Few knew it at the time, but the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns — most specifically Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire — were poised to change the stratosphere of the entire NBA through their pick-and-roll synergy. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and Kevin Arnovitz chronicled their saga towards creating the “single most important play in the NBA,” and some of its biggest beneficiaries, Blazers star Damian Lillard included.
In the article’s opening caption, they illustrated how the ball screens helped Lillard gain attention prior to the 2012 NBA Draft board. He was the NCAA’s most efficient pick-and-roll scorer (1.039 points per possession), something that calibrated with then-Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard said this of his time at Weber State:
“The last seven or eight minutes of the game, we would run pick-and-rolls to death,” Lillard says. “I was always in it. I started to feel so comfortable and confident in those situations and making plays and scoring, just manipulating the defense out of the pick-and-roll. That became our bread and butter my last two years at Weber.
“Around that time, I knew: Once I get to the league and I’m playing with NBA-level players and shooters, high-level athletes out there, I’ll be able to manipulate it and do things on an even different level. That’s pretty much how it’s happened.”
They also put a statistic to it, showcasing Lillard’s experience in the pick-and-roll.
“While Lillard was feasting on opposing defenses during his final season in the NCAA, the average NBA offense was finishing a play with a pick-and-roll 25% of the time, according to Synergy Sports tracking. By 2016-17, when Lillard was starting a max extension with the Blazers, that number had spiked to 33% — where it remains today.
Although the rate of pick-and-rolls has flattened out in the NBA — a product of growing diversity in how teams get their shots — the league’s premier pick-and-roll ball handlers are running the play more often than ever. During 2020-21, Young and Doncic both ran more pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions than any starter in the previous seven seasons with camera tracking, per Second Spectrum.
Just as Lillard sensed when he was on the doorstep of the NBA, Young, Doncic and any other perimeter player entering the league knows pick-and-roll dominance is their ticket to stardom. Master it and NBA glory can be yours.”
Lillard listed a few of the players he sought to emulate — Nash, Tony Parker, John Stockton, Deron Williams, and Jason Kidd — and his longtime assistant Phil Beckner would craft workouts that helped him learn from their games.
Beyond the actual pick-and-roll, the two also went into specifics on how far players like Lillard are getting their screens from. Lillard, along with Atlanta’s Trae Young and Luka Doncic of the Mavericks combined to receive over 2,800 screens from above the 3-point line, per Second Spectrum.
The rest of the article hits on why teams shoot so many 3-pointers using pick-and-rolls, isolations, and switching, among much else. The link to that can be found here (subscription required).