College teams use brush screens to free dribblers, but only a few run the pick-and-roll as frequently as NBA clubs. Though the play is one of the most basic in the game—it's a staple of playground two-on-two—most point guards don't learn the intricacies until they turn pro. Rahe came up with five different pick-and-roll actions for Lillard and called them as many as 15 times per game. Beckner and Lillard studied clips of all the pick-and-rolls alongside cut-ups of Paul's and Parker's. NBA scouts flocked to the Weber State campus in Ogden, Utah. "All our analytics told us he was the most effective pick-and-roll player in college basketball," says Blazers general manager Neil Olshey. "Then you go to see him and he's running middle pick-and-rolls, side pick-and-rolls, and he's involving others. He had a translatable skill."
Of course, a point guard can memorize every nuance of the pick-and-roll and get nowhere if he can't shoot. At 6'3", 195 pounds, Lillard is a power guard who sank 39.0% of his three-pointers as a Wildcat, comparable with Nash's 40.1% at Santa Clara. "Steve Nash is the best at pick-and-roll because of his shooting," says Mike D'Antoni, who coached him in Phoenix. "That makes everything easier."
When Nash bounds off a pick, his defender has to climb over the screener, lest he give Nash the space to pull up and fire. Once the defender goes over, Nash has a head start to the basket, and his team is playing five-on-four. On the other hand, Boston's Rajon Rondo shoots 24.1% from three-point range, so when he dribbles around a screen, his defender can slide under the screener, regain position and dare Rondo to put it up.
Few point guards shoot as well as Nash, but in order to run the pick-and-roll consistently, all must shoot well enough to make the defender go over. Chicago's Derrick Rose crossed that threshold in his third season, and now he scores the most points per game of any pick-and-roll ballhandler (chart, page 69). D'Antoni used to give Nash a checklist once he cleared the screen: The first option was a pocket pass back to the screener; if that was covered, Nash continued to the basket; if he was cut off, he kicked to a shooter. Only in the final minutes did Nash actually use the screen for his own three. "If we run this, I don't care what the defense is doing, they're not stopping it," D'Antoni says. "We may mess up or miss a shot, but you can't really stop it."
Nash has made millions for whatever big man is fortunate enough to play with him. Last season Suns power forward Marcin Gortat scored the most points per game of any roll man, according to Synergy. In 2005--06, when Amar'e Stoudemire was injured, Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas and Boris Diaw all finished in the top eight. In Los Angeles, Nash will be partnered with Dwight Howard, a celebrity marriage in the pick-and-roll world. "I just don't know if you can do better than that," D'Antoni says.
Every team is trying to develop its own incarnation of John Stockton and Karl Malone, the pair that sparked the pick-and-roll craze. "We were a lot different, though," says Jerry Sloan, who coached Stockton and Malone with the Jazz. "Now teams are running it from the start of games, spacing the floor, using it to get threes. John and Karl saved it for the end when they got into trouble. Karl would set a screen, and it was like running into a piece of cast iron. Then he'd flare out for a jump shot. We didn't invent anything. We just had the right guys."
The archetypal roll man is accurate enough to pop out for a midrange jumper and swift enough to drive to the rim for a layup. A prime example is Hornets forward Anthony Davis, the first overall pick in the June draft. Another is Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who just needed a savvy point guard to take advantage of his skills. "When I come off the screen, and LaMarcus's man goes to me, I've noticed that he likes to roll just under the free throw line," Lillard says. "If I can make that pass to him, he'll stop right above the block for a short pull-up jumper."
The pick-and-roll is a dance, one big partner and one small, moving in a mosh pit. At Weber State, Lillard relied on the play to create shots for himself. In Portland he will use it to benefit Aldridge. "He has to play off LaMarcus," says Blazers assistant David Vanterpool. "He has to figure out how to let the pick-and-roll develop and when to pass the ball."
The first play of Lillard's pro career was promising. Against the Hornets in the Las Vegas Summer League, Lillard dribbled around a pick by rookie Meyers Leonard and noticed that his defender was climbing over the screen. Word was already out on Lillard's jumper. The point guard saw Leonard slipping to the hoop and threaded a one-handed bounce pass that Leonard collected and laid in. "It was unbelievable to see somebody so young with that skill," Leonard says of Lillard. "He's one of a kind."
During training camp Olshey asked Lillard how he was holding up, and the rookie responded, "I can't believe how easy this is." Lillard played four years at a college that prepared him for something beyond the Sweet 16. He didn't become a lottery pick in spite of Weber State. He became a lottery pick because of it.