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Film review: Pick-and-Roll play has been pivotal for the Chicago Sky

Over the course of the 2023 season, the Chicago Sky have been searching for their flow offensively.

It’s clear on paper they have a plethora of dynamics, skillsets, and IQs, which suggests they should be able to dictate with a handful of actions offensively.

Among those entities is the pick-and-roll.

Early on, it was clear the pre-existing relationship between the Williams tandem — stemming from their two seasons spent in Atlanta — would be a long-term weapon, but would also need no ramp-up given their familiarity with each other.

On Sunday, I was able to speak to both about what makes their pick-and-roll play so effective:

The insightful assessment from these two certainly makes sense when watching the two execute in real time.

Through the lens of their tandem play against the Fever from Sunday, let’s zoom in on how their dynamics mesh together — creating perfect basketball harmony while consistently compromising defenses.

First one here will start with Williams off the ball — where she’s been very effective this season — then working into pick-and-roll.

Notice the off-script nature of this rep. By my eye, it seems as if they may be sending Courtney off a wide pin to then flow into Spain PnR, as Mabrey is on the baseline ready for the next action.

Nonetheless, notice also the manipulation of space on display here, as Courtney — after her match-up goes under the screen — flares, she (as well as Vatansever) implores Mabrey to clear that side and empty the corner.

The manipulation of that space, in re-spacing, enables real estate to play pick-and-roll in a more organic 2v2 manner, without the threat of help defense. It leads to the lowman being late rotating to Elizabeth’s dive on the roll.

Also notice Elizabeth’s angle on the screen, how that detaches Courtney from pressure, and how Boston (defending in drop coverage) has the step up because of Courtney’s mid-range threat — enabling Courtney to hold the attention of two momentarily — which opens the pocket pass.

This one comes from SLOB (sideline out of bounds). Courtney Zippers into spread pick-and-roll with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth misses on her initial screen but notice how quickly they flow into the re-screen, Elizabeth’s re-screen impact, Courtney around the elbows forces Boston to momentarily commit, then the timing of the dish from Courtney.

The pace really helped to set the advantage.

This one had a lot going on.

First, Courtney threatens to reject the screen. That alters the initial point of the screen and gets an ‘under’ from her match-up.

Elizabeth dives as Courtney crosses, however, Courtneys scoring prowess pulls both defenders involved to the left side. As she astutely reverses sides, Elizabeth smartly stops her roll and nails Courtney’s defender.

As that occurs, notice how Boston has to then switch. On that, Courtney’s match-up is stuck behind Elizabeth, enabling the pass.

Elizabeth ultimately finishes on the offensive rebound after getting a shot on goal quickly to beat the clock, but again the pace at which they get into their automatics makes their tandem play tough to guard.

It’s the aforementioned “you do this, we do that” dancing of sorts that Courtney mentioned in my Q&A with her above.

Their counters and automatics, with pace, consistently compromise defenses.

This one was a ton of fun. Courtney’s IQ and angle recognition were so in sync with manipulating this action.

Notice how she dances just enough, with no wasted motion, to get her defender to lose leverage after trying to stay in front.

As she wins there on the rejecting of the re-screen, she’s enabled access to the drop defender here again. Right when she turns her hips to commit to Courtney, the pass is delivered in the tiniest crevice, on time to Williams as she’s momentarily unguarded in the pocket, for two more.

This one comes via a hand-off.

We see an ‘under’ given, which leads to their automatic re-screen. That, then, receives an ‘over’ from Courtney’s match-up, as well as Elizabeth’s match-up stepping up to close the airspace.

The pace again beats the weak side tags in help and enables Elizabeth an undeterred touch in the channel again.

Though it is a miss, that’s high shot quality in the red zone and displays how good of advantages this tandem can generate when dictating in pick-and-roll play.

The Fever were rendered to react to them, often, and it consistently kept them in advantage-setting positioning.

This one’s simple, but kind of gets lost in all that Courtney has been tasked with in point guard play — she’s a scorer.

The point of this screen, in contrast to those above, takes place inside the arc.

If she does receive an ‘under’ from her defender, one dribble gets her into her wheelhouse as the “Mistress of the Mid-range.”

She processes it, flows to her spot, and it bottoms up again for the Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

On this rep, it’s the pace again. The Sky go with their ‘Wide’ action. Off the catch, Elizabeth slips the screen a bit too soon.

The re-screen, again, see’s Elizabeth’s match-up step up to close air space — enabling the pocket pass.

On the catch this time for Elizabeth, she feels both baseline defenders peel in (this is the impact of her roll gravity over the course of the game, in addition to the pace of their re-screening duping the Fever help defense.

She’s enabled to display her short-roll playmaking-ability, as she sprays it to Copper in the opposite corner, for a timely three.

Such great tandem processing here from both Williams.

Lastly for these two, we see them come together on a more unique approach, via the “Get” action — a pass chased by the passer, to then receive a hand-off from the recipient.

It helps to keep pace, can typically put the passers’ defender behind them, and serves as adjacent to pick-and-roll.

Courtney processes the ‘under’ again here, and, because the point of the hand-off is inside the arc, one dribble gets her into her wheelhouse again and she deposits two, in flow.

When these two are able to dictate via their tandem play, it enables the likes of Copper, Mabrey, Smith, and Bertsch to play their more traditional roles in spacing/cutting.

The Sky are most optimized in these situations because those pieces are enabled to play off a rotating defense should a direct look not come from the primary action.

Independent of the Williams’ directly, the Sky also have other solid pick-and-roll tandems that are tough to defend.

Particularly, Mabrey-Williams, Williams-Smith, Evans-Smith, Evans-Bertsch.

The latter two see Evans and her ability to turn the corner to get downhill, paired with two players in Bertsch and Smith who can roll but are adept at popping after a screen as well — making their tandem play compromising to defend as well.

In all, the Sky are finding their footing with pick-and-roll play. It’s been a dynamic, on efficiency, that they have to nail and keep blended in their offensive process.

When it hits, they become less predictable in their process and keep a defense honest.

This enables them to further compromise a defense, as we will see below with a pick-and-roll wrinkle Vatansever wasted no time implementing on Sunday.

The Courtney Williams to Elizabeth Williams tandem checks in 6th in total assists (28), 4th in two-point assists (28), 2nd in assists at the rim (19), and 7th in short mid-range assists (9).

They certainly lead the dance as the pick-and-roll the Sky most frequently feature, however, when they can blend all of their aforementioned tandems into their offensive flow, that’s where their offense can really turn a corner.

Watching their offensive process evolve in the half-court, pieces grow more efficient and effective, and generate better shot quality on volume, is key to watch going forward.

The Sky have run the most pick-and-rolls, at 564 this season, which is 83 more than the second-placed Fever.

That accounts for 37.4% of their possessions on the season.

A .824 PPP (points per possession) mark ranks them 10th, which is below where their talents suggest they should be on their aforementioned volume.

Better pick-and-roll play will uplift their entire offense, including their other actions and sets, and help their offensive metrics to catch up to that of their defenses.

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