Secrets of the Princeton Offense

Princeton Basketball

Despite what many people believe about the Princeton Offense, there is a set pattern and predesigned cuts that this offense is designed to use. Many believe it is another version of motion offense or a way of playing offense using certain principles that require the offensive player to read the defense. While the cuts and sets are designed to allow reads by the offense, the players in this offense know exactly what they are supposed to on each set.

Coach Pete Carril
Princeton Basketball Coach Pete Carril

The Princeton offense was pioneered by Pete Carril at Princeton some years ago. Variations are used by college teams (Richmond, Alabama Huntsville, Georgetown, Northwestern, Arizona State, Air Force and Colorado) and NBA teams (New Jersey, Washington, Sacramento, New Orleans).

John Thompson Jr
Georgetown Coach John Thompson Jr

The Princeton Offense is a good choice for teams that have less athletic players than other teams. However, do not mistake this idea to mean that players can be less skilled than opponents. Skills are what make this offense work. The Princeton offense requires all players to be good passers, ball-handlers (dribbling skills), and good outside shooters (3-point shots), but does not require exceptional basketball IQ. This offense is not a good choice for middle school teams, but can be used successfully with high school teams and advanced skill level players.

The Princeton offense is a more deliberate offense, oftentimes with many passes each possession. This tends to slow the game down, controlling the tempo, usually resulting in lower game scores. Coaches have to be completely committed to this offense as it is a free-lance offense with less control from the bench.

Certainly, however, plays and quick hitters can be called. The Princeton offense can be used against man-to-man and zone defenses. Against zones that pack the paint, open 3-point shots, attacking the gaps in the zone and attacking the baseline are effective techniques.

The hallmarks of the offense are the spread offense and spacing, constant motion, the back-door cut and lay-up, hitting open 3-point shots, flare screens and screens away from the ball. The basic set can be 4-out with 1-in (either at the high post, or low post), a 2-3 high set, or a 1-2-2 (5-out) set.

A smart post player with good passing skills is important as the offense will tend to revolve around the center, who is often a playmaker. When in the 4-out high or 2-3 high set (diagram A), you can see that all players are located at or above the free-throw line extended. This creates space underneath for cutting, especially back-door cuts. The high set and constant motion help eliminate the helpside defense inside.

A variety of entries are possible… pass with give and go, UCLA cut, dribble-at with back-cut, high post feed, weave-screen, etc.

The Princeton offense is a variation of the shuffle offense, for the modern game of basketball. The Princeton offense was developed to focus on modern aspects of the game of basketball such as focusing on creating space and balance for shooters, using post offense opportunities and the development of the shot clock.

The Princeton was run by Pete Carril, the offense built upon the basic principles of the shuffle offense and added in counters, reads, and other alternative options. As a continuity offense, the Princeton offense has a huge number of options which make it viable for use in college and professional programs even today. Pete Carril developed the offense for teams that were lacking in natural talent but had good shooters at nearly every position.

Because of its popularity the Princeton continues to develop today and many coaches and programs endure with the offences use in a variety of situations providing an ever changing range of deviations and possibilities. With the variety of options and amount of counters that can be built in, a coach can develop a style and philosophy for the Princeton offense that fits their team. At the NBA level, it is used as a secondary offense, particularly when contemporary sets break down, in order to still achieve a high percentage scoring opportunity.

The Princeton offense is a favourite amongst coaches who do not have a team of athletic basketball players (this helps however to make the offense more effective and efficient). The Princeton offense focuses on slowing the game down, and teams with less talent can maximize their possessions and get higher percentage shots than their opposition.

This has made the Princeton the favourite of teams that are less athletic than their counterparts, but have good shooters and fundamental basketball players. The offense looks to create scoring opportunities off the ball from good execution of fundamental offensive principles. The Princeton attempts to get the offensive team two of the highest percentage shots in the game of basketball—layups and open threes.

A strong point of the offense is versatility of the offensive and its many different looks. These options allow coaches to build up the level of complexity to the offense. As a coach you can examine what your team does well and integrate these tactical points into the offense to promote these opportunities. At the elite levels of basketball the Princeton offense can be very complex and demanding to run players and hard to scout for opposition teams.

When executed well the Princeton offense calls upon a blur of tactical elements like passing and cutting, back door cuts and post screens which ultimately lead to a high percentage shot. For a team of great shooters, this offense can be a dream. It allows a team to showcase shooters on multiple areas on the floor, which the defence has to react to all at once.

The Princeton offense can be challenging as it demands high attention to detail. For scoring opportunities to present players need to do the small tactical elements very well. This can be demanding on the player’s concentration and commitment to working towards and scoring opportunity. At junior levels of basketball, the Princeton can also be highly predictable, which leads to turnovers and contested shots. If your team doesn’t have a solid number of shooters, open shots on the perimeter will be low percentage shots. Likewise, if you don’t have good passers, your cutters might never get those open backdoor layups that the offense is built for.

If you are playing against a team using the Princeton offense you will need to reduce the scoring opportunities around the basket. This can be achieved by having players sag into stronger help positions. If playing against a team with effective perimeter shooters limit the passing opportunities to create ball rotation and develop spacing for shooting opportunities.

The Princeton offense can be predictable so with the use of scouting, a team’s standard offensive pattern can be determined and various counters identified. By using defenders to pressure ball handlers and forcing them to dribble out of their predetermined spots, the offense will break down and become disjointed.