of course, the “drop” coverage. In this alignment, when a screen occurs, the player defending the screener sinks back into the paint while the ball handler navigates the screen. By doing this, the screener can protect the paint from both the ball handler and the screener/roller. While this happens, the other three defenders remain “flat” (stay on their assignments).

As many people will tell you, this coverage does give the ball handler a runway for a pull-up jumper. However, if you have a good screen navigator manning the point of attack (like Jrue Holiday), you can mitigate the effects of this tradeoff by getting through the screen quickly and putting pressure on the ball handler from behind.

Drop coverage also leaves you susceptible to pick and pops. With that said, there are, quite frankly, so few big men who can shoot pick and pop triples accurately/quickly enough to make the coverage type not worth it.

Under One

When navigating a ballscreen in drop coverage, the ball handler’s defender normally goes over the screener. As a general rule, it requires more effort to go over a screen, but it also gives the ball handler less room to flow into their jumper.

When facing a weaker shooter, some teams will instruct their ball handler defender to go under the screen. This makes life easier on the ball handler defender and dares the poor shooting ball handler to beat the defense with their jumper.

The tradeoff to this approach is, of course, if the ball handler makes the defense pay for disrespecting them (this is something Jimmy Butler tends to do in the playoffs). Also, if the ball handler defender doesn’t go under the screen fast enough, the ball handler will beat them to the spot and, therefore, have an unimpeded runway to the rim.

Under Two

This one ∼ probably ∼ didn’t need its own section. But I gave it one anyway. Sue me. This is basically the same thing as under one. The exception is that instead of just going over the screen, the ball handler goes under both the screen and their teammate defending the screen (video below taken from Dylan Murphy’s Basketball Dictionary).


The best place you can be as a ball handler is in the middle of the floor. That is true for two reasons: 1) that’s where the paint is, and 2) when you are in the middle of the floor, you can see where all the help is coming from and make more informed decisions based on that.

As a result, some defenses will try to deny the ball handler the middle of the court (this is often referred to as the “no middle” defense). Enter, ICE ballscreen coverage.

This normally happens (but not always) when the offense is trying to run a wing/angle pick and roll. In these instances, the screener defender will stand in the same position they would be in if it was a regular drop coverage. The main difference here is that the ball handler defender works to deny the ball handler the screen and force them to go toward the sideline/baseline.

When done properly, this keeps the ball handler away from the middle of the floor.

This coverage comes with a lot of the drawbacks that we see with standard drop coverage. But you also run the risk of having the screen denial not work at all. If that happens, the ball handler defender is in a bad position to successfully navigate the screen. This gives the ball handler an easy pathway to the middle of the court. And after they get there, all hell breaks loose.

Unlike the first three subcategories of drop coverage we’ve discussed, ICE/Blue coverage involves some assistance from the defenders not involved in the immediate action (making this one of the least conservative types of drop).

For instance, if the ball handler drives baseline (like the defense wants them to) and hits their rolling screener, there is a chance that the screener defender can’t rotate over in time to stop them. In those situations, it is up to the low man to rotate over and protect the rim.

When done properly, ICE/Blue coverage can completely de-fang an offense. But little wrinkles like the one we outlined above make it one of the harder types of drop coverage to carry out.


“Nexting” is both the newest and hardest type of drop coverage to pull off. Remember how we said the goal of drop coverage is to keep pick and rolls contained to a 2-on-2 dance? Well, “nexting” throws that whole philosophy out of the window.

Nexting starts out as a regular drop coverage. That is, until the ball handler drives around the screen. From there, the strong side defender closest to the action (aka the nail defender) takes on the ball handler while the original ball handler defender peel switches over to that nail defender’s original assignment.

This coverage neutralizes the pull-up jumper that the normal version of drop coverage concedes. The only drawback is that you are, at least for a moment in time, giving the offense the 4-on-3 advantage that drop coverage is designed to avoid.

Type #3: Switch

The last main type of ballscreen coverage is switches. Like Prada mentioned in his book, switches exist somewhere in between traps and drops on the pick and roll coverage spectrum. With switches, you aren’t conceding automatic advantages like you are with traps. But you also aren’t being as conservative as you are with drops because you are letting the offense dictate what the matchups are (this makes it easier for them to matchup hunt).

Another note: switches are often appealing because they don’t require as much energy/degree of difficulty to execute.

Contact Switch/Hard Switch

As you can tell by the multiple different subheadings, switching isn’t as simple as changing defensive assignments. When doing a contact switch/hard switch, the player guarding the screener stays connected to the screener until the player guarding the ball handler carries out the switch.

The reason for maintaining this contact is so that the screener doesn’t slip the screen and roll to the rim before the ball handler defender can switch onto them. The tradeoff here (outside of allowing the offense to decide the matchups) is that this tactic creates a moment of openness for the ball handler to flow into a pull-up or explode into a drive. This moment of openness is commonly referred to as the “switch pocket.”

Soft Switch

Unlike the hard switch/contact switch, where the screener defender hands off their man to the ball handler defender, with soft switches, the ball handler defender goes under the screener, while the screener defender gives the ball handler a little bit of space before completing the switch.

Having the ball handler defender go under the screener makes it harder for the screener to get a good angle on their roll. Plus, like most switches, this keeps all five defenders in front of the ball.

Like the hard switch/contact switch, soft switching produces a switch pocket that ball handlers can exploit (especially if they are good shooters). And as we will soon see with point switching, this type of switching can cause some defenders to fall into bad habits (since it doesn’t require a lot of energy to execute).

Late Switch/Veerback Switch 

This, like the switch double, is one of those coverages I had a hard time placing in a specific category. I eventually decided to go with the switch category because it does ultimately end in a switch.

The late switch/veerback switch is the most spontaneous type of switch. It starts out as standard drop coverage. But once the ballscreen unfolds and either the screener defender or ball handler defender realizes that the drop isn’t working, one of them will call for a late switch/veerback switch. This simply means that the ball handler defender turns around (veers back) and switches onto the screener while the screener defender takes on the ball handler. It’s kind of like read-and-react for pick and roll defense.

This is a great way to counter teams that try to neutralize drop coverage by using the pick and pop. The main issue the coverage poses is that, since it normally involves a guard and center, it usually creates two major mismatches (a guard is guarding a center, and a center is shadowing a guard).

This is a great way to counter teams that try to neutralize drop coverage by using the pick and pop. The main issue the coverage poses is that, since it normally involves a guard and center, it usually creates two major mismatches (a guard is guarding a center, and a center is shadowing a guard).

Point Switch

Again, we have another case of a pick and roll coverage that means exactly what the name implies (remember, basketball isn’t rocket science). A point switch involves two guys pointing out that they are going to switch assignments. This is a great way to handle ballscreens while sacrificing as little energy as possible.

Like many other types of switches, this pick and roll coverage creates a “switch pocket” that decisive ball handlers can exploit in order to create an advantage. It also, like soft switches, has a tendency to promote poor habits on defense.

Triple Switch

As we’ve already cited multiple times, the main problem with switching is that it allows the defense to create the matchups they deem to be the most favorable. That’s where the triple switch comes in. In a triple switch, you have the standard exchange that occurs between the ball handler defender and the screener defender. But then you also have the ball handler defender (who is usually smaller than the screener) switch again with a third (typically bigger) defender.

Like at the level coverage and nexting, this is the subcategory of its category that comes with the fewest tradeoffs. But also like those two coverages, it is arguably the hardest type of switch to accomplish.


If the triple switch isn’t the hardest type of switch to execute, it’s the pre-switch. The pre-switch is like the triple switch in reverse. When the screener gets called up to set a screen, a third defender switches with the original screen defender before the screen gets set. Then, that new defender and the ball handler defender swap assignments upon completion of the screen.

The goal of this coverage is to minimize the mismatches that switching creates. If a weaker defender is about to get switched onto the ball handler, you can pre-switch the action to ensure that a better/more agile defender is getting switched onto them instead.

This tactic is also used as a way to keep big men near the paint. Any time a ball handler tries to bring a big out on the perimeter by calling their assignment to set a screen, the big can just call for a pre-switch so that they can continue to safeguard the interior.

What Makes A Good Pick And Roll Defender?

Throughout the course of this article, we’ve talked a lot about ball handler and screener defenders. But what makes a player good at those roles? What about the other players involved in trying to stop the action? In this section, we provide a checklist for what makes a good pick and roll defender.

Ball Handler Defender

As the ball handler defender, you are the one who is getting the screen set on you. So, you need to be good at navigating those screens. Navigating screens is one of the most important skills you can have in the modern game (since there are so many ballscreens being set), and to become proficient in the art, you need years of training and repetitions.

With that said, great screen navigators tend to be strong, good at anticipating screens (so they don’t accidentally run into a wall), have economical techniques for getting around said screens, and play with great energy (it takes a lot to get around screens and stay connected to the ball handler).

Along with being good at navigating screens, you ideally want to be able to guard multiple positions – in case you end up having to resort to some type of switch coverage. It would also benefit you to have disruptive hands in order to pressure ball handlers from behind (for drops) or force them into turnovers (for traps).

Screener Defender

The player defending the screener is usually the most important defender in the pick and roll. Oftentimes, the success of the entire action hinges on their ability to communicate and execute.

Normally, the screener defender is the one who calls out what type of coverage the team will be using to defend the ballscreen. So, the screener defender needs to decide what coverage to use based on the personnel involved and then quickly convey that coverage to the player defending the ball handler.

The best screener defenders (like Bam Adebayo) are also capable of executing multiple different types of pick and roll coverages. They are quick and disruptive enough to carry out traps, good enough rim protectors to protect the paint in drop, and agile enough to switch onto quicker ball handlers.

Third Defender

Whether you are the low man rotating from the weak side, the nail defender stunting at/switching onto the ball handler, or the third defender in a triple switch/pre-switch, as the third ingredient in a pick and roll defense, you need to be adept at making timely and precise rotations. This requires a strong understanding of how the scheme is supposed to work and a good feel for the flow of the game.

Since any time you involve a third defender in an action that involves two offensive players you are giving up an advantage, it also helps for that third defender to be good at creating turnovers. If they can get in there and nab a steal or cause the ball handler to throw the ball out of bounds, they eradicate the power play before the offense even has time to get a shot off. As many of you are well-aware, the offense scores zero percent of the time on possessions where they don’t get a shot off.

***This article is not an exhaustive list of every single pick and roll coverage to ever exist. New coverages are thought of/created all the time, and there are little wrinkles added to each of these coverages all the time. Plus, there is also zone defense, which is a completely different topic on its own. This article merely seeks to explain the ins and outs of the most common ballscreen coverages.