Over the past few seasons, several of the NBA’s best teams share a few common traits. One of those traits is a simple offensive scheme that has been around for decades. While the idea of this play is simple, it can create an abundant amount of successful options for an offense to use.
It is known as the good ol’ pick and roll.
In fact, the successful execution of this offensive concept has been one of the best indicators of success for NBA playoff teams over the past three years. When looking at field goal percentage for ball handlers in pick and roll plays, 26 of the 30 teams that have been in the top ten of this category have made the playoffs. In terms of field goal percentage for roll men, 21 of the 30 top ten teams have made the playoffs. It seems the teams that can do the most with the space this play creates win consistently.
Grizzlies fans have become familiar with this play over the years. Especially the past few, as several times during the fourth quarter, the pick and roll was ran with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. While Conley and Gasol themselves had decent success, they were limited in their options. Gasol rarely rolled to the basket, and Mike Conley was usually left in an isolation situation to score.
The lack of options resulted in arguably the least effective pick and roll approach in the league. Memphis has been near the bottom of the NBA in field goal percentage for both the pick and roll ball handler and the roll man over the past few seasons. This certainly has been a point of frustration for many fans.
However, the recent roster turnover has created a ton of buzz and excitement about how the Grizzlies can be extremely successful through many pick and roll sets on offense.
Obviously, that excitement begins with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr..
Morant’s potential centers around his athleticism and passing ability. Because of these attributes, Morant could become one of the most versatile pick and roll ball handlers in the NBA. Morant’s lethal first step coming off a screen is likely to be very exciting and effective. As can be seen multiple times in the clips above, his decisiveness and quickness is quite good for his age, and will help him become a consistent scoring threat.
The key for Morant is creating hesitation for his defender. Whether utilizing the screen or using it as a distraction, all Morant needs is to simply get his defender flat-footed for a slight second. At that point, Morant either has a good lane to the basket or the ability to set up another teammate for a good scoring opportunity. This achieves the goal of Morant having multiple options to utilize at any one time.
The play at the 1:40 mark above shows this perfectly. After using the screen to distract his defender, Morant is in an ideal position to produce. He is one-on-one with a bigger, slower player with multiple passing options at his disposal. In this play, he finds the passing option on the block. However, he could have also lobbed to his wing for an alley-oop opportunity, pulled-up for a mid-range jumper, or attacked the rim for a high percentage shot or free throws. No matter what option the defense committed to, Morant had multiple avenues to use for points.
This is the beauty of the pick and roll with Morant. He has more than one way to score and more than one option to pass to. As is the case with almost any scheme, a play’s effectiveness depends on how many options the ball handler can effectively execute. Morant’s vision and decisiveness naturally creates options any time he has the ball. The pick and roll simply helps maximize his ability to execute those options successfully.
While Morant operates as the play maker, Jaren Jackson Jr. offers immense potential as a scorer. And that is not just as the roll guy. Jackson Jr. can also create difficulty for defenses with his ability to pop. If Jackson Jr. sets a screen and then rolls, he becomes a passing option for Morant. If he pops, Jackson Jr. becomes an option on the perimeter for a good shot due to the space created by the pick and roll and now having a smaller defender on him.
The video above shows Jackson Jr.’s potential as a pop option, as well as his ability at the rim as a roll option. Jackson Jr. also provides one additional option that is rare for a player his size. Several plays in the highlights above show Jackson Jr.’s ability to get past his defender off the dribble. If an option to shoot is not there at first, Jackson Jr. can create his own shot through reliable ball-handling and getting to the rim.
The versatility of Jackson Jr. as a scoring option and the creativity of Morant as a ball-handler make them a very dangerous duo in the pick and roll. Of course, that is simply a theory at the moment. The effectiveness of both players in the pick and roll will be determined by their ability to consistently execute the play in various ways. There are areas of improvement in both players’ games that will be critical to how they develop individually and as a duo. The most critical area is their continued progress as scorers.
For Morant, it is the development of a reliable pull-up jumper. There is no doubt he can get to the rim and finish; however, that will become harder to consistently do in the NBA. Coaching staffs will adjust their defenses to limit Morant’s ability to drive. As a result, it is essential that he develops the ability to confidently make both mid-range and three point shots off of screens. Otherwise, defenses will view him as just a passer away from the rim, and the pick and roll will be limited.
As Jackson Hoy of the Stepien looked at in the midst of Morant’s incredible sophomore season, Morant has both positives and negatives in regards to the pull-up portion of his game. Confidence is not the issue, as Morant will shoot if he has the space. However, his form and release requires that space, as Morant may have issues establishing consistent form in traffic. As can be seen above in the first play of this video, if Morant is denied the rim, his form is a bit wild.
Morant did shoot over 80% from the charity stripe in each of his two seasons at Murray State, which suggests significant room for improvement as his form gets better. One option for Morant could be adding a dependable floater to his arsenal, reminiscent of Mike Conley. While Morant does not have to become an elite shooter, developing a respectable shot is imperative for him to become an elite executor in pick and roll sets.
For Jackson Jr., the key is continuing to become a more confident finisher near the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, Jackson Jr. took 44% of his total shots at the rim and 32% of his total shots between 4 feet and 14 feet of the basket. Among NBA big men, those percentages ranked in the 42nd and 92nd percentiles, respectively.
However, Jackson Jr. ranked in the 73rd percentile for shots made at the rim and in the 61st percentile on shots 4-14 feet from the basket among NBA big men. More importantly, the difference in field goal percentage was 69% at the rim versus 42% in the short mid-range area. He also also made 76.6% of his free throws as a rookie.
For Jackson Jr. to continue evolving into an elite scoring option as a roll man, he needs to find high percentage scoring chances as frequently as possible. As he continues to get bigger and more experienced, his confidence in finding those options will continue to grow. Attempting more shots by strongly attacking the rim rather than settling for short jumpers could help Jackson Jr. become one of the better roll men in the NBA.
Both Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have tremendous potential as a duo within an offense that features the pick and roll. Taylor Jenkins and his staff could have numerous options at their disposal if they utilize and develop Morant and Jackson Jr. correctly. With both young stars clearly committed to finding success in Memphis, the franchise must commit to ways that will maximize their potential.
The implementation of the pick and role is the perfect place to start.