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2016 NCAA Division I Men's NCAA Final Four pick play
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Pick Play In Lacrosse – Roll, Slip & Pop

The “pick play” has long been a big part of box lacrosse, and it has certainly had its place on the field as well, but in today’s college game we are seeing a lot more of it, from a lot more teams. Not surprisingly, of the points of emphasis this year in regards to the rules was the pick play, and referees have been instructed to pay special attention to it.

Early on, some of the calls on these pick plays haven’t been universally pretty, but that’s nothing new.

Whenever the referees are instructed to pay special attention to something new, there is usually good reason for it, and in the case of the pick play in lacrosse, it seems to be a case where consistency was lacking, but use of the play was increasing. The overseeing body saw it as a problem, and while the refs are still figuring out all the nuances to how the pick play should now be called, progress is being made and a set of consistent and enforceable calls seems like it is being worked out. It’s not perfect yet, and there are plenty of head scratchers still, but after each week of games, refs will get feedback on how they are calling games. Eventually this will all be sorted out, and I’d guess that by mid-March we will see a lot more consistency in how the pick play is called on the field, especially at the D1 level.

The above point seems to be that college refs WILL get more consistent with these calls as the season progresses, but that’s more like an annual tradition, and not a revelation.

The REAL POINT is that the Pick Play is here to stay.

If the NCAA refs are paying special attention to it and it’s still legal (and it is), that means it’s not going anywhere, so we need to know what we’re talking about. There are a lot of levels to good pick play, so let’s get in-depth on how the pick play can work.

What’s a Legal Pick Play?

First off we need to figure out what defines a legal pick where contact is made. As far as I can tell, This is any pick where a player sets his (or her) feet, before contact is made, the feet are shoulder width apart or less, and hands and stick are close to the body. The picking player can not lean into a defender or initiate contact in any way, other than by standing there and the defender running into them. In box lacrosse the picking player can make contact with the defender and even move their feet a little. In field lacrosse, the picking player can not initiate contact or be moving at all.

At the same time, a player CAN be moving if they never make contact with the defender. You will see this with fake picks, early slips, and rolls, and I will cover all that later. But the point here is that a pick can be a moving pick IF no contact is made between the picking player and the defenders. Sometimes you will see a “moving pick” that doesn’t get called because no contact was made. This makes it a very hard call to make properly, and likely accounts for some of the confusion here.

Another issue is that a defender can not INTENTIONALLY run through a pick whether it’s moving or stationary, meaning a defender can not run some over on purpose. If the defender runs someone over in pursuit of the ball carrier however, it is usually deemed legal. This is another very hard aspect of the pick play to call correctly, as different people will see intention differently. It’s only natural, but it does add a noted degree of difficulty to calling the pick play correctly.

What Are The Types Of Pick Plays?

When I look at pick play in field lacrosse, I see five basic types – The Set Pick, the Pick and Pop, the Pick and Roll, the Pick and Slip, and the Off Ball Pick. I’ll run through each of them below, and then get to how each one is best used, and what they offer to offensive production.

In each scenario, the goal for the pick play is to create a chaotic scenario for the defense where the two defenders are forced to communicate AND make a decision, and do so quickly. Since the offense is dictating the chaos to the defense (at least they should be!), the idea is that they can take advantage of the small edges that are created when split second decisions must be made by the defense.

The Set Pick – Player A has the ball. Player B sets a pick on Player A’s defender, and Player A runs around the pick. Player B keeps their feet firmly planted through the entire process. This is the most basic type of pick play in lacrosse and the goal is to force the defensive players to make a very simple choice: do they stay with their man, or do they switch? For youth lacrosse and some high school, this simple play can be effective. Sometimes it even works in college, but less so against good defenses at higher levels. Teams are typically prepared for it, BUT if your guys can grasp one  concept – do NOT move your feet – then this is a great place to start.

The Pick and Pop – This is the next generation of complexity beyond the Set Pick and involves a ball transfer. Player A has the ball. Player B sets a pick on Player A’s defender, and Player A runs around the pick. Player B then pops out to space, and Player A can roll back and pass the ball to Player B. In basketball, the Pop is used to generate 3 point shots and mid range jumpers. It works similarly in lacrosse, but without a 3 point line it has level value as a scoring chance generator, and more value when it comes to generating good match ups through defensive switches or getting the ball to a player who is being shut off. The pick and pop can even be used as a “fake” pick, where Player B sets a pick that will never be used. The purpose is to force Player B’s defender to slough off, and this further opens up Player B to receive a pass when they pop out. It can also generate 14-16 yard shot opportunities, but let’s not settle for that. It’s a transfer and match up management tool in most cases, even in box.

Pick Play Rochester Knighthawks Georgia Swarm NLL 2018
Photo: NLL

The Pick and Roll – Ok, now we get to more complex pick play that can generate legitimate scoring chances on a more regular basis. Player A has the ball. Player B sets a pick on the BACK (this is key!) of Player A’s defender, and Player A runs around, or off, the pick. Player B rolls TO THE GOAL (also very important!) as Player A is passing by, stick up, ready to catch a feed. By sealing Player A’s defender to the outside (on the defenders back, right?), Player B is on the inside of his new defender (the defender’s often switch here) and if Player B immediately cust to the goal, they will be wide open for 1-3 seconds. This is a precision play, where timing and confidence in your teammates is key, but it works time and time again.

The Pick and Slip – This is my personal favorite, because it takes a lot of the mystery surrounding “what is a legal pick?” right out of the equation. This is basically a fake pick. Player A has the ball. Player B sets a pick on the back of Player A’s defender, but instead of waiting for Player A to engage the pick play, Player B waits for his defender to turn his head away. When he does that, Player B cuts, or “slips:, to the goal having never really set the pick, with their stick up, ready for a pass from Player A. This one takes timing, precision, silent communication between O guys, and plenty of talent and patience, but it’s beautiful when it works, and since you never set the pick, there’s no chance to get called for an illegal one. That’s a nice added bonus.

The Off Ball Pick – All of the above options can also be done without the ball, on the offside, but some are more effective than others. There is also a separate Off Ball Pick that be used. Player A is high, Player B is low. The ball is on the opposite side. Player B cuts to the middle, then sets a pick on the back of Player A’s defender. Player A uses the pick as they would in the Set Pick scenario, and cuts to the goal looking for a feed from the opposite side. Player B will then either roll, pop, or slip into shooting space and often look for a step down shot. This is extremely common off ball in box lacrosse, where some movement/contact is allowed. For field lacrosse, the best approach is to use a Set Pick style, then pop or roll after Player A passes by. Nothing worse than a moving pick call off ball!

All of this takes some timing and trust, and players will only be open for a short window, but they will often be SUPER open, and if it’s something you practice, it becomes a lot easier. It will not happen on its own.

How To Use The Pick Play In Lacrosse

If the members on a team have not done a lot of pick play or tight passing, it doesn’t matter if they all have great stick skills. This is about more than just stick work, and it will take time for any team to introduce effective pick play into their game. Of course great stick skills don’t hurt! That being said, if a team doesn’t have great stick work overall, the pick play can still work, just not nearly as well.

The first thing to think about is how a team wants to use the pick play. Do they want to use it move the ball or change match ups? Do they want to create scoring chances? How many guys can really handle the ball in tight? Can the backside be involved with off ball stuff? Where do a team’s strengths lay? Do they have shooters? Feeders? Dodgers? If the players aren’t flourishing in tight spaces, does the team run a spread offense? Could they work pick play into that to create more space and lengthen slides?

When it comes to pick play being utilized effectively, it often comes down to a team finding a way to use the pick to ADD to their existing strengths.

When I coach the pick play, I focus on the following points of emphasis:

  • The PICKING PLAYER should set their pick early, with feet set and eyes up.
  • The BALL CARRIER bears the responsibility to engage or use the pick.
  • If the BALL CARRIER does not use the pick, the PICKING PLAYER should NOT try to reset the pick. This often leads to moving pick calls.
  • Picks are NEVER set to the side of a player. Picks are always on a defender’s back.
  • After setting a pick, the PICKING PLAYER always cuts directly to the goal, stick up!
  • The above is done to force the defense to honor and worry about the pick every time and discourage double teams while forcing the D to make a decision.
  • All offensive players must keep their sticks up by their ears. Ready to catch or pass!
  • If nothing is there, move the ball immediately, set Off Ball Pick. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
  • I am constantly preaching about creating and controlling chaos.
  • KNOW that split seconds openings are coming, so be prepared for them, both as a feeder and receiver.
  • Eyes can be your best communication tool.
  • Stay engaged.
  • Trust your teammates.
  • Earn your teammates trust.
  • Keep an eye on your defender. If they lose you for even a second, cut to the goal!

None of these are “set” rules. They are simply guidelines for success. And when players listen, and take it to heart, it can work wonders.

It’s easy to get frustrated or give up on the pick play in lacrosse. It’s easy to write it off as a “box thing”. Because early on it likely look UGLY. There will be a ton of mistakes. Players will make bad passes, or get hit in the face mask because they weren’t expecting a good one. Do not give up hope! While it takes time to master (or even grasp) this skill set, it is one that can off in big ways.

The pick play in lacrosse allows ANY team to create chaos. If they can manage it, the pick play can also produce points. A smaller, slower, less athletic team won’t win a lot of 1 on 1 match ups in most cases. But if they can play team ball, a team with skill and cohesion can run with anyone. The pick play opens up a lot of doors for any team willing to put in the work, and that’s why we have seen, and will continue to see, more and more pick play at all level of lacrosse.