Ever heard of Roland Harper?
I hadn’t either until I Googled. He was Walter Payton’s lead fullback. Played seven seasons in the NFL, all with the Bears, all ramming his head into linebackers to open holes so that Sweetness could gallop his way to 1,500-yard seasons. The job of a lead blocker is mostly thankless, but extremely valuable and necessary. For an offense that relies on the ground for production, that role can almost be as important as the guy carrying the ball. Almost.
You can see where I’m going with this. Being a screener is the fullback, the offensive lineman of the NBA. It’s the guy that does the dirty work while his All-Star teammate gets freed up for a clean look. One guy is a three-time scoring champ, the other averaging 5.7 a game. One is basketball poetry, rising effortlessly into the air to drop a pure 18-footer. The other is just bumping into another guy to create a little space.
Now, same as screener versus scorer, the difference though in the guy carrying the ball versus the guy running into people is that one is a very unique, defined, rare skill that combines talent, athleticism, intelligence and feel. The other is more of a learned trade, something that you’ve just got to be willing to do and accept the limited recognition that goes with it. Not everyone has the touch and ability of Kevin Durant. Very, very few do. But if you’re 6-foot-10 and have a wide frame and some strength, you should be good at screening, right?
Weird thing is, not every big guy is.
The Thunder have two elite screeners on the roster, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. They obviously do other things that make them valuable to a team like rebound, defend, take charges and occasionally score, but part of that package value includes their screening. Both Perk and Collison in some ways have built reputations around it and successful NBA careers on it. So if it’s so important and an NBA commodity, why are they better at it than other 6-10, 270-pound guys?
“I think it’s just all a mental thing,” Perk said. “I make it my duty to try and get guys open. I think it’s just all mental. It’s almost like taking a charge. If you willing to take the sacrifice and take the hit, put your body on the line to get somebody open.
“It was just maybe about seven years ago Doc Rivers called me into his office and he pretty much gave me a role that I’ve pretty much stuck with for the remainder of my career,” he continued. “And he was telling me this will get you staying in the league, this will get you paid and stuff like that. And there ain’t nothing wrong with doing what you do. Have a lot of pride in setting screens, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. I just take a lot of pride in doing what I do.”
I asked Collison the same thing. Why aren’t all big, tall, strong guys good screeners? What makes you better at it?
“I think being a good screener has more to do with your feet and getting to a place where you can get in a guy’s way, I guess is the easy way to say it,” he said. “Some guys don’t really understand how to do that.”
Perk added this twist as well: “You got to go through stages where you get a few illegal screens called on you. Then you start getting the respect so a few illegal screens that you may set might not get called.”
Well, that’s certainly true, especially in relation to Perk. Toe the line between legal and illegal long enough, and all your picks probably start looking the same.
Collison’s description of it basically described good screening as a skill learned over time and experience. It’s about attention to detail, tendencies and a lot of film work.
“There’s also like an angle on a screen,” he said. “Like on a ball screen, I don’t want to run right to the side of him because he can go under it easy. I want to get it at an angle so that the ballhandler’s going downhill and I’m going to run in and meet the defender, if you know what I’m saying. So there’s kind of some of those subtle things you have to understand how to do it.”
It’s a question I see a whole lot, especially when it pertains to Perk. Why is he on the floor right now? He adds absolutely nothing to the offense! He’s not a low post threat, he fumbles the ball, he can’t finish and he’s basically a turnover waiting to happen. But in terms of team offense, the Thunder rely mightily on screens to free up their primary scorers. In OKC’s setup, a screener is a small part of the engine, but part of it nonetheless.
“Particularly playing with the guys we play with here, we’ve got big time scorers and guys that can do it in pick-and-rolls or pindowns, so it becomes a lot more important,” Collison said. “Because a huge part of our offense is screening for those guys and getting them going. So I’ve gotten a lot better at it the last five years.”
I asked Scott Brooks is the Thunder’s offense relies more or less or about the same on screening than the average team. He said he’s not really sure, but stressed it was especially important to the success of the offense.
“We talk about it, we drill it, it’s usually some of our big points going into games because you need good screen-setters to make your offense work,” Brooks said. “Nick and Perk, they love setting screens. We love that about them. They’re a big part of our offense. Kevin’s scored many, many, many, many points and Russell’s scored many, many points off of those two guys setting screens.”
The Thunder don’t track screens set or screens used — at least Brooks said they don’t — but I charted a game recently to see. Of 26 combined field goals by Durant and Westbrook, 14 of them had a screen connected in some way. Most in a very direct sense that Westbrook or Durant got an open look as a result of a screen set by a teammate.
Seriously, watch only Perk for a possession (if you can stomach it). He’s constantly looking for an opportunity to set a pick for Westbrook or Durant. He’s basically a hunter trying to track down a victim to plow into. Last night against the Nuggets, on three consecutive possessions Perk freed Durant for a clean look from midrange.
It’s kind of a strange thing, really. Westbrook gets an assist for just passing the ball four feet to Durant as he curls off a Collison screen. It goes in the play-by-play, the PA guy announces it in the arena — Kevin Durant! From Russsssell — and Westbrook gets a nice little stat in the box score. Collison doesn’t get anything. But a successful set is often a three-part harmony. One part pass, one part screen, one part shot.
It should be noted: The Thunder feature an incredible offense. It’s a devastatingly efficient attack. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant lead the charge, with Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin close behind. But OKC’s offense functions in perfect concert because of role recognition and unheralded players that do things like, set picks.
Now, by no means am I going to sit here and act like Durant or Westbrook would see their production destroyed if Collison or Perk weren’t on the floor. Some guys are better at screening than others, but mostly, like Collison said, it’s really just about getting in someone’s way. But what separates something as elementary as just standing in somebody’s path and somebody setting a good, solid pick that opens space is the mental part of it. The timing, knowing when and where to set it, understanding space, delivery and all that stuff. Listening to Collison describe it, it’s something he approaches as his craft, something he really attempts to understand.
“I think a big part too of screening is like how hard you run in to it, how quickly you run into it. Because how they defend the screen is going to depend on what your guy does as guarding the screener,” he said. “So if he’s playing from behind and he can’t get up in time, you’re going to get something good. If you walk into it, he’s going to be up and you’re not going to get anything good. So there’s that part of it too and I’ve learned that the last few years how important that is.”
There are probably three-to-five screens set per Thunder possession. It’s part of every single halfcourt possession, even the ones where Russell Westbrook goes rogue. It’s overlooked, it’s undervalued and it’s unappreciated. But that’s just the way it is.
So maybe we should treat good screeners like a lead blocker. While the public mostly overlooks their contribution, an appreciative All-Pro running back will buy his guys a new car or watch or something. It’s kind of an NFL tradition of sorts. So how about that for the guy that set a bunch of picks to get you open?
“That would be nice, that would be nice,” Collison said. “I haven’t heard anybody doing that, but I think we should start that for sure.”