Illegal Screen in Basketball: Purpose of Screen & What Makes a Screen

In basketball, the Illegal screen is a penalty that occurs when the screener set up the screen for the defender restraining them from the defined rules. Illegal screens are also termed “moving pick”. Several reasons are considered the cause for an “illegal screen”.

While setting the screen, the screeners are required to necessarily prior establish the position. Once the position has been set, the players are presumed to stand stationary and are not allowed to lean over or make unpurposeful contact with the player they are screening(the defender). If this occurs, they can be called for an illegal screen.

A screen is said to be illegal if the screener sticks out his arm/leg to hinder the defender’s movement or motion in a way that may result in obstructing the defender’s upcoming balance, rhythm, quickness, or speed. Further, when the screener attempts to grab, push or hold the defender, the screen is illegal.

What Is an Illegal Screen in Basketball

When the screener set the screen so close to the defender that it may end up with no space between them, it is considered an illegal screen. To be on the safer side, it is recommended to set the screen maintaining the gap of “one step” between them to avoid any illicit contact from the defender.

What Is a Screen in Basketball? Definition of the Screen

The screen is a legal strategy played by the offense to impede the defender’s path in order to assist any of their teammates for easy dunks, passing, motioning, dribbling, and shooting. The person who set the screen is called a “Screener”.

Recommended to read: Basketball Transition

Why Is the Screen Set in Basketball? Purpose of Screen

Primarily, the screen is set for the defender guarding the on-ball offensive player. It’s cooperative teamwork of the offense whose prime purpose is to block off the defender’s path to create a reasonable space for their team fellow.

A screen can be set either for the player with possession of the ball or without possession. Hence termed accordingly. An “on-ball screen” is the one set for an on-ball player and can be utilized to get enough space to create open shots or driving lanes. Contrastingly, an “off-ball screen” is set for a free player(player with no ball) who is open for a pass. However, they’re usually set for the on-ball players by the allies.

Setting up screens restricts the on-ball defender’s movement and forces them to switch their position bypassing the defense at the moment. This leads to space creation for the on-ball offender, to freely step on the open areas of the court and provides favorable situations to either shoot an open jump shot or drive the lane to the basket for an easy layup.

Not only does the on-ball player get more room for the activity but the posture of the screener also benefits him in an open way for gaining a pass smoothly. If the offensive team is composed of muscular players, it is likely to play the famous “Pick and Roll” offense strategy to set a screen.

How Do Players Set a Screen in the Basketball? Setting up a Screen

How Do Players Set a Screen in the Basketball

Setting up the screen is one thing but setting it correctly is the main. The straightforward and clear guidelines are already been defined to follow by the players to flawlessly and accurately set up a screen.

The execution of the screen setup strategy involves Three essential key steps to be implemented by the player. These fundamental steps are listed down below to learn how to set up a screen on the court smoothly. 

  1. Preparing to set screen
  2. Positioning the body
  3. Using the screen

1. Preparing to Set Screen

  • To set a screen, the screener is supposed to move slowly in one (fake)direction.
  • He then quickly turns and spins closer to the teammate in order to facilitate him.
  • Further, he steps in the way of the opponent’s defender to blockade his movement.

2. Positioning the Body

  • The body posture must be outlook — the feet with shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and the chest straight( not leaning forward).
  • The hands/arms must be positioned as protectors of the body. Either by setting both the arm downwards, hands holding each other with the fists over the lower stomach OR the arms being crossed(closely to the chest)with the hands on the shoulder.
  • The best screen setup and the perfect blockade can be achieved by placing the feet “Perpendicular to the opponent’s feet” by the screener. In other words, the screener’s feet must be framing the defender’s feet, i.e closely guarding the opponent’s.
  • Once the screen is set, the screener is expected to stand upright and “immobile”. Else wise the call of the ‘moving screen’ will be made.

3. Using the Screen

  • Once made sure that the screen has been set perfectly by the screener, the offender then initiates the move for any particular purpose(dunking, shooting, etc) to achieve.
  • The screener should be guarding the opponent so closely that when the other offender(the same teammate) takes a cut behind the screeners back, the shoulder of both teammates should touch or nearly touch each other. This ensures that there is no space left for the defender to get in between them to impede the offender’s move who has stepped for the drive or jump shot etc.

This is the most effective way considered to set the screen by the players on the court, especially against a strong defense. However, the vital thing is to make sure the screen that has been set is not illegal. Let’s learn about illegal screens below.

What Makes a Screen Illegal in Basketball?

Numerous situations are encountered in the basketball play that leads to an illegal screen. However, the prime reason considered is the negligence of one of the fundamentals, of not maintaining a considerable gap with the opponent screening. The screener is expected to provide space and give the defender a reasonable opportunity to avoid the screen. Further, the screener must stay immobile once the screen is set. Violation of any such defined rules leads to an illegal screen.

Some common situations that draw the referee to call for an illegal screen are mentioned below.

1. Limiting the Reasonable Space Of Defender

The screener at all times while setting the screen is supposed to give enough room to the defender for the “activity” by not imposing the body over him and also not hindering him in the prohibited ways. The primary concept of “reasonable space” hasn’t been defined. However, the best practice to adopt by the screener is to give a “one-step gap” if the defender is stationary and a “two-step gap” if in motion.

Following the particular pattern may result in the eradication of the benefit of the doubt by the referee.

2. Moving (Screen)

As the name refers, the violation occurs because of the forbidden movement once the player has set the screen. If the player moves after setting the screen, the screen is said to be the moving screen.

Any “discouraged maneuver” if observed by the screener intending to hinder the defender’s path or motion, leads to the ‘motion screen violation’. Thence, the player must stay stationary once setting the screen. However, is allowed to move once contact is made in order to “absorb” the contact. Still, the movement must not be intended to impede the defensive player and the screen should not be moved by the screener to gain any advantage.

The moving screen violation can sometimes occur due to the misstep of the offensive player being guarded(the on-ball/off-ball offender). The offender may initiate to drive around the screener without waiting for him to set properly and hence he has been still in motion. This lack of attention by the offender may often lead to the moving screen violation. Needless to mention, this one is typically caused by the offender(being guarded) and not by the screener.

3. Leaning In

Even if the screen is set with the perfect gap but not the body posture, it will be considered an illegal screen. To set the screen legally, the body of the screener must be positioned like, feet with shoulder-width apart, knees bent and chest “straightly up“. The overall body/shoulders of the screener shouldn’t be ‘leaning over the defender’s body. Such posture noticed by the referee ultimately gets a violation call.

4. Extending Out the Lower Body/Arms

The inessential placement of arms/bodies by extending them in any way in order to impede the defender’s path is strictly forbidden per the rules.

The players are taught to stand either with the fists crossly being placed over the lower stomach or arms being crossed closely in front of the chest with hands over the shoulder. This ensures that the player is no longer able to deflect or restricts the defender’s path by extending their arms or hands. Similarly, extending out the lower body parts like feet, legs, knees, or hips to lock out the defender’s route is also illegal.

Penalty For an Illegal Screen in Basketball?

Turnover is the penalty for an illegal screen in basketball. The defensive team is awarded with free throws as well if they are in the bonus. Since the foul is made by an offensive player, the referee gives a call of an “offensive foul” on setting an illegal screen.

Example of an Illegal Screen:

The video below can be followed to take notes on “do’s and don’t” to avoid illegal screens.

Difference Between the Pick and the Screen in Basketball?

“Pick” is another term used for the screen. Apparently, both terms are used interchangeably and have the same meaning.

NBA Rule Book on Illegal Screens:

The rules that have been stated by NBA are universal. They are considered by all referees and are enforced in all leagues being played over the world. Both the players and coaches look upon the book for enlightenment and embracing the rules. Let’s read below what the NBA rulebook states about illegal screening in basketball.

Section III: By Screening

A player who sets a screen shall not, A player who sets a screen shall not (1) assume a position nearer than a normal step from an opponent, if that opponent is stationary and unaware of the screener’s position, or make illegal contact with an opponent when he assumes a position at the side or front of an opponent, or (2) assume a position so near to a moving opponent that he is not given an opportunity to avoid contact before making illegal contact, or (3) move laterally or toward an opponent being screened, after having assumed a legal position. The screener may move in the same direction and path as the opponent being screened.

In (3) above, the speed of the opponent being screened will determine what the screeners stationary position may be. This position will vary and may be one to two normal steps or strides from his opponent.

Types of Basketball (Legal) Screens

Here is the types of basketball (legal) screens;Back Screen:

Notice in the video below how the back screen is set by the screener being away from the ball (off-ball screen) and catching the defender off guard. The other offensive player has now gotten a chance to safely and smoothly dunk the ball.

Cross Screen:

This kind of legal screen is set usually in the paint area. The video below demonstrates how the cross-screen secures the on-ball offender on the perimeter and the post player down low on the block from the double-team play by the opponent.

Double Screen:

Double screens are established using two offensive players. A similar is shown in the video below capturing the moment when the Toronto Raptors use two offensive players to set screens at the same time around the three-point line. This results in a wide-open three that the offensive player easily swishes!


An illegal screen is one that violates any of the preset rules of screening in basketball play. The screener setting the screen close to the defender or any lateral movement impeding the defender’s path are the prime causes of an illegal screen violation call. Other includes wrong posture, early movement after setting the screen, holding, grabbing, etc.

The illegal screens may come to a great cost for the offensive teams. Therefore, Until the next ballers, keep them legal, keep screening. 

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