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Late one evening in the fall of 2008, as the Weber State Wildcats hoisted jump shots after practice at the Dee Events Center, a freshman point guard named Damian Lillard made a promise that sounded like a boast. "I'm going to the NBA," he said. If he had been at Kentucky, the coaches might have shrugged, but at Weber State they laughed.
"You're clueless," replied one of the assistants, Phil Beckner. "For one thing, you don't know the pick-and-roll."
Lillard was, in fact, familiar with the play, having run it occasionally in high school with his AAU team, the Oakland Rebels. "I know pick-and-roll," he shot back.
"Bulls---," Beckner said.
A week later the coach presented Lillard with an eight-minute DVD of Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Deron Williams running 10 pick-and-rolls each. The freshman watched the video five times in his first sitting. "That was the beginning of everything," says Lillard, drafted sixth overall by the Trail Blazers in June. "I wanted to do what those guys were doing."
The pick-and-roll has been a pillar of NBA offenses since Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens were delivering pocket passes, but never has the set permeated playbooks as it does today. In 2004, when Synergy Sports began tracking the play, teams ran it on 14.5 possessions per game. Last season they were up to 26.1, and according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, the Spurs ran more than 60 pick-and-rolls per game against his team in the 2012 Western Conference finals, sometimes as many as six in a single possession. "You never saw that when I played," says Brooks, an NBA point guard from 1988 to '98. "There were a few throughout the game, but that was it. The pick-and-roll is at an alltime high right now. It's gotten to the point where if you don't have it in your package, you're behind."
The proliferation of the pick-and-roll is a natural by-product of the point guard revolution. When the NBA belonged to big men, coaches ordered their floor generals to dump entry passes into the post and stand back. Those same coaches now search for ways to keep the ball in their playmakers' hands. The pick-and-roll showcases the diverse talents of today's premier point guards, allowing them to drive, shoot, pass and make a complicated series of decisions all in the same set. Executed properly, the pick-and-roll spawns a five-on-four half-court fast break, with a ballhandler bouncing off a big man's high screen and evaluating his many options: bury a pull-up three-pointer, drive for a layup, kick to an open shooter, or lure two defenders from the paint and hit the screener careering to the basket for a rim-rattling dunk.
Not every pick-and-roll ballhandler is a point guard—think James Harden and LeBron James—but according to Synergy, eight of the nine most productive pick-and-roll teams last season had these luminaries at the point: Nash, Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Jason Kidd and Jeremy Lin. "Those guys are all so good and so offensive-minded, they can put you in a position where it's impossible to defend," says Brooks. "You're constantly picking your poison."
The pick-and-roll doesn't work for everyone, though. The Blazers finished 20th in pick-and-roll production last season, with pudgy point guard Raymond Felton lumbering around screens, clanking threes and underlining a fundamental truth about the NBA's most popular play: You must find the right person to initiate it, wherever he might be—even at Weber State.
Before every practice Beckner and Lillard worked together almost exclusively on the pick-and-roll. Beckner acted as the defender, and a trash can or folding chair was the screener. When Lillard dribbled around the obstacle and Beckner hopped out on him, Lillard was confronted with the decision that faces every pick-and-roll point guard: drive, dish or let fly. In its 2008--09 Big Sky opener against Northern Colorado, Weber State trailed by three points in the final seconds and called a play for guard Kellen McCoy. But when Northern Colorado denied McCoy, Lillard waved a teammate over for a pick, turning him into an imaginary trash can. The defender ducked under the screen, and the fearless freshman sank a 23-footer at the buzzer to force overtime. "Pick-and-roll is such a big part of the NBA, and we knew Damian had a chance to get [to the league]," says Weber State coach Randy Rahe, "so it only made sense to add more of it to our offense."