Hoops Picture Pages: Soft Hedge

Submitted by Ace on January 11th, 2013 at 3:52 PM

Trey Burke had—by his standards—a sub-par performance against Nebraska, needing 16 shots to score 18 points and only dishing out three assists. In the post-game presser, I asked John Beilein if Nebraska did anything defensively that he hadn't seen so far this year; without going into details, he mentioned that the Huskers had a different way of defending the pick and roll—Burke's bread-and-butter play.

After taking a look at the film, I think I've found what he was talking about. Last year, opponents utilized a hard hedge—doubling Burke off the screen with their big—as a way to dial up the pressure against the diminutive point guard. On Wednesday, Nebraska came with a variation, which this uneducated blogger will call a 'soft hedge'. To the screencaps!

After Michigan reset up top, McGary comes over to set a screen for Burke. The key player for Nebraska will be McGary's man, Brandon Ubel (#13), who in this frame is fighting through a screen by Tim Hardaway Jr.

As McGary sets the (not great) pick, Burke's man fights hard over the top; his responsibility is to make sure Burke can't pull up for three. Instead of hedging hard, Ubel positions himself a few feet inside the arc; his primary objective is to take away the drive.

Burke's man has successfully gone over the screen and recovered position, with Ubel in position to stymie any attempt to attack the basket off the dribble. Meanwhile, Hardaway's man (#24 Dylan Talley, standing right below the 'B' in the paint) has sunk back to defend a pass to McGary on the roll.

With Burke contained, Ubel slides back onto McGary while Talley heads out towards Hardaway.


I should probably have kept the next part in the video: Talley is late getting back out to Hardaway, who drives to the free-throw line and knocks down a jumper. Still, that was a tougher shot than what Michigan usually produces off the pick and roll (a layup or an open three), and I don't think Talley needed to sink so far into the lane with Ubel falling back.

What does the soft hedge accomplish? A few things.

No open threes. With the guard going hard over the top, Burke doesn't get a good opportunity to pull up for three, especially with Ubel in position to step out and contest.

No dribble drive. With the way the defense is aligned, if Burke wants to drive he can only go to his left—straight into Ubel. That's not much of an option.

No easy slip. One of the ways Michigan counters the hard hedge is to have the screener "slip" the pick—roll to the basket before fully setting the pick, ideally to receive an early pass before the double can get to Burke. With the big hanging back in this case, that option isn't there either.

Of course, there's no perfect way to defend the pick and roll, or John Stockton and Karl Malone wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. I see two counters to the soft hedge. One is what Michigan did above: kick it back out to the wing (in this case, Hardaway), who should have an open look from deep or the opportunity to drive if his defender is late to recover or closes out too hard.

The other actually occurred a few minutes earlier in the game and should've resulted in an easy two points. On this play, Nebraska defends the initial pick in the same fashion; instead of rolling to the basket, however, McGary doubles back and sets another screen going the opposite way. The Huskers are forced to double Burke, and McGary slips the pick; Burke's feed is on the mark, but McGary's dunk attempt ricochets off the back iron:

Surprisingly, Michigan didn't really go back to this tactic despite the fact that it should've resulted in a (successful) dunk.

While Nebraska's defense did a solid job of limiting Michigan's points off the pick and roll, I don't think this is the magic bullet to stop that aspect of the Wolverine offense. The picture-paged example shows some sloppy play from Michigan; McGary's pick is too shallow, allowing Burke's man an easy path over the top, and the offensive spacing on the perimeter isn't ideal. Then, when Michigan countered, they did everything right except convert an open dunk.

The soft hedge is another way to slow down Burke, however, and does a good job of forcing him to give up the basketball—any defense that takes the ball away from Michigan's best player is one we'll likely see a fair amount moving forward.



January 11th, 2013 at 4:09 PM ^

Enjoyed reading this.  These are the types of things that I will tell myself generally when watching, "They're not letting anyone get in the lane." but I don't have enough basketball IQ to identify the exact pieces causing that play-in play-out.


January 11th, 2013 at 4:09 PM ^

I wish the clip was longer on the front end, as well, so we could see how Hardaway gets into something of a weird position ... essentially an arm's length away from Burke as he comes off the screen. Like you say, the spacing isn't ideal. On the one hand, it kind of gums things up, as Burke has less room to work. On the other, the attention Burke draws opens THJ up as all the defense washes toward the ball side. He has an open 3 or, with more time on the clock, the opportunity to drive, draw, and dish to GRIII on the weak side. I guess if you're picking your poison against this team, you go with THJ, but he's still plenty capable. It also shows how the fear of Burke opens up M's other scoring options.

More broadly, I don't see the kind of defense Nebraska played, where they extensively sag into the lane and try to create congestion, working reliably against a team that shoots the ball as well as Michigan. If it did "work" (in quotes b/c Michigan still won by 15), it worked b/c M had their worst game shooting the 3 all year, many of those open looks


January 11th, 2013 at 4:14 PM ^

Why I love this site.  I am an uneducated fan and could not put my finger on why Burke seemed to have so much trouble getting the basket.  Now that I see this it's much clearer.  I think a few times Burke still tried to get to the basket, but because the defenders hung back (Udel and Talley in this case) they were able to swarm him more than Burke is usually swarmed, thereby making his layup more of circus attempt.


January 11th, 2013 at 4:45 PM ^

This is definitely a nice feature to have.  Thanks, Ace.

I agree that this isn't a magic cure to stop Michigan's pick and roll offense, and in fact I don't think other teams will try to utilize this strategy.  In the first video, it actually looks like more of a mistake as McGary's man is caught out of position after Hardaway's down screen.  Hardaway gets bumped off his cut back to the wing and actually ends up too far to the middle of the court rather than set up on the wing, but it ends up working out as he takes what is essentially a long handoff from Burke and gets into the lane.

This is basically how teams try to play someone like Rondo, who isn't a great outside shooter and who's offense predicates on penetration.  It tends not to work because Rondo is exceptionally quick and all this strategy does is give him a couple steps to get into the defender who is now on his heels.  If teams continue to do this, Burke can do that to some extent and should be able to hit that pull-up with consistency.

The best a defense can do with Burke is take advantage of his small size and hedge hard to get a temporary trap or get him off the 3 point line.  It hasn't been working as well this year because Burke has gotten even better than last year at keeping his dribble in this situation and more importantly maintaining his depth on the court (which keeps the passing lanes more in play).  Michigan also has guys who can handle it a bit better than last year and can better take advantage decisively off the first pass.  Last year, Burke would get rid of it in these situations and often M wasn't able to take advantage of the recovering defense.

It's going to be an exciting year and everyone should step back and appreciate the best player in college basketball right now being our point guard.


January 11th, 2013 at 5:22 PM ^

Great post. I expect OSU will employ the strategy you suggest because they have 1. an athletic big in Amir Williams who can provide the hedge without getting split, and 2. two great on ball defenders in Craft and Scott who are really good at fighting over screens and swiping the ball, aided by their reputations as elite defenders which will likely shield them, at least in Columbus, from the ticky-tack reach-in calls that defenders often get against quick points. I expect them to pressure hard on the perimeter in an attempt to get the ball out of Burke's hands and then use their length to try to recover. It's really imporant that Michgan keep the ball moving, particularly reversing it to the weak side, after Burke gets rid of it, because their defense will be unbalanced with all the attention they're going to give to Burke.


January 11th, 2013 at 4:47 PM ^

Players are almost always taught to go over a screen no matter whether the other defender is hard or soft hedging. I'd say the danger in soft hedging is that with a good screen, you are actually more likely to give up an open 3. I believe the Nebraska coach was quoted saying as much and was basically gambling that Burke wouldn't be hot from 3.


January 11th, 2013 at 5:55 PM ^

Ace, this article and series is/are great. That being said, the soft-hedge should lead to more open threes. 

1.) It gives the PG better vision; he doesn't have a 99' behemoth in his face.
2.) If the screen is set up correctly (by both the PG and screener) then every soft hedge MUST, by definition, give up an open look at a 3 to the PG. The on-ball defender is effectively sealed by the screener, and the opposing big isn't in his face -- that's an open shot. 

Teams usually do this when the opposing PG isn't an outside shooting threat, and that's why PG 3-pt shooting is so important in Belein's new screening offense. 

If you want to see for yourself, watch tapes of how teams defended D-Mo on his screens. He wasn't a shooting threat, so they largely sunk off him.


January 11th, 2013 at 4:47 PM ^

Part of the reason #15 (guarding Burke) fights over the screen well is that Burks didn't do enough to set it up.  In a perfect world, Burke & McGary should rub shoulders when Burke passes the screen, not allowing any room for the defender to fight through.  It's basically impossible to get this to happen, but there are a few feet between Burke & McGary when Burke goes around the screen.  If Burke takes another dribble toward the hoop before he dribbles left around the screen, #15 will have a harder time fighting over McGary.

Setting up the screen falls more to Burke than the screener because the screener can't be moving as long (or else it's a foul).  So the dribbler needs to be work toward the hoop (in this case) before taking a sharp angle past the shoulder of the screener to optimize the chances for the dribbler to get a shot off.

That being said, Burke getting a shot off is only one option - on this play, Burke seems to be thinking #1 look for Stauskas's cut and #2 wait for the re-screen.

Just my two cents, I love how the offense has many layers and Burke et al work through them and find great shots.


January 11th, 2013 at 5:59 PM ^

McGary is wrongfully criticized a couple of times by OP.  As you mentioned, it's the dribblers responsibility to 'rub shoulder's' with the person setting the pick to make it more difficult for the man guarding the dribbler to get through the pick.

The second time McGary was criticized was for setting to shallow of pick.  Again, this falls more on Burke.  For McGary to set a screen further from the basket, Burke needs to wait a little longer before he makes his move.  However, on this particular play the shot clock is running down and Burke might have thought there wasn't time to let McGary come out further.


January 11th, 2013 at 4:52 PM ^

Good read.  Nebraska definitely did a good job of defending the pick n'roll.  Michigan didn't help themselves much in this game and should have scored more but that doesn't take away what Nebraska schemed.  I was also of the mindset that even though Nebraska did "shut down" this aspect of our offense that it wasn't the type of defense that would be picked up by every team from here on out and would shut us down.  It worked, in a way, but there are a at least a few options to counter what Nebraska did and future teams might try to do.

(Edit: I'd also like to add, and I was thinking this during the game, that Brandon Ubel is/was the perfect guy to defend this the way they did.  Not all teams have a guy that can do the "contain job" that he did, which is weird to say, cuz it's like, Nebraska, but, he is a decent "big man".)


January 11th, 2013 at 6:02 PM ^

Ace,  I like what you are doing here.  I want to clarify some things as I know some of the terms are being misused.

What Nebraska is doing wouldn't be called a 'soft' hedge as it isn't a hedge at all.  The defender on the player setting the pick is being told to sag into the lane and defend that along with the roll.  This is to prevent Burke from attacking the rim and  force the ballhandler to shoot or pass.

The defender on Burke is working hard and beating the pick so he disrupts any shot attempt.  That is just the defender being better than the screen.

It's easy to blame McGary for the screen this time (or always), but it is and often is the ballhandlers responsibility to get a good pick.  Burke isn't forcing his guy into the pick nor is he 'rubbing shoulders' with McGary that would really create that clean pick you need.  Burke needs to 'lead' his man into the pick and with him not getting close to McGary he allows the defender to beat that pick.  It sometimes requires Burke to fake/dribble the other way to set his man up which he isn't doing.  Burke's defender is being told to play 'over' the screen.

There are a lot of ways to beat that sagging defender, none being as obvious as hitting the outside shot.  Which Michigan was unable to do this game.  Nebraska was going to hope that Michigan wasn't shooting well and keep the possesions down to have a chance this game.  It's apparent that when Michigan is able to attack the rim they are really efficient at finishing.


January 11th, 2013 at 6:04 PM ^

Just wanted to jump down here and thank everyone for the input. I'm no basketball coach, and I learn a couple new things every time I do one of these—for instance, my assumption that the freshman McGary was at fault more than Burke for the gap above the pick appears to be wrong.

I'll do more of these as the season goes on. If anyone sees something during the game that they think deserves a closer look, hit me up on Twitter, shoot me an email, or leave a comment in my game column—I'll be on the lookout.


January 11th, 2013 at 6:16 PM ^

set the screen for Burke and then pop out for 3s.  This will put defense on a constraint between two defenders. Sag off Nik, he'll kill you at 3 point shooting.  Make defender work to guard Trey while other defender stick with Nik, Trey will kill you with drive and dish or drive and score.


January 11th, 2013 at 10:57 PM ^

1.) Stauskas is already an option for shooting threes as a dump-off man;
2.) If Stauskas sets the pic, that means a big is in the middle.  Belein's offense doesn't do that because:

a.) It clogs up driving lanes for Burke
b.) It clogs up slashing lanes (read: points for GRIII)
c.) Our posts aren't really back-to-basket scorers anyways


January 11th, 2013 at 6:20 PM ^

to counter the soft hedge is to change who is setting the pick.  If you have Hardaway or Stauskas set the screen, instead of rolling to the basket Hardaway or Staukas roll to the 3 pt line.  The Pistons did this a ton with Lambier. 

The catch though is Lambier usually had a center guarding him so switching the pick wasn't an option for the defense.  Depending on who is guarding Hardaway or Stauskas they might decide to have the defenders switch the pick.

Low Key Recidivist

January 11th, 2013 at 6:57 PM ^

Chuck Daly once did a coaching clinic on methods of stopping the pick and roll; when finishing up, he ended by saying "that said, if it's done properly, none of them work" or words to that effect.  

That's why it's been a staple play since the peach basket was nailed up along with Wooden's give and go high post.  It works, but you've got to execute it.  

Several posters spoke of Burke getting a better 'rub' which I agree with.  Also, in your example, Hardaway should have moved toward the center of the floor to balance the court; if he had done so, he would have had a wide open 3 point shot at the top of the key.

Saying JB understands offense is akin to saying Paula Dean knows her way around a deep fryer.  They'll get it figured out and if ever there was a pick and roll match made in heaven, it would be McGary and Burke if they can get on the same page.


January 12th, 2013 at 12:51 AM ^

In your first example in addition to the points made about the lack of rub on the screen, there is a good chance Hardaway did not run this right either. He is not in a good basketball position. He is "floating" 3-4 feet beond the arc in a position where he can't do anything and he is occupying the same space as Burke. Two big no no's on the play side. Hardaway should have either 1) sprinted to the top of the circle putting him in a position to either draw a defender or be in triple threat position or 2) hesitated and curled back around Burke using him and McGary as a double screen which would have given him an easy lane to drive and either finish or draw GRIII's defender which would have left GRIII wide open. All options which would have worked with the time on the clock.