Screen assist stat reveals the importance of Marcin Gortat to Washington Wizards

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Passing isn’t the only way to assist a teammate. The ability to set effective screens, both on and off the ball, is an underappreciated skill, one that doesn’t show up in the standard boxscore, and can have a huge effect on a game.

But for the last two seasons, the league has tracked “screen assists,” defined as screens “for a teammate that directly lead to a made field goal by that teammate,” as part of its hustle stats.

And the league leader, both last season and this season (through Thursday’s games), has been Marcin Gortat of the Washington Wizards, who has averaged 5.9 screen assists per game over the year-plus.

Volume is key. Nobody sets more screens the Gortat. Nobody plays more games than Gortat, either. He has missed just eight games in his five seasons in Washington. And he’s always been willing to do the dirty work.

“He’s a willing screener, he wants to screen, and he’s willing to get hit,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said about Gortat last month. “A lot of players want to slip every screen, because it hurts.”

John Wall and Bradley Beal are the Wizards’ stars, and Gortat has often been mentioned as a player the Wizards could trade in an attempt to raise their ceiling. But the ability of Wall and Beal to get open and get to the basket would be compromised without the screens of Gortat.

“He gets our offense going,” Brooks said. “He’s the best in the league and he’s going to be that way for a long time, because he wants to do it and he enjoys getting guys open. We just have to find him a few more times when he does roll, because he does like to score around the basket also.”

Gortat agrees with his coach. But Gortat’s screening ability goes beyond standard pick-and-rolls, though. He’s also one of the league’s best at ad-lib screening, where, as a play develops (often in transition) he finds an opportunity to get in the way of a defender and create a path to the basket for his teammate.

“He’s a smart screener,” Brooks said. “He knows angles. There’s a lot of times he screens his own man, because John and Brad, they have enough speed. If their man is looking for the screen, they’re gone. And he knows that and sees that, so he screens his own man.”

Gortat sat down with NBA.com last week to talk about the art of screening, his chemistry with John Wall, and the frustration of not being rewarded (or even acknowledged) for setting a good screen.

NBA.com: Is the screen assist stat something you pay attention to?

Marcin Gortat: “Yeah, at end of the day, it’s helpful, but it’s not like I’m focusing on it. It’s just part of my game. I’m just doing what I’m doing. I’ve always been known for being a great pick-and-roll player and additionally now, it’s guys making shots coming out of my screens.

“It’s kind of my curse, because there’s a saying ‘Set a good screen and you’ll be open.’ Well, I’m setting good screens, but the other guy’s open. And most of the time, when I set a good screen, the guys are shooting. So there’s not to many dump-offs and passing toward me. So it’s kind of like my curse right now.

“There are days when I’m happy and there are days that I’m really frustrated with that, because obviously I’m helping my teammates to get open, but at the same time, I’m not even involved in the game.”

He’s a willing screener, he wants to screen, and he’s willing to get hit.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks on Gortat

NBA.com: So you could set three or four screens on a single possession and never touch the ball.

Gortat: “Exactly. Well, most of the time, when I set three or four screens, on the third or fourth screen, there’s going to be an open bucket. I take pride in doing it, but like I said, it’s my curse.”

NBA.com: When did you develop this skill?

Gortat: “It started from being a physical guy who’s not afraid of the contact, not afraid of getting dirty. Obviously, [there’s] some basketball IQ, knowing the angle of the screen, knowing the timing of the screen. And obviously, sometimes you gotta set the screen a little bit illegally. It is what it is.

“At the same time, I learned setting screens from a lot of different players, mainly Kendrick Perkins back in the day, KG, Dennis Rodman. I watched them setting screens.”

NBA.com: So you watched film on setting screens?

Gortat: “I watched film and I read articles about it. I’ve always had a great mentor, Brendan Malone. He’s like my father. He taught me a lot in Orlando. After every practice, he would come down and give me an article to read or he would call me up to the office to watch film on a day off.

“And I would be like, ‘What the hell are we watching on a day off?’ And he would show me some things like what could I do in the future. So I learned and it definitely helped me to become a better player.”

NBA.com: You and John Wall have great pick-and-roll chemistry. How did that come about?

Gortat: “That’s been 400 games. We’ve played together for five years. So there has to be some kind of chemistry. And I truly believe there is great chemistry. I don’t need to communicate with John. Our body language is just outstanding. He knows I’m reading the big, I’m seeing how they’re playing him on the pick-and-roll, and I’m just making a counter-move.”

NBA.com: So when Tim Frazier comes in this year, how long does it take to develop pick-and-roll chemistry?

Gortat: “First of all, it’s not going to be that easy for the other point guards. To be effective with me on screens, you need to be jet quick. That’s one.

“Two, you need to have that ability to get to the basket with a variety of moves, to be able to finish with the left and right hand. John can do that. There’s not too many point guards in the league that can do that.

“With Tim, we play a few pick-and-rolls, but we’ve played 20 games together, and in those 20 games, it’s probably 10 minutes a game. So it’s not like I’ve had a chance to play with him for five years. It’s going to take time.”

NBA.com: It seems like you’re always looking for an opportunity to screen, even in transition, where you may be a step or two ahead of the ball-handler.

Gortat: “Always. One thing I’ve developed is rim running and trying to seal the guy early in a post-up. And most of the time, because they don’t want me catching the ball deep in the paint, they’re fronting me, which automatically puts me in a situation to [set] a screen. And obviously, [with Wall’s] speed in the open court, there’s nobody in the league that can contain that, so he’s usually using me as a brush screener.

“And the scary part is that I’m getting a lot of offensive fouls for that, because I’m screening my man, who is standing in front of me, and John is coming full speed and the point guard and big man are crashing against each other very hard.

It looks dangerous and people say I pushed. No, that’s just the speed that John has and that’s what he does to the players. I was just standing, holding my guy, and they just ran into each other, which is nobody’s fault. That’s just how it is.”

NBA.com: Most important question… If somebody passes you the ball and you score, you point and acknowledge the pass…

Gortat: “Yeah, most of the time, I’m trying to do that.”

NBA.com: Now, when you set a great screen that sets a teammate up for a wide-open shot, does anybody acknowledge it?

Gortat: “Maybe the bench players, a few of them. But not the guys in the game.”

NBA.com: Coach Brooks told me that he’ll acknowledge it in the film room, and he wants everybody to see it and appreciate it. But it’s never happened on the floor? No “good screen, Marc” from a the guy you just freed for an open shot?

Gortat: “Occasionally. But not with the frequency that I’m setting screens.”

NBA.com: And not with the frequency that someone would acknowledge a passing assist. A few times a year, then?

Gortat: “Maybe once a week.”

NBA.com: Once a week? That’s not bad. I imagine it can be tough when you’ve already set a couple of screens on a possession, you’ve rolled to the basket and, with six or seven seconds left on the shot clock, one of the guards is calling for another screen.

Gortat: “Sometimes.”

NBA.com: But being a good screener is about being a willing screener, primarily, right?

Gortat: “It’s about being in the right shape to go up and down with John and Brad, set a screen, roll down and come back up. It takes a lot of energy. It’s a [pain] to do that.

“But I feel like I’m able to survive in this league … obviously I don’t shoot threes … but I do a lot of things on the court that a lot of people appreciate. And they feel comfortable playing with me, because first, I can keep up with people. And two, I set good screens and make sure the angles are right for the guards to attack the basket.”

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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