Saturday, January 10, 2009

So what is an illegal screen, anyway?

Because of the title of this blog, in addition to my small number of loyal readers (and I thank you guys), I get a very large number of people who hit this page searching for information on illegal screens. For instance, just in the past month or two, I have had hits (often way more than one) on the following search terms:

illegal screen
basketball illegal screen
illegal screen in basketball
define illegal screen
is an illegal screen a foul?
team control foul examples illegal screen
shoot 1 and 1 on illegal screen?
illegal screen out of bounds

The fact that so many people come here indicates to me that there might not be other, better information up higher on Google than this humble little ref blog. So I figure I might as well try to do a little education here by laying out the illegal screen rule as clearly as I can.

Please note that all of the following information refers to NFHS basketball rules for 2008/09. Interested in NCAA, FIBA, or NBA rules? I don't have them. (If you read this blog and are an NCAA or FIBA official, feel free to put any variations in the comments. If you read this blog and are an NBA official, I'd love it if you did the same, but I'm also pretty danged sure you aren't allowed to comment in such a manner...)

Okay. Let's start basic.

What is a screen?A screen is a maneuver by a player (almost always offensive, although there's no reason in the rulebook that a defensive player can't set one) which requires an opponent to either run around or collide with them, usually to create an advantage a teammate of the screener.

What does a LEGAL screen look like?To be a legal, a screener must be:

--stationery (with two minor exceptions listed below),
--standing with feet shoulder width apart or less,
--standing without extending the arms, elbows, hips, or knees outside the frame of the body.

So that's it?

Nope. There are restrictions on where and when a screen can be set. As the NFHS rulebook says, time and distance are factors in a screen's legality.

In general, the following rule of thumb must be followed:

The screener must give the screened player a real opportunity to avoid contact with the screener.

That means different things in different situations. where and when can a screen be set?Keeping the above rule of thumb in mind, the answer depends.

If the screener is within the visual confines of a stationary opponent, he/she can set the screen anywhere short of touching the opponent. A millimeter away would be legal because the screened player would be able to avoid contact since he/she could see the screen.

If the screener is outside the visual confines of a stationary defender, he/she must set the screen at least one step away from the opponent. This step gives the screened player the legitimate chance to avoid contact. Think about it...if the player the opponent is guarding runs in that direction, the opponent more than likely will turn his/her head at least a bit in giving chase, thus putting the screener into his/her visual field.

If the opponent is moving, the same rule of thumb applies: there must be a legitimate chance to avoid contact. Here's how NFHS spells that out:

If the screener is screening a moving opponent, he/she must set the screen somewhere between one and two strides from the opponent, so as to give the defender "time and distance" to stop or change direction. The distance will vary based on the speed of the screened player. NFHS does not distinguish between whether this screen is within or outside the screened player's visual field, so the 1-2 strides applies to both.

Ouch! If the screened player can't see the screen, there could be a big collision. What's the call?
It could be nothing. If the screener remains more or less stationary (allowing for minor movements to protect him/herself), and the opponent is unaware, then POW, but neither player has done anything illegal--no foul to call. If the screener throws forward hands, pelvis, knees, chest, etc. and initiates contact, that's an illegal screen. If the opponent is aware that the screener is there but runs through and knocks the screener over, that's a foul on the opponent. Even if the opponent is unaware of the screener, if he/she actively pushes or grabs the screener once the collision begins and he/she becomes aware, that's also a foul on the opponent.

But, to reiterate, a nasty collision between a stationary screener and an unaware opponent is a stone-cold no-call unless the screener has the ball and is knocked back, in which case a foul must be called on the opponent--since that'd be a terribly unfair travel call otherwise.

(NFHS puts it this way: "[T]he opponent may make inadvertent contact with the screener, and if the opponent is running rapidly, the contact may be severe. Such a case is to be ruled as incidental contact provided the opponent stops or attempts to stop on contact and moves around the screen, and provided the screener is not displaced if he/she has the ball.")

Is there any acceptable way that a screener may move?A screener is allowed to move in the same path and direction as the opponent. So, for example, if the opponent is moving towards the sideline, the screener may legally move in front of him/her towards the same sideline.

Also, once a screener has established position, it is perfectly legal for him/her move a little to brace him/herself in anticipation of contact, provided he/she does not initiate any part of the contact. That's a key distinction.

However, other than that, no, a screener may NOT move. If they do, it's an illegal screen.

Common illegal screen movements include the aforementioned throwing out of a knee, hip, elbow, or shoulder to try to clip an opponent going by, or throwing the pelvis, stomach, forearms, or chest forward to make contact a bit more painful when it occurs. Both of these are no-nos, and if contact occurs, it's a foul.

What's the penalty for an illegal screen? Do we shoot free throws?

It depends on when it happens.

Most illegal screens are set by the offense while team control belongs to the screener. This is considered a team control foul. No free throws are shot on team control fouls.

However, not all illegal screens are during team control. For example, there is no team control on a throw-in until the ball is controlled in-bounds. (This is why a team can chuck the ball from its own endline into its backcourt on a throw-in and not get called for over-and-back...they never had team control in the frontcourt.) This is NOT considered a team control foul, and the non-fouling team would shoot free throws: one-and-one if the bonus is in effect, two if it's double-bonus time. (Please note that the opposite is true in NCAA and NBA basketball, where the offended player would not shoot because there is team control on a throw-in under their rules. See Massref's comment below.) (UPDATE:  NFHS has changed this rule.  As of the 2011-12 season, there is team control during a throw-in, and there is therefore no shooting if an illegal screen occurs then.)

The same would be true in other situations where there's not team control, like after a shot is released but before it is gathered on a rebound, although I'm having trouble imagining a screen at those times. Still, if it happens then, it's not a team control foul.

Can you sum all that up for me?

Sure! Happy to. The screener has to set the screen in a way that gives the opponent a chance to avoid contact by stopping or changing direction. The distance that must be given varies by situation; namely, the visibility of the screener and the speed of the opponent. The screener may move in the same path and direction as the opponent.

The screener must stay within his/her vertical plane: no throwing body parts forward to maximize pain, damage, or psychological trauma to the opponent.

The screener must also keep body parts, from feet up through the shoulders, inside the usual bodily throwing out extremities to the side to clip an opponent, "bump a cutter," or make him/her run farther.

The screened player must attempt to avoid contact. No intentionally plowing through the screener, or pushing or grabbing to clear up their path.

If an unaware opponent collides with a stationary screener, the result may be quite a spectacular crash...but there's no foul unless the screener has the ball and is displaced (i.e, is forced to travel). (And yes, you can set a screen with the ball.)

We don't shoot free throws for an illegal screen if the screener's team has team control. However, remember that there is no team control on throw-ins, and so illegal screens committed before the ball is secured in-bounds on a throw-in are NOT team control fouls. The aggrieved team will shoot free throws on those fouls if they're in the bonus. (UPDATE: as of 2011-12, they don't shoot them anymore as NFHS changed that rule so there is team control during a throw-in.)

I hope this clears things up for the many illegal screen Googlers who land here. Best of luck with your seasons.


At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Massref said...

Great explanation of screening rules and principles!!

I'll just add a couple things. A lot of times a player will attempt to set a screen that is not legal. He/she will be moving alongside the player that he/she is trying to screen. But the defender knows the screener is there and is able to go around the "moving screen" without contact.

Very often you'll hear cries of outrage from the bench. "Moving screen!! That's a moving screen!!"

And indeed it is. However, it's not a FOUL. If there's no contact with the screener, then there's no foul. If the screener had actually made contact with the defender, then it's a foul. But no contact equals no personal foul.

Most fans/coaches/players (and more than a few officials) don't realize this very basic principle of the rules. When talking about screening: No contact = No foul.

Secondly, in the NBA and NCAA, there is team control during a throw-in. So if there is a foul for an illegal screen during a throw-in, no free throws are shot. That's a big difference from high school rules.

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article and comment.

Is the following scenario a legal screen?

The offensive point guard dribbles up the court. Defensive player gets in position to meet the dribbler at the top of the key. The offensive screener walks through the space between the dribbler and defender. The dribbler then follows the screener further up the court (like a running back behind blocker) while the defender attempts to go around the screener without contacting him.

At 7:14 AM, Blogger BloggingRef said...

No foul. No contact=no foul...always, no matter what the situation. If the defender makes contact with the non-stationery screener, that's an illegal screen. But in the play you describe, I'm not putting any air in the whistle (as Massref so clearly put above).

Thanks for the kind words.

At 4:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would this be an example of a illegal screen (yes or no)?
I'm on offence, its a two on two fast break, everyone is running straight to the basket, we are all in between half court and the 3-point line in the offensive zone, and my other teammate has the ball is running fast. I decide to cut in between my teammate and the two defensive players, not to set a screen, just to get to the far side. When I make this cut everyone is very close together, within five feet.
The defensive team calls it a illegal screen since I ran in between the defensive player and the offensive guy (my teammate) with the ball.
Is this a illegal screen?

At 8:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate you taking the time to explain the idea of an illegal screen, but I still work on a weekly basis with officials who state that an illegal screen is a blocking foul and you should shoot free throws, even when I am the offical who is the "R" and who made the call. I'm very pleased that you clarified that it is a "team control" foul and therefore no bonus free throws, I don't know how many people make this error.

At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Blogging Ref said...

By the way, as of the 2011/12 season, an illegal screen is now considered a "team control" foul even on out-of-bounds plays. We therefore now do NOT shoot bonus free throws in NFHS for any illegal screens unless they are considered intentional or flagrant. And for this I am glad. Much easier to explain.

At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this an illegal screen?

Lets say an offensive player is on the block and actively posting up a defender who is between the offensive player and the basket. What is the call when an offensive teammate from the wing drives to the hoop and effectively uses his post up teammate as a screen on the post defender? Often, the post defender attempts to go around the post man and cut off the driver, but is met with a post man who is setting, what seems like, an illegal screen...moving feet, arms out, etc. Is the post up man allowed to keep posting up or must he stand still as his teammate runs by to attempt the layup?

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Blogging Ref said...

Anonymous: I'm calling that, and in fact, I did call that three times in a game last month.

"Posting up" is, strictly speaking, illegal: it's using contact to gain an advantage. Now, I'll grant that we don't (and shouldn't) call every contact. But if the offensive player is intentionally making contact to create a path to the basket for a teammate, that's gaining too much of an advantage to ignore. I might--MIGHT--make allowances if it's clear the post player doesn't even know of his teammate's existence on the drive, but on the play you're describing, he's preventing his defender from switching to the driver with an illegal move.

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rec 5/6 we were called for an illegal screen with the ref saying the point guard left to early. The screener had not set the screen yet. And was still running what do you think?

At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

would this be a illegal screen if the offensive player set the screen to the back of the the deffender

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Illegal Screen said...

Anonymous: Depends on how close it is. As I say above, if the screener is outside the visual field of the defender, he/she must give at least a step so the defender can avoid contact. So if it's -immediately- to the back of the defender, it's illegal. If it's more than a step behind, it's legal.

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Illegal Screen said...

Anonymous #1: I'm not sure what you mean by "the point guard left too early." Does this mean before the screener was set? If so, it's an illegal screen.

At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice explanation, cleared all my doubts.. thanx a lot!

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Bryan Koslow said...

Can a screen occur down in the low post legally? So say a player has the ball, back to the hoop and he's backing down a defender. Can an offensive teammate come alongside the defender and set a pick around which the played with the ball can pivot around and lay the ball in?

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Illegal Screen said...

Bryan--As long as the screen meets the restrictions above, yes--certainly at the HS level. I'd need more information about the college level restricted area. You can set a screen anywhere.

At 7:04 AM, Blogger Jake Atkinson said...


A1 is ball handler
A2 is screener
B1 is defender on ball

A1 is at the top of the key dribbling while being guarded by B1. A2 then comes from the wing to set at screen on B1. A2 sets a legal screen, B1 then bumps in to A2 while A1 is using the screen to move the ball to the wing. While A1 is dribbling to the wing B1 goes underneath (moving towards the hoop) to get around the screen. However, during this same time that B1 is going underneath A2 who set the screen then rolls open to the ball (rolling A2's back towards the basket) posting up for the ball while making contact with B1. Is this considered a moving screen?

I argued 3 points.

1. It is not illegal because if a switch occurs why would A2 not be allowed to post up the new defender.

2. What would be the difference between that screen and a pick and roll?

3. I mentioned that the screen that took place was legal. After the screen why would there not be an equal opportunity for each player to occupy and unoccupied space on the floor?

Their rebuttle

***They had said it looked like A2 was moving the defender (B2) back in to the lane while moving down the lane.

I argued that it would have been a seal otherwise if a foul did occur it would have to be a push by A2, not an illegal screen.

Please elaborate on this as I want the correct rules to be taught. Thank you for your time in reviewing this.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger BloggingRef said...


Almost impossible to say without seeing the play, but from your description, I'd call it. A2 and B1 originally make contact on a screen, and A2 subsequently moves to prevent B1 from getting where he wants to go. Especially if contact is maintained. I can't judge intent on this one: if A2 is moving to prevent B1 from getting to A1, that's what I have.

But, to be fair, I haven't seen the play, which sounds tricky.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Mike Davis said...

Player 1 catches pass at the elbow. Player two cuts to the basket from top of key, using player 1 as screen. Player 1 pivots with the ball into path of player 2's defender. Contact is made while player 1 still has control of the ball. How do we interpret the hierarchy of the rules. The player with the ball is being struck by a moving defender while pivoting. Pushing foul. Player setting screen is moving. Illegal screen. I have seen it called both ways. And when player 1 anticipates contact and begins a shooting motion, should this be called a shooting foul. If player 1 hands the ball to player 2 and continues to move, and contact with defender occurs, would this then be an illegal screen. If player one fakes the handoff and player 2's defender contacts player 1's extended arms and causes the ball to become loose, or the handoff occurs just after contact that causes player 1's displacement, I am unclear on the hierarchy of the conflicting rules. My opinion would be to place the priority on the player with the ball being illegally struck while in control of the ball ahead of the defender being impeded by an illegal screen. Overall question is can the player with the ball be in violation of setting an illegal screen while making an otherwise legal bbb move? If so, what would the circumstances need to be? Under any circumstance of the illegal screen definitions, one could still argue that the player with the ball was making a legal basketball move and contacted illegally by a defender.

At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also like to add that a legal screen must be set with both feet established in bounds. This is the case in ncaa, not sure about nfhs but assume it's the same.

At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Mike W said...

How long does the screener need to remain stationary after setting the screen before he can roll to the basket or reset the screen? Can I screen to the side of the defensive player, count to two, and then screen the front or else roll to the basket? Mike W.

At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

defense press. Can I have a foot out of bounds while trying to set a trap on the offensive player.

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous BloggingRef said...

Anonymous: No. Legal guarding position means both feet are in-bounds.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger rachel cowley said...

I'm am pretty sure I am right with this but I would like it confirmed if possible
When a player is about to take a shit and there team mate stands in front of them to stop the opposition from defending the shot is this an illegal screen?

At 5:16 AM, Blogger rachel cowley said...

Free throws should only be given as a bonus or if the player was taking attempting to shoot when the foul was made
I don't understand why anyone would think otherwise

At 5:20 AM, Blogger rachel cowley said...

But in saying that I am in Australia some rules are slightly different here

At 5:55 PM, Blogger lance brown said...

Can you tell me on a loose ball, two guys have a shot at the ball and one decides to shield the other player from getting it, there are 4 steps by each player involved minimum and a semi extended arm impeding the outside player from getting the ball. Inside player has no intention of getting the ball he clearly is just screening for 4 steps and the ball goes out of bounds, is that legal?

At 8:15 PM, Blogger lance brown said...

Can you tell me on a loose ball, two guys have a shot at the ball and one decides to shield the other player from getting it, there are 4 steps by each player involved minimum and a semi extended arm impeding the outside player from getting the ball. Inside player has no intention of getting the ball he clearly is just screening for 4 steps and the ball goes out of bounds, is that legal?

At 3:25 AM, Blogger Buckdawg said...

A guy sets a screen on me. I hit it and attempt to run around it. The screener then pivots on his outer foot to stop me going around, extending his body further out, so now i'm running into his back trying to get around.

My opponent argues he's allowed to pivot when setting screens. I argue his feet need to be set and his body needs to be stationary.

Who's in the right here?

At 1:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the screener doesn't set both feet before the defender, who is unable to see the screen, makes contact and the offensive player with the ball collided with him into the screener. All 3 falling to the floor. Is there a foul? Who is charged with the foul if there is a foul?

At 10:53 PM, Blogger BloggingRef said...

Lance Brown--Extending the arm to prevent an opponent from normal movements is a foul--and that has nothing to do with screening.

Buckdawg--Tough to say without seeing the play, but that sure smells like an illegal screen from your description.

Anonymous--If the defender cannot see the screener, the screener is obligated to give the defender time and distance to avoid contact. If he/she isn't set yet, than that's a foul on the screener.

If he/she gets set while the moving defender is still far away enough (from a step to several steps, depending on how quickly he/she is moving), that collision is probably a no-call. But as you describe it, the screen wasn't legal.


At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Scott said...

Help!! I had a debate from one of my pick up players last night. When setting a screen/pick. Does screener have to be facing the defender? Can a screen be made with the players back to the defender? I know it doesn't make sense, but he swears that you can do it. Whats your verdict

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Bill Van Eron said...

I play with a group of guys that do several things that I interpret as a moving screen.
1. I am guarding my man and his team mate runs up to me and jumps in front of me to stop my movement. He was not set or gave me distance.
2. There is a field of live play between a defender and the offensive player. I understood that no one can deliberately run into that space, they have to be set. But some of your rules make it sound like that is OK.
3. You say a screener can not move which I agree with yet repeatedly when I try to get around a screener, they continue to lean their body, feet, leg to impede my progress. You also say a screener can move to brace themselves but that interpretation causes problems.
I am just trying to have fun but every play there are several seemingly illegal screens, enough to make it a frustration. Help!

At 8:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If im guarding someone on the low block, he gets the entry pass with his back to me and his teammate sets a pick behind me out of my field of view ....hes setting the pick in the 3 second area behind my right shoulder 3ft from the basket is this legal ?.... is this even necessary?


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