Reggie Miller. Ray Allen. Rip Hamilton. Those are the players I picture when I think of shooters using screens to devastating effect. Defenses paid them so much attention that screens were a necessary tool to create enough space to launch a jumper. Reasonable facsimiles of those players exist today: Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson are a few examples of modern players constantly sprinting around screens, squaring up with exquisite footwork and shooting with ease.
If you look around the league, however, you’ll see another breed of off-screen monster: the shooting giants.
The NBA is blessed with an abundance of insanely skilled big men, but most of them thrive at the rim. Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis and Lauri Markkanen are exceptions. They are the descendants of Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki was not the first stretch big; players like Sam Perkins and Clifford Robinson predated Dirk as unusually large shooters, but they couldn’t match his shooting versatility. Prime Nowitzki was so much more than a standstill shooter. Dirk created his own shots (his one-legged fadeaway is now an indelible part of basketball history, replicated by NBA superstars and pickup warriors alike) and came off screens like a guard—except he was 7 feet tall.
Nowitzki has been one of the most proficient off-screen players of the modern era. According to play-type data from Synergy Sports, Dirk Nowitzki scores 1.03 points per possession on plays where he uses a screen, fourth-best of any player with at least 500 off-screen possessions since 2004-05 (aside: Stephen Curry is a human flamethrower).He’s also one of just two players taller than 6’9” to even use 500 off-screen possessions during this time (the other being Kevin Durant1).
This makes the three 7-foot off-screen studs of 2017-18 (Durant, Porzingis and Markkanen) noteworthy. Their efficiency on these plays is a testament not just to their elite shooting but the versatility of their jumpers. Finding this level of shooting skill in such a big frame is rare, but the trio are useful case studies in how coaches could maximize other players with shooting versatility and size.
Durant & Porzingis: Pindown Maestros
One aspect of Porzingis’ and Durant’s games is particularly reminiscent of prime Dirk: the use of pindown screens.
Big men aren’t used to defending players coming off screens. It’s unnatural for them, and their unfamiliarity puts them at a disadvantage. If the defender is a half-second late fighting over the screen, there’s no way he’s contesting the high release of Porzingis or Durant (if that were even possible to begin with).
Notice how the pindown screens for Porzingis are set by wings/guards to negate the possibility of a switch. If the defense switches, Porzingis has an easy mismatch with the ball at the elbow and it’s barbecue shashlik (a traditional Latvian skewered meat).
The personnel isn’t as important for Durant since he is a walking mismatch. He will punish any defender regardless of size, and the Warriors’ screen-heavy offense means he’s constantly receiving pindowns from every position on the floor.
Screening Actions for Lauri Markksmanen
Markkanen doesn’t use the pindown as frequently as the other two shooting giants. Instead, coach Fred Hoiberg uses some deceptive actions to spring his rookie for clean looks from downtown. One of those is a decoy double screen that eventually becomes a flare screen for Markkanen.
This can occur either in a regular double screen (screens facing each other) or a stacked double screen (both screeners facing the same way). Either configuration puts the defense in a bind they don’t recognize until it’s too late. The defense understandably focuses on the ballhandler receiving the double screen (the decoy), but none of the Bulls ballhandlers in these plays have any intention of doing anything other than finding Markkanen.
Unless the defense switches this play perfectly, one of the screen defenders must provide momentary help on the ballhandler. This leaves one defender to deal with the two screeners (Markkanen and another big man). Thanks to the rookie’s quick release, the defense is helpless.
A second action commonly deployed by Coach Hoiberg is a slingshot-like curl which becomes a pin-in screen for Markkanen.
It initially looks like Markkanen is setting a pindown screen for a Bulls guard. Instead of curling around the screen for a shot, that guard veers back to set a screen on Markkanen’s defender freeing up the rookie to pop out and launch an open three-pointer. Once again, Chicago uses a decoy (the pindown set by Markkanen) to induce a help rotation by the defense, drawing attention away from the rookie and the screen he’s about to receive.
The strategies described here are simple, but they create problems for the defense because this trio of oversized sharpshooters are so undeniably gifted with tremendous footwork, mobility and touch.
As more and more players enter the NBA with size and shooting ability, the ranks of the shooting giant may soon expand. Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft for The Athletic has 5 big-men prospects with shooting potential selected in the top 10 picks (DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Mo Bamba). It’s unlikely that any are on the level of Durant, Porzingis and Markkanen as shooters, but they may find success at the next level using this kind of screening action to create space.