Defensive versatility is extremely important in modern-day basketball due to the advanced level of offensive skill many players possess. When teams combine that skill with offensive sets that create space and driving lanes, they can consistently get quality looks on offense. One of the main tactics offenses use to create space and driving lanes are picks (also called screens).
One way teams may choose to negate the effectiveness of screens is to switch on defense. Because of this, defenders need to be versatile themselves if they want to stand a chance in slowing down elite offenses.
If you are watching an NBA or college basketball game, you may hear a commentator, coach, or player talk about switching “1 through 3”. What does switching 1 through 3 mean in basketball?
Switching 1 through 3 in basketball means that the defenders guarding the 1 guard, 2 guard, and 3 guard will switch the players that they are guarding if both players are involved in the same pick or any other type of rub action used to get the offensive players open.
In basketball, the numbers 1 through 5 are used to represent the five offensive players that are on the court at that time. These numbers are just mainly for communication purposes and do not play an official role in the game (we will discuss this in more detail below).
The numbers 1, 2, and 3 are assigned to the three guards on the court. When a defense is switching 1 through 3, that means the defenders guarding the three perimeter players will switch the players they guard when both players are involved in the same pick or rub action.
Switching 1 through 3 is not the only type of switching that teams will use. Some teams may even switch all five spots if their personnel allows for it, or if the situation calls for it.
Switching can be complicated to understand if you are unfamiliar with some of the terminology. In this article we will discuss the major components involved with understanding 1 through 3 switching, and switching in general, which includes:
- What is a pick?
- What is a pick and roll?
- What is a pick and pop?
- What are the numbers 1 through 5 in basketball?
- What is switching?
- Why would teams switch 1 through 3?
- Switching NBA vs College
After this hopefully you will have a better idea of what teams are trying to accomplish when they use this type of defensive adjustment.
What is a Pick in Basketball?
A pick in basketball, also known as a ‘screen’, is when an offensive player (with his feet set and not moving) uses his body to block the path of another player’s defender. This allows his teammate to run freely and causes the defense to have to help and allow time for the defender who got screened to recover to his man. (If you want to see an example of a pick, here is a video of one on YouTube.)
Screens are difficult to guard because it creates, momentarily, an uncovered offensive player. To combat this, teams execute what is called a ‘hedge’. A ‘hedge’ is not a switch. In a ‘hedge’, the defender of the player who is setting the screen, will momentarily “hedge” out and cover the offensive player who is running free off the screen.
When a defender hedges out on the offensive player who is running off the screen, this creates a quick moment for the defender who got screened to recover back to his man, and then the defender who is hedging will also recover to his man.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts wrapped up in this process that takes about two seconds to execute. If the defense is not in tune, there are easy opportunities to score.
Many offensive plays are built around picks/screens. They create space for shooters and driving lanes for ball handlers. A screen can be set for any player on the court, even if they are not the offensive player who currently has the basketball. Setting a screen while moving is illegal for an offensive player and will be called as a foul.
Setting screens for the player with the ball is a particularly effective way of creating quality shots. There are two main variations of this:
- Pick and Roll
- Pick and Pop
What is a Pick and Roll?
A ‘pick and roll’ (also called a ‘screen and roll’ and a ‘ball screen’) is an offensive basketball maneuver. To perform it, an offensive player will set a screen on the ball handler’s defender, then after he set’s the screen he will turn and run towards the rim.
Pick and rolls are hard to defend because the defender guarding the screener must help defend the ball handler while the original defender fights off the screen (this helping action is what we discussed above, called a ‘hedge’), but when the screener turns and dives toward the rim after setting the screen, his defender is out hedging the ball handler. This creates a free man running towards the rim, and the defense is forced into a help rotation to cover it. When a defense is rotating to help, this is when it is most vulnerable.
The pick and roll is a staple of offensive basketball. It can be run on its own, or may be part of a larger set play that the team runs on offense.
Pick and rolls (and pick and pops) are very popular in the NBA because the size and skill of offensive players is so elite that if executed correctly, an offensive team will get a high percentage shot attempt the majority of the time.
What is a Pick and Pop?
Pick and pop is a variation of the pick and roll. Instead of rolling towards the basket after the setting a screen, the screener will ‘pop’ out towards an open area on or near the perimeter where they can receive a pass and shoot a jump shot.
Pick and pops are very effective if the screener is a good shooter.
What is Switching in Basketball?
Before we talk specifically about switching 1 through 3, let’s discuss what switching in basketball is.
Switching in basketball is when two defenders swap players that they defend while action is live. Defenders typically do this as a way of combating screens and picks. Instead of fighting through a pick, they will just switch who they are guarding with the other player in the screen action.
Why not just switch all picks?
Instead of fighting through screens, why don’t players just swap who they are guarding on every screen? The reason teams don’t do this is not every defender is capable of guarding every offensive player.
If a team is switching every screen, it becomes an easy way for the offensive team to exploit a mismatch. What happens when a small guard gets switched onto a post player? Or vice versa? These mismatches lead to high percentage offensive shot attempts and can be a recipe for disaster for a defense.
Numbers 1 through 5 in Basketball
Teams use the numbers 1 through 5 as an unofficial way of assigning roles to the players on the floor. Generally, many teams play three guards with two post players. Numbers 1-3 are assigned to the guards, and numbers 4-5 are assigned to the post players.
When you hear the phrase “switching 1 through 3” it means that the defenders guarding the 1-3 (guards) positions will swap who they are guarding if they are both involved in the same screen.
The numbers 1 through 5 are usually assigned in this format:
- 1 – Point Guard
- 2 – Shooting Guard
- 3 – Wing Guard or Small Forward
- 4 – Power Forward (or another Wing Guard if a team is playing 4 guards)
- 5 – Center or Power Forward
Positives to Switching
- Makes it easier to handle picks and screens
- Helps keep ball handlers out of the lane
- Minimizes the need for rotation defense
- Helps players conserve energy
Negatives to Switching
- Can create mismatches
- Can lead to miscommunication on defense
Why Teams Switch 1 through 3
Teams will switch 1 through 3 when:
- The other team is running offensive sets with their guards that involve screens or rubs (like perhaps a perimeter dribble weave offense)
- and they feel like their guards defensively are versatile enough to handle the switches and not be mismatched with an offensive player they are not able to guard effectively.
Why Do Teams Switch?
Switching in basketball is considered by many experts to be the best way to defend pick and roll basketball if you have the correct personnel to handle it. The problem is, if you don’t have the correct personnel, it can create even more issues for you on defense.
Pick and roll basketball, if defended traditionally (without switching), creates easy driving lanes for ball handlers and open shots for shooters. It puts extreme stress on team defense, forcing help defense to rotate to account for the screen. When a defense is rotating to help, that is when it is most vulnerable.
As we discussed earlier, a drawback to switching is it can cause one-on-one mismatches when poorly equipped defenders get switched onto dynamic offensive players. But one drawback to not switching is it forces constant help rotations and puts a lot of stress on the entire defense.
The decision whether or not to switch screens may come down to which is the lesser of two evils. Does the coach feel his rotation defense is more vulnerable, or does he feel like the mismatches on screens make his team more vulnerable.
There are other things that can factor into this, but these two issues are usually the biggest factors to consider.
End of Game Switching
Switching is very common late in a game. For example, when a team is down three late in the game with only one possession left, the defensive team has no need to guard inside the three point line, because the offensive team must score three to tie the game.
At that point, teams will switch all five spots. The reasoning is they don’t want any space for shooters so they never want to disengage an offensive player.
If a team hedged in a spot like this, it would create an opportunity for a pick and pop, where the screener could relocate after setting the screen and possibly get an open shot attempt since the defender did not switch.
Even if a mismatch occurs in this scenario where a small defender gets matched onto a big body who could bully them to the rim, this is of no concern to the defense in this situation because the offensive team must shoot a three.
In these late game “switch 5” scenarios, teams will usually put five very versatile defenders on the floor so that switches and floor coverage are smooth.
Switching in the NBA vs College
Switching in the NBA has become more and more popular over recent years. In the past, it had not been used a lot due to mismatches.
With dominant offensive weapons in the NBA like James Harden, Lebron James, Kevin Durant etc., you can pay a severe price if these types of players are able to consistently get matched onto defenders who physically are unable to guard them.
There are also more defensive restriction rules in the NBA (compared to college basketball) that limits the amount of help a defender can get. So when a mismatch occurs, it can be really hard to defend.
When a player like Lebron James gets switched onto a smaller defender, he can bully that defender to the rim and the amount of help defense he has to face is limited.
College basketball is a little bit different because there is not a defensive three-second rule. This means the lane in college basketball is more clogged with defenders, which means that bullying smaller defenders to the rim effectively is harder because the offensive player will still have to deal with help defenders in the lane.
Also, the skill level of offensive players in college is very raw in comparison to the the NBA. Many young physically-dominant guards in college are still not sure how to use the size advantage effectively and may be hesitant to attack a mismatch with confidence.
The college basketball floor is also smaller than the NBA floor. This means rotation defense has less space it must cover, which means less vulnerabilities. Of course this does not mean that rotation defense in college basketball is not vulnerable, it just means that due to less skill level and smaller courts, the price you pay in college for poor rotation defense is often less than the price you would pay for poor rotation defense at the professional level.