Elite Ball Handlers 101

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Isaiah Thomas, Guard / Boston Celtics - The Players' Tribune

Throwing down a monster dunk, swatting somebody’s shot or beating the buzzer is usually a pretty good way to make it into the SportCenter Top 10. But let’s be real: It ain’t a highlight reel until someone’s ankles get broken.

Basketball is all about instincts and anticipation, especially when it comes to point guards who have to put the ball on the floor and create for themselves and their teammates. It’s about knowing your opponent, and knowing that your opponent knows you. You have to be deceptive. You have to be unpredictable. And those are the things they don’t have drills for. You can’t practice that. You can only develop your game and let the instincts take over when it comes time to make a play.

There are no sleepers here. You know all these guys. But I’m going to tell you why you know them and what makes them the NBA’s elite ball-handlers.

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Jamal Crawford

Full disclosure: J. Crossover is my man. He’s like my big brother. We play together a lot in the offseason in Pro-Ams, and he comes out to my annual Memorial Day Zeke-End tournament in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, too. So I know Jamal better than any of the guys on this list.

But that’s not why I included him. He’s on this list because he’s doesn’t get mentioned enough among the best ball handlers in the game, and he should be.

Jamal is a straight streetballer. He doesn’t have a signature or go-to move. He’s always doing something different depending on the situation, and he’s always trying crazy new stuff. He’s just so gifted that I don’t think he even knows what he’s going to do sometimes. He just does it, and everyone says Wow… He has a combination of instinct and a crazy natural ability to control the ball.

Like back when he was with the Knicks and he put a move on Deron Williams where he dribbled behind his back, then kept the ball there and went back behind his back for the lay-up.

It’s one of the best moves I’ve ever seen.

The craziest part is that he was doing that move over the summer in the Pro-Ams, but you’d never think he’d pull it out in a real game. That’s what separates Jamal from the rest of the guys on this list, and really from most of the guys in the NBA. The way he plays in Pro-Ams is the way he plays in NBA games. Most of the time you see guys in the summer and you’re like, “That guy is good. Why doesn’t he play like that during the season?” But Jamal? It doesn’t matter if he’s at the Staples Center or LA Fitness. He plays the same way every day.

And let’s not forget how he earned the name J. Crossover.

Behind the back, between the legs or just a straight cross, Jamal has one of the best crossovers in the game. He’s made more than a few guys hit the floor.

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Steph Curry

With Steph, you’re always guessing. That’s what makes him so dangerous.

First off, you gotta respect the three, cause if you don’t, he’ll light you up from the outside. That’s where everything starts for him.

Steph plays like he’s a wide receiver in football running an option route on every play. Everything he does depends on what the defender is doing. So when he’s coming at you, if you’re afraid of the three — which you should be — and you give him too much space, he’ll knock it down. If you play too far up on the three, he’ll take you off the dribble. If he beats you on the first step because you were playing too far up, say goodbye. He’s already gone. If you sink back with him, he has the shiftiness and the quick release to step back and shoot.

And the worst part is that he’s such a good passer, nobody’s leaving their man to step up and help. You’re on your own.

I don’t think he ever goes down the court thinking “I’m pulling up” or “I’m taking it to the basket.” He reads the court so well that he doesn’t need a plan. He can just rely on his instincts and react to the defense, and he can do it all, so he takes whatever you give him.

You can’t tell me he planned this:

He uses the pick to split the defense, then runs into two bigs who stepped up. Between the legs, behind the back, step back, bucket. Four defenders within arm’s reach, and they’re still no match for Steph.

You’ve all seen this one, too:

You have to really sell it if you’re gonna get a guy to bite on the move to the basket, and even then, you gotta have the quickness and control to stop on a dime to create that separation.

Chris Paul is one of the best defenders in the NBA — not just at point guard, but period. And Steph put him on skates because when he went behind his back and faked baseline, he sold it, and CP3 had to respect it. As soon as CP3 committed, Steph knew he had him, and he had the quickness and ball control to pull the ball back behind his back and create the shot.

A lot of guys have a skill set that includes the ability to drive, pass and shoot. But not a lot of those guys also have the handles to do everything in between and create any of the three for themselves.

Steph does.

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Chris Paul

Since he was on the wrong end of both Steph Curry highlights, let’s give CP3 some love. He’s one of the craftiest guards in the NBA on his own right. He’s not flashy, he just has the right moves to get where he wants to go. He always pulls the right move out at the right time because he’s so smart. He’s a real student of the game.

If there’s one move I could point to that is textbook Chris Paul, it would be a move called the Shammgod. It’s when you start your dribble in one direction, but instead of crossing back over with the same hand, you bring your other hand across your body and snatch it back. It’s a move a lot of guys use to get the defender turned around so they can drive to the basket, and really, it’s a pretty basic move.

But CP3 does it differently. He uses it off the pick-n-roll, and it always gets the big leaning to give him the separation for his mid-range shot.

Only CP3 takes a move like the Shammgod that everyone uses and throws it in between two fundamental moves like the pick-and-roll and the mid-range jumper to make them even more effective. He makes it look so easy, but it takes a lot of quickness and ball control to go off the pick, throw the ball out there on a string and pull it back with the other hand like he does. It all comes together in one long, fluid motion.

Like I said, nothing flashy. Just crafty, smart basketball.

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Kyrie Irving

Kyrie lives laterally. He goes side to side at such a high level it’s hard for defenders to keep up. He’s right in front of you, then he’s not, and it all starts with the crossover. It’s the same move every point guard has in his arsenal.

His is just better.

Don’t get me wrong, he has a lot of other moves, too. He’s kind of like Jamal Crawford in that you never really know what he’s gonna pull out. But when it comes to being in isolation, if you’re guarding him, you can count on seeing that crossover more than a few times. It’s his bread and butter.

Throw in the fact that he can shoot at a high level or finish at the basket as good as anybody, and you’re definitely ending up in a highlight reel when you’re guarding Kyrie, because you will get crossed.

Good luck.

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James Harden

I don’t know why it’s so hard to guard lefties. I think it’s just because so many guys are right-handed that when you see a lefty, it’s just not normal. But there’s more to James Harden than just being left-handed. He’s creative, shifty and very deceiving.

He has a lot of east and west in his game. A lot of guys can go north and south, but when he’s going downhill towards the basket, he has the ability to go east and west without losing momentum.

That’s why his Euro step is so effective. He comes down the lane so fast that you have to play on your heels a little, and when he throws that first step at you, if you go with him, he has the ability to change direction with that second step without slowing down, and that little hesitation on the defender’s part is enough to give him the space he needs to finish at the basket.

He’s got people on their heels the whole game.

Here, he basically puts the ball behind his back and between his legs while he’s going full speed, mid-Euro step, which takes a crazy amount of ball control. The Euro step can be hard enough to defend by itself with a guy like Harden, but throw in his ability to mix in other moves makes it almost impossible sometimes.

He’ll take you in the half court off the dribble, too. There are a few times he’s embarrassed guys in one-on-one situations because his hands are so quick, and sometimes it doesn’t even look like he did anything crazy, but he drops guys on the floor, like he did to Ricky Rubio this past season:

Damn lefties.

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Bonus: Isaiah Thomas

You didn’t really think I was gonna break down the best ball handlers in the NBA and not get in on it, did you?

Lucky for me, it’s hard to guard small guys. That gives me an advantage on my ball handling, and also because I’m able to change direction faster than a lot of guys. So with me, a straight crossover usually gives me the space and separation I need to get my shot off or make a play.

But I also have another move I go to when I know I need separation or I need to create a lane to the basket. It’s just a right hesitation, like a fake spin, and it usually gets me to where I want to go.

I remember using it back when I was with the Kings my rookie year. We were playing the Jazz, and I used that hesitation at the free-throw line and froze the whole defense.

But since we’re talking handles, I gotta throw in the shot I hit back when I was with the Kings and Steph Curry was guarding me.

I went to my crossover and he stumbled back a little, and when he fell, he tripped me, so I went down with him. But I was able to keep my dribble even after I hit the ground, get back up and throw up a shot off one foot, and it went off the glass.

That’s probably my favorite highlight because I had to keep control of the ball going to the ground and then cap it off with the circus shot. It was also one of my favorite crossovers because I had Steph beat if I didn’t get tangled with him.

And that’s all I’m gonna give you on me. I can’t give away all my secrets.

If you want more, you know where YouTube’s at.

newit

Cold-Blooded

There was no play call. Coach Romar tried to call a timeout, but I waved him off. Not tonight, coach. Nineteen seconds left in a tie game with the Pac-10 championship on the line? I had the ball. I was taking that shot.

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