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Princeton Offense: Basketball’s Beauty

When I hear Princeton offense, I think Princeton and Pete Carril, the mastermind behind the system that has been adapted and implemented at varying levels of the sport. Carril created the offense and used it to help him win 514 games during his 29-year career as head coach of the Tigers. It has a long legacy that will be felt for years to come.

There aren’t too many teams that run the Princeton offense as their main system nowadays, but it is still very prevalent to see its principles and ideas used in games by teams looking to utilize as many scoring threats as possible. It is still a valuable system to understand and use in the modern game, and there are programs that have used it even within the last few years.

Although the Princeton offense can be complicated, this guide is meant to explain the Princeton offense in its most simple form. Like with any brand off offense, offshoots can be created from the attributes of the Princeton offense, and if you are a coach, you may want to consider what aspects the system’s principles can best help your team depending on its level, ability and personnel. But first, you must understand the core characteristics before getting that far.

Princeton Offense Setup

There are a few ways you can setup for the Princeton offense. A common way is 4-out, 1-in, either on the high or low post. You can also use a 2-3 high set or 1-2-2 with 5-out set.

This is an example of a 4-out high and 2-3 high set for the Princeton offense.

The idea behind a high set is that is opens up space around the basket for cuts, particularly back cuts, and constant motion is used to make inside helpside defense that much more difficult.

The Princeton offense uses positionless basketball principles, so you don’t necessarily need to line your players up by the traditional positions. Your 5 will be asked to distribute the ball, and it’s important that he/she be a smart player capable of making quick, positive decisions and hold the ability to anticipate plays and movements before they occur. Even if they’re not your tallest or biggest player, putting your smartest player as your post will likely be beneficial.

Basic Principles

Before delving into the specific versions of the offense, let’s first explain the groundwork necessary for it.

The Princeton offense requires players to cut and look for a give-and-go immediately after making a pass themselves. The player receiving a pass should always look for the give-and-go option. The back cut is always something to be considered, and it should be the first choice taken when available. The aim of the offense is to get an easy layup at the rim first and open three-point shot second. Dribbling or attacking off the drive should of course be used when it makes sense, but passing to create openings and shooting in that space is the first priority.

Princeton Offense Series

There are three main series that host the system: low post, point and chin. Here are breakdowns of each to give you an understanding of how they work.

Low Post Series

The first action in the low post series is always the same: the point guard (1) passes the ball to the wing (3), then cuts through the lane and out to the opposite corner. The rest of the team adjusts accordingly, with the perimeter players sliding over on the perimeter. The wing player looks inside to see if the low post entry is there, and depending on if that pass is made or not affects what happens next.

The point guard send the ball to the wing and clears out to the weak corner. The wing looks inside for a possible post entry.

If the pass inside can be made and the matchup is favorable, the low post man can go to work one-on-one. However, after making the entry pass, 3 heads to the top of the key to set a screen for 4. He/she either cuts down the lane toward the basket or pops out to the strong-side wing for a three depending on what is available. If the defender plays 4 right, he/she should go to the basket. If they stay loose, stay on the perimeter. Whatever 4 does, 3 should do the opposite. This gives 5 two potential options for passes if the shot isn’t there.

It is important that 3 and 4 take their time with this process and read the defense. It won’t be successful otherwise.

If the entry pass can’t be made, 3 will take a couple dribbles along the perimeter toward 4 at the top of the key. Then, 4 reads how his/her defender if playing them and move accordingly, either with a cut toward the basket if the defender is tight on them or toward 3 to receive a dribble hand off if not. At the same time, 5 comes up to the perimeter to set a down screen that 4 can use to attack the basket if the dribble hand off happens. If not, 5 clearing out the space on the block brings the defender up with him/her and creates an opening near the hoop for 4’s back cut.

If none of these options end up being open, 3 swings the ball to 2, with 4 clearing out to the weakside wing if they don’t get the ball. Player 5 will set a back screen for 3, who will make a shuffle cut toward the rim for a possible layup while 5 pops out to the perimeter to take 3’s place. If none of this turns into a shot opportunity, then it runs through again, this time on the other side of the floor.

Point Series

To start this action, 1 passes the ball to 4 along the perimeter. Then, 5 comes up from the post to set a high screen for 1, who uses it to cut to the basket. Player 4 looks to pass to 1, but if it isn’t open, then 1 continues to the wing and the offense continues.

In the point series, the first option is a back cut to the hoop from 1. If that isn’t open, then the offense continues.

After setting the screen, 5 makes himself/herself available to receive a pass on the high post, and 4 gets it there. Now, 4 has three different cutting options: away, over and under. That decision should be made based upon how the defender is playing him/her.

Away

If 4 decides to go “away,” then he/she sets a screen for 2, who has the option of a back-door cut or popping out to the top of the key with the chance of an open jumper. At the same time, 4 pops in place after setting the screen and becoming available for a pass. If 2 is not open on the back cut, 5 gets the ball to 4, follows his/her pass and gives 4 an on-ball screen. Meanwhile on the weak side, 3 sets a down screen for 2, who pops out for a jumper. Now, 4 can look for the dribble drive with the option of a kick or a pull up jumper.

If 2 decides to back cut, 5 either gets the ball to him/her or 4. If it doesn’t result in a layup or shot, the offense continues.

If 2 doesn’t back cut and instead pops out, then they will receive a dribble hand off from 5 at the top of the key. If done quickly enough, this should create an opportunity to attack the rim downhill for 2. Player 4 remains on the wing, and 1 and 3 keep to their corners, waiting for the potential kick from 2 for an open jumper in case the defense collapses.

Over

If 4 decides to go “over,” then he/she will cut above 5 and set a screen for 3, who will cut to the basket or use the screen for a dribble hand off with 5 on the high post.

To the start the action, 4 comes to the wing and sets an off-ball screen for 3, who can then cut backdoor to the basket or come around the pick for a dribble hand off with 5.

If 3 goes backdoor, 5 gets him/her the ball if open. If not open or the pass is otherwise not made, 3 comes back to the corner on the same side he/she cut from originally, which is an important detail to remember, because going elsewhere can ruin the spacing that is so important for the Princeton offense to succeed.

If this happens, then 4 comes to 5 and receives the dribble hand off just above the high post, looking to turn at attack the rim with speed in a pick and roll situation. Simultaneously, 2 sets a down screen for 1 on the weak side to keep their defenders occupied and possibly open up space for a shot.

If 3 chooses to take the dribble hand off rather than cut backdoor, then he/she looks to attack the rim along with 5 in a pick and roll situation, while 4 rolls to strong corner, looking for a three or jump shot on the kick. Players 1 and 2 do the same screening action on the weak side.

Under

If 4 chooses to go “under,” then he/she will cut below 5 on the high post and receives a screen from 3 on the low block. Player 4 continues to curl around the screen as 5 dribbles toward the area. A dribble hand off occurs, and 4 looks to immediately attack the basket. On the other side of the floor, 2 sets a down screen for 1 to pop out on the wing, opening up passing options for 4 as he/she drives to the rim.

If 4 chooses to go “under,” then 3 comes down to set him/her a screen on the low post, which leads to a dribble hand off with 5 and options to drive, kick or shoot.

Chin Series

In this version, there is a change on both wings with a dribble hand off, with 5 also coming up to the high post.

To start the chin series, 4 and 2 trade places on the weak side wing and 3 and 1 execute a dribble hand off and switch spots on the floor.

The ball is then swung as 3 passes to 2 across the perimeter. Player 5 sets a back screen for 3, who makes a shuffle cut toward the basket looking for the pass. At the same time, 3 continues to swing the ball to 4, who would have a better angle for a pass to a cutting 3. If it isn’t open or the pass otherwise doesn’t come, 3 clears out to the strong-side corner. Player 5 then sets a flare screen for 2, who reads his/her defender and chooses to either pop outside for a catch-and-shoot or curl down the lane toward the basket.

If 2 pops, 4 gets him/her the ball, and 2 can shoot or use a re-screen from 5 to drive with options available on the wing. If 2 cuts and the pass never comes, then he/she clears out to the weak corner. If so, then 5 comes to set a on-ball screen for 4, who now can drive with two great options for a kick on the opposite wing and corner if the layup isn’t there.

Pros

If you can’t tell from the explanations, the Princeton offense is not a simple one. This means it isn’t for everyone. There are a handful of pros and cons to the system, but let’s start with the positives first and why the Princeton offense can benefit your team.

Positionless Basketball – as you can tell from the explanations, all five players are expected to be able to shoot, pass and dribble with some level of effectiveness, and that doesn’t include the mental aspect of the Princeton offense. This can be very helpful for a team with players who don’t fit into defined roles in the traditional sense and rather are constructed with a well-rounded group. If your team lacks height, the Princeton offense is a great way to work around it.

Rewards High IQ Basketball – the Princeton offense relies on players being able to read the defense and react accordingly. If your team is compromised of intelligent players, even those who may lack some physical size or skill, they can thrive in this system. You have to call too many different plays in the Princeton offense as the plays are adaptive depending on what the defense does, meaning it’s up to your players to make it happen. Assuming they’re smart enough for it, this could be a major plus.

Difficult to Defend – this system makes all five players a threat to score at any time. It is supremely difficult to prepare and defend against a system that malleable in real time based on how a defender or the defense as a whole is aligned at any given moment. You cannot predict something that the offense doesn’t even know yet, so you can catch your opponent on its heels often.

Cons

Positionless Basketball – for as helpful as this can be, if your roster is not constructed right for the Princeton offense, it will hurt you. If you don’t have five players on the floor who can shoot, pass, dribble and see the floor/game quickly and effectively, then the Princeton offense will fail. That’s okay, there are other offensive systems for your team, but that means this one isn’t it.

Tough to Teach – the Princeton offense is complicated, even in its most basic form. There are a lot of cuts, and players are interchangeable, meaning you need to know what everyone is responsible for, or could be responsible for, not only your part in the play. There can be a steep learning curve, and that doesn’t even include the amount of time it might take for your players to get comfortable reading the defense so succinctly and often as the Princeton offense requires.

Poor Spacing Kills Everything – this system is predicated on positive floor spacing. If players get too bunched up, lag behind on their movements, don’t clear the lane quickly enough or commit any other floor spacing error, it will likely blew the entire possession up. The timing for cuts, screens and passes is everything in this offense, and one little mistake can, and likely will, destroy it.

Should You Run the Princeton Offense?

The answer depends on your level, personnel and how effective of a teacher you can be. If you don’t think your players will have the intelligence, patience or attitude to adopt the Princeton offense, then don’t bother. There are plenty of other great offenses out there that will suit your team better. But, if your team is compromised of high IQ players who can play a myriad of positions and have the attention to detail necessary to be successful in the Princeton offense, then it is something to consider. Defenses will have a very difficult time with you, and you’ll have lots of freedom in your lineups and matchups. There is also a number of ways you can adjust the Princeton offense to work better for your specific team, and customization to your personnel can make it that much more effective.

Check out more from our breakdowns of basketball, like our explanation of the flex offense and the importance of defensive rotations.

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