Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Insight into the Princeton Offense

Thanks to Coach Welling for passing along a March 2003 story from The Daily Princetonian about the Princeton Offense, described by the author as "nothing more than a big toolbox."

If the right tools are used at the right times, open baskets will be as common as birdhouses in shop class. If not, however, the Tigers will crumble.

According to the article, in the Princeton office, "If anything is open, either a shot or a drive, take it."


Princeton does not utilize any of the common basketball techniques, such as pick-and-rolls and isolation plays. The Tigers use unconventional tools such as the drive drill, drift screens, and off-ball screens.

While many teams use off-ball screens, Princeton differentiates itself by the two options involved, a backdoor cut or a shot. Off-ball screens are key to running the offense and are pretty simple as far as the Princeton offense goes.

One player holds the ball looking for a pass. A second player then screens the defender of yet a third player. The third player is the key to this part of the offense. He makes the decision of what to do based on the quality of the screen and how the defender is hindered by it. He can either come off the screen for an open outside shot or make a backdoor cut to the hoop.

One of the basic starting sets for the Princeton offense is the "1-2-2," also known as "Five-out," since all five players position themselves around the three-point arc — two in the corners, two at the wings, and the center at the top of the key. Let's run through a few examples of what could happen from here.

This is where the "drive drill" comes in. The center, with the ball, drives directly at the defender of one of the wing players. If the defender is laying off this player, the center hands the ball off to the wing player and simultaneously screens that man's defender. The player who just received the hand-off (originally in the wing) now ideally has an open shot at the top of the key.

Luckily, the offense is still prepared for an athletic defender who can still stop the shot. While all this exchange is going on, the wing and corner players on the other side of the court are "drifting." The drifting wing forces his defender in toward the elbow. When he realizes that the open shot is not there, the player from the corner sprints to screen the wing's defender at the elbow.

Without an open shot, the man with the ball dribbles to the top of the key and waits for the player with the screened defender (the original backside player at the wing) to decide whether to cut to the basket and drive or come off the screen and take the three.

What if there is still not an open shot? The center meanwhile has been drifting back to help screen the defender of the wing player with whom he originally drive-drilled. That wing would then get another chance to choose drive or shoot.

In the simplest recycling of the offense, he would drive to no avail then kick out to the one player not used yet: the player in the corner of the original drive drill. At that point, the offense could start all over.

That seems complicated enough, but now we reach the staple of the Princeton offense: the backdoor cut. Back at the original drive drill, the wing at whose defender the center is driving will take the backdoor cut if his man is playing him tightly. The backdoor cut ideally leads to an easy layup if the pass is made.

If the backdoor pass cannot be made, the center who still has the ball dumps it off to the corner player stepping up. The center then drifts back up to the top of the key as if to set back up or to look for a shot.

The cutting player who did not receive the pass, however, has turned around and makes an "up-the-side screen" for the center at the elbow of the side from which he had originally cut. This should leave the center the opportunity to get open down low.

If the center cannot make a play in the post, he simply kicks it out to the corner player who has drifted back after passing the ball into the center. This leaves an open space for an off-ball screen to the original backside wing player.

If all that does not work, junior Ed Persia can knock down an NBA-range three-pointer.