What Is an Illegal Screen in Basketball?

An illegal screen is one of the most common fouls in basketball. Yet, many basketball fans don't know what an illegal screen is and why it carries a penalty. They know of one or two things that constitute this move, but there’s more to it than that. 

For instance, there’s a difference between a good and bad screen. To spot such nuances in time, one must learn the details first. Otherwise, you might end up not knowing why your favorite player was penalized. Usually, though, it’s not the referees’ fault.

To better understand what an illegal screen is in basketball, you need to get a clear picture of what a screen is.

In short, a screen in basketball is a legal way to obstruct and block an opposing player either from behind or by their side. By doing so, you free up space so a teammate can shoot, throw the ball, or access the net.

This article explains illegal screens and the actions or play that constitutes an illegal screen.

What Is an Illegal Screen?

A screen is illegal if the defender does not have any room to avoid contact from the ball handler. There must be a space between the two for the screen to pass during a game.

In other words, if the screen is too close to the defender without them knowing, it is an illegal screen. It is also an illegal screen if the screener leans forward when setting the screen or sets their feet far apart while doing so. 

When a screener makes moves that will affect a defender's rhythm, quickness, balance, and speed, that is a foul. Holding or grabbing a defender while setting a screen is also not allowed.

The Rules of Screens in Basketball

The NBA set some rules that basketball players need to follow when setting screens. Those rules include:

  • When setting a screen, make sure that the defender is aware of it to adjust their direction and speed. The screener should give the defender enough space to make those adjustments. 
  • Screeners are not allowed to obstruct the defender's movement with their hands.
  • Do not lean over while setting a screen, and your legs should be shoulder-width apart. 
  • You can only move if it is in line with the defender's movement.
  • Avoid initiating contact with the defender. 

Types of Illegal Screens

Here are some different types of illegal screens in basketball: 

  • Illegal use of hands
  • Pick and Roll
  • Handoff Screen or Off the Ball

What Makes a Screen Illegal?

An illegal screen can occur for a wide range of reasons. Most of them are the result of a player not following NBA’s rules correctly.

Granted, playing good defense might obscure their better judgment in the heat of the moment. After all, these moves happen in a split second. Here are some of the scenarios a referee might call an illegal screen:

Extending Arms

Extending your arms while setting a screen is illegal. This is a common tactic, especially for new and upcoming players. Nevertheless, the officials will stop the game when they see such play.

Instead, the screener should find a different approach.

Not Giving Enough Space

When setting a screen, you need to give the defender some space. This means they should be able to move and avoid the screen. If the defender is stationary, give them one step space during a move.

But, if the player is in motion, give some distance as not to set an illegal screen. Ultimately, though, it is the referee's call whether the space was enough or not. 

Extending Your Lower Body

A screen can also be illegal if you try to stop the defender from making a move with your knee, hip, or foot. Such movements create an advantageous position for yourself and bend the game’s rules. Hence, the referee will stop the game and award a penalty if you do that. 

In addition to making the screen illegal, a lower body tackle can even cause an injury. So, if you resort to committing them, the referee might tag you as a dirty player.

Plus, if the other player suffers from it, your penalty might be more severe. Therefore, you should avoid them altogether, not just to prevent a foul but also to avoid a dent in your sports career.

Leaning In

The referee can also make an illegal screen call when you lean in your shoulder or body into the defender. Even when the screener creates enough space between them and the defender, leaning in could still result in a foul.

Many inexperienced players resort to "leaning in" thinking it’s an allowed action. Regardless, it is not a basketball skill but a foul that referees will spot and sanction.

To stay out of risk, you should devote some more time and train how to set up a good screen before the match.


Moving is one of the most common mistakes that constitutes an illegal screen. While performing this maneuver, remember to stay put. Otherwise, you’ll close the distance too much.

So, you should position yourself correctly first and foremost. Next, by remaining stationary, you’ll avoid moving into the opposing player’s path. That way, you’ll be able to block them, all within the rules of the game.

However, you can move parallel to the defender’s path. When attempting to screen, staying at a safe distance is the correct way of applying pressure. As long as you do not impede their free movement but simply block off the angle, you won’t commit a foul.

The Penalty for Illegal Screens

The screener will get penalized once the referee stops the game due to an illegal screen. When this happens, the ball goes to the offended team. If this occurs at a critical moment, your team might lose the match. 

Hence, players should do their best to avoid such scenarios. They need to know the fundamentals of setting screens and spend a lot of time practicing. If performed by the book, screening is a powerful offensive maneuver.

With it, you can allow the ball handler the time to line up a shot and score. But, it also carries risk since you can’t do other actions while working towards this goal. 

illegal screen-basketball

A typical example is the Piston-Warriors game of 16 January 2016. During the game, the referee made a call for illegal screening on the Warriors. 

This resulted in the wiping of an earlier 20-second three-pointer by Stephen Curry from the scoreboard. The team was penalized for Barbosa's movement during a screen on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Besides the specific rules of settings screens, players need to familiarize themselves with the game's general regulations.

Leaning with your body, grabbing, or stopping your opponent with your arms or legs is not a part of the game, and avoiding such moves will help you create a better profile as a basketball player. 


A screen is illegal in the basketball game if a screener is too close to the defender. Also, it is illegal to obstruct the opponent's movement if the screener leans forward with their shoulder, body, leg, hip, or feet. 

Hence, there are many reasons why a screen counts as a violation. Holding or grabbing a defender while setting a screen is only the most obvious example of unfair play. 

So, basketball players need to familiarize themselves with every scenario associated with illegal screens.

Joshua Bast

My name is Joshua Bast and I have been playing basketball ever since I was 7 years old. I love the game play, I love the feeling whenever I score a basket, but what made me fell in love was the camaraderie with my team mates. This blog is dedicated to help any up-and-coming basketball players maximize their potential.

Joshua Bast