Updated: Oct 29, 2021
From the moment that a defense gains possession of the basketball the hunt for a pitch ahead pass begins.
To start this deep dive into transition offense we are going to first look at the pitch ahead pass. We believe that the pitch ahead represents the best chance for the basketball to beat the defense down the floor. From the second that the basketball has been secured the player with the basketball should have his eyes up the floor hunting for a pitch ahead opportunity. With players sprinting on the ball side sideline, opposite sideline, and the rim those pitch-ahead opportunities will present themselves in a number of ways.
In this post, we will focus mostly on the scoring options that exist off of pitch ahead passes, but it is worth noting that there are a number of other benefits that come from consistently pushing the ball up the floor. We find that teams who are willing to consistently pitch the ball ahead will result in players that are more eager to sprint the floor knowing they will be rewarded. Ideally, this habit will have a domino-like effect on the other layers of transition offense. In later installments of our transition deep dive, we will examine how an increased willingness of players to sprint the floor will result in more opportunities for ball handlers to attack the middle third and for trailers to take advantage of collapsed defenses.
Teaching Points -
As a general principle, I think it is important to keep our teaching points to a minimum. In order for our players to be able to problem solve quickly and accurately, we want them to react and not overthink. This is especially true in transition due to the speed at which decisions need to be made. A good offseason best practice could be to undergo the process of narrowing down our teaching points to only the essentials. With that being said, when it comes to asking players to consistently pitch the basketball ahead there are a few things teaching points that we want to emphasize on the practice floor and in-game.
Sprinting the First Three Steps
No Backwards Passes: Long Outlets or Bust out Dribbles
Make Eye Contact before Pitching Ahead
Avoid Late Pitch Ahead Passes
1 - Sprinting the First Three Steps:
Those first three steps once we gain possession of the basketball are critical in creating separation from your defender. Since pitch ahead passes depend on this separation it becomes a crucial point of emphasis to make sure players are "sprinting out of the gate". As possession is gained we are expecting that:
Our 4 or 5 Man to Sprint to the Rim
Our Wing Players to Sprint to the Sidelines
After sprinting those critical first three steps players should be looking back over their inside shoulder expecting the pitch ahead pass.
2 - No Backwards Passes:
As soon as we secure possession of the basketball we want to be attacking towards our opponent's basket. In a live ball scenario, any pass that goes back towards the baseline will only negate the advantage the other players gained by sprinting those first three steps. We want rebounders to get in the habit of looking for Long Outlet Passes or simply advancing the ball with a Bust Out Dribble.
3 - Make Eye Contact before Pitching Ahead:
The passer needs to make eye contact with the sideline runner before he makes the pass. Since we are asking the sideline runner to turn and sprint their first three steps, the player with the basketball must make eye contact first before delivering that pitch ahead pass. This will help us avoid turnovers in this phase.
4 - Avoid Late Pitch Ahead Passes:
One aspect of pitching ahead that should be avoided is the Late Pitch Ahead. We are generally using the half-court line as our guideline for what is considered a late pitch ahead. There are a number of negatives that can occur with these passes:
They don't create advantages because of shorter closeouts
It can potentially Side the Basketball vs a Pressure Defense
As we'll talk about in our next installment, if we approach half-court and still have not made the pitch ahead pass then we would prefer to attack the middle third with the dribble rather than pitching ahead late.
Eyes Towards the Rim -
We really want to encourage the player with the basketball to check the rim as soon as possible. Hitting the Rim Runner with a pitch ahead pass is almost always an automatic layup attempt but the window to hit him in stride generally closes quickly. Finding a way to get the basketball pitched ahead to the Rim Runner 2-3 times a game with long-term benefits for the rest of your transition offense. Just the threat of him potentially getting the basketball can wreak havoc on transition defenses by pulling help defenders to the baseline.
Rim Runner Options -
4/5 Rim Run:
The way we are going to typically teach the Rim Run is that either our 4 or 5 Man should be sprinting to the rim and the other should be trailing the play.
Whichever player is ahead of the basketball should be sprinting to the rim, and whoever is second trails the play.
First 3 Steps!
Make Contact & Seal the X5
Hold Your Position
We can also get Rim Run opportunities if one of the perimeter players leaks out on a missed shot or a turnover. The only real teaching point we will emphasize is that players should fill back out to a corner if they don't get the pitch ahead pass.
Sideline Pitch Ahead -
The Sideline Pitch Ahead is the most common option for the player with the ball to pitch ahead to. There are a number of scoring opportunities that can present themselves with a sideline pitch ahead pass. Ideally, when we pitch the ball up the sideline there will be an opportunity for that player to get a shot or chance to attack the rim. If no shot or drive opportunity emerges the player on the sideline still has the option to enter the ball to the Rim Runner who is now attempting to seal his man in the post. If none of those options are open then we should be looking for the Return Pass, something we'll touch on further down in the post.
Sideline Pitch Ahead -
The first scoring opportunity on a sideline pitch ahead pass is the catch and shoot behind the three-point line. With a good shooter on the sideline, this threat can create a ton of gravity for other players.
If a defender closes out on the shot quickly the sideline pitch ahead can yield a ton of driving opportunities. A sideline pitch ahead and Drive the Elbow combination is really difficult to guard in transition.
The last scoring opportunity for the Sideline Pitch Ahead is to enter the basketball to our Rim Runner. A good post player that can seal his defender can make a living off of Running to the Rim and then Posting Up.
Pitch Ahead Opposite -
The pitch ahead to the opposite sideline happens far less often with a Rim Runner transition system than if you happen to use a Two-Sided Break system. However, I have found that if your Rim Runner and sideline pitch ahead option become threats to a transition defense that pitch ahead to the opposite sideline will open up more often. Just like our sideline pitch ahead the shot, drive, & post-up options are all available to the player who receives the pass. As we'll discuss in our last segment, if none of those options produce a shot then the Return Pass can be made and half court offense initiated.
Pitch Ahead Opposite -
Shots & Drives:
Similar to our Sideline Pitch Ahead we are making this pass because there is a player who is open. At the very least that player will have a small advantage he can look to extend.
Similar to the Sideline Pitch Ahead, if there was no shot or drive opportunity for the basketball then we would encourage a Return Pass to the Slot where we could initiate our half-court offense. In the last segment of the article, we will show how that slot-to-slot pass can initiate a number of offensive options.
Return Pass -
If a pitch ahead pass has been made along wither sideline, and no shot, drive, or post entry is available then we are looking to make a Return Pass to the Slot. Earlier in this post, we talked about how sprinting to the corners and the rim can have secondary benefits, and this is the area in which we start to see those emerge. In the rush to defend against hard Rim Runs & Corner Sprints the defense will often flatten. When those instances occur the Return Pass can create great scoring opportunities for the player who made the initial pitch ahead pass.
Similar to the way in which we use the Trailer we are going to use the Return Pass as not only a scoring opportunity but as a trigger into half-court offense. We have used the slot-to-slot pass as a trigger into half-court offense for four years now, and I feel like you can flow into nearly any offensive system with that sequence. In the video clips below we will show how over the years we have used that pass to flow into Blur Screens, Down Screens, and even Staggered Screens.
Pitch Ahead, Return Pass -
Shots & Drives:
If we can flatten the defense enough great shot and drive attempts can emerge for the initial passer. In the "order of operations" that is the first thing we are looking for.
Flow into Blur Screen:
Over the past three seasons, we have used the slot to slot blur screen with some success. With a simple slot-to-slot pass, we can easily flow directly into that action.
Flow into Motion:
When our personnel was better suited for a Motion Offense style system we used that same slot to slot pass to easily flow into our preferred action. In 2016-17 we used a simple down screen as a means to create action and also isolate our post player. In 2019-20 we used the Staggered Screen as a means to get our best player coming off of screens.
Concluding Thoughts -
Pitching ahead is one of the core principles for good transition teams. Getting your players to sprint the floor, and convincing your guards to reward that sprinting with the pitch ahead pass will vastly improve your transition numbers. As we mentioned in that last segment with the Return Pass there are a number of other scoring opportunities that can emerge simply from players sprinting to the corners and rim threatening to receive the pitch ahead pass. Perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is making sure your players know how to seamlessly connect the pitch ahead action to your half-court offense. Be sure to check out Part II - Attacking the Middle Third and Part III - Playing Through the Trailer to get the complete picture of our transition system.
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Further Reading on this topic:
A video playlist by @RadiusAthletics on Michigan State's Transition Game:
Article on Trae Young and the "Pitch Ahead Opposite" Pass:
@BballImmersion Podcast with Coach Bill Wuczynski on Pitching Opposite:
Highly Recommend scrolling through #TransitionOffenseTips on Twitter.