Telling stories with handle

Part 1: The NBA’s magical skill


Quick Henry note: The other day on BRING IT IN, David Thorpe mentioned that ball handling is the one skill every player should work on, from first grade to NBA star. That’s interesting, I thought. Why? Here, in two parts, is his answer. READ PART TWO.

How does Deandre Ayton, a fantastic and dedicated defender, allow Giannis Antetokounmpo—the two-time MVP, in the middle of the game of his life, with a title on the line—to essentially shoot a layup? Welcome to the magical power of elite dribbling. 

There are eight ways for a dribbler to attack:

  • Cross, or crossover

  • Hesitation, or hesi

  • Inside-out 

  • Spin dribble 

  • Behind the ankles

  • Around the back

  • Escape dribble

  • Through the legs 

Eight seems like a pretty small number, right? Even at the NBA level, very few players have mastered them all, so generally a defender only has to worry about three or four. Shouldn’t defenders be able to contain that?

Before you answer, bear in mind that it’s the combinations that get you. There are only six sides of a Rubik’s Cube or 26 letters in the alphabet. Yet Shakespeare took the same 26 letters we all have and combined them to tell stories in magical ways. 

"Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I'm more interested in telling a story." —Marco Tempest

Ball handling at the highest level is exactly the same thing. With these eight moves as building blocks, add timing, pace, and spice, and make the defense believe your story. 

Just as an illusionist distracts, scares, and delights the audience with movements and stories, setting them up for the final act that they came to see, the game’s best dribbling wizards fill defenders’ heads with ominous thoughts and a myriad of decisions to make instantly, before delivering the kill shot. Weaving yarns from handles is like soloing in jazz--first you must master the basics. The ball has to be a part of the hand, so you always know where it is.

Professor Kyrie will demonstrate.

Here’s Myles Turner, the NBA’s top shot blocker, dealing with Kyrie Irving, the league's best ball handler, coming around a screen. Turner—6-11 and armed with over a eight foot wingspan—towers nine inches over the Nets guard. Ninety-nine-plus percent of the world's 6-2 players would stand no chance at earning a shot three feet from the rim against Turner. Kyrie isn’t the only player who has hesi-go moves like this, but as Mr. Tempest says, magicians are storytellers, and Kyrie tells a beautiful one to get himself a left-handed long layup against the league’s best shot blocker.

Kyrie’s story goes like this: 

  • Myles, I just used a screen. And because I’m a good 3-point shooter off the dribble going right, your teammate followed me over the screen, which leaves you in a bit of a nightmare, in drop coverage against my whole bag of tricks. 

  • We both know I don’t want to go straight to the rim, where you dominate. We also both know I love to shoot from the “second box” below the free-throw line. You probably have a hair trigger, ready to defend against the pull-up jumper from the “second box” below the free-throw line you know I love.

  • So here’s a hesi-dribble to give you the impulse I’m pulling up. I sort of begin to stand, as if I’m ready to jump up, then…


  • Am I pulling up so I can get back to my strong right hand and blow past you? You are all over that. You slide a little left to make it harder for me to get past you that way. You probably think you are on to me! Big mistake big guy! 

  • As you slide left I quickly cross over to my left hand, but notice how I cross more sideways? Now you’re back to suspecting a pull-up jumper. For that you “tall up.” You’re upright. 

  • Do you feel my speed as I lurch forward and launch a tough one-hander, leftie, ‘cause I’m smooth like that?

  • You recognize it all, and get your lethal left hand out there, but just too late. Bucket. 

Kyrie has 100 tricks playing with this same stop-and-start mentality to create space. When you’re thinking jumper, he’s thinking layup. “Show and go,” the art of showing the defender your plan, then going somewhere else as they react. That’s the big picture. Eyes, shoulder wiggles, and body language all can be used to sell the illusion.

Devin Booker takes about a quarter of his 2-point shots from 10 to 16 feet, where he makes 54 percent of them. It’s a great shot for him—and not one the defense is eager to concede. How does he keep getting clean looks from that area, while being hounded by multiple elite defenders?

One way is he uses his handle to tell defenders, “I’m about to dunk all over you!” The threat is real. He makes a hard dribble move, and—watch Brook Lopez race for the rim! Once Booker sees that, he suddenly stops with the ball gathered perfectly, leading to a nice open mid-range look over Khris Middleton. 

Let’s revisit that Giannis attacking move against Ayton. How did he do that? 

Take a close look—Giannis leaned left as he caught the ball at the top of the key and then dribbled with his left hand. Giannis SHOWED he was going left. But it was a lie. He actually used his left hand to dribble back to the right. That’s it.

That one “show and go” got Ayton to slide slightly to his right, opening a lane to the rim. 

A smaller, more skilled dribbler likely would have used a crossover, or another move, to get from left to right. But for someone as tall as Giannis, that’s risky. In the middle of the court, all kinds of defenders’ hands might disrupt that ball’s long path. Instead, he invented another way to tell the same story, with a lean and an off-hand dribble. 

This is the kind of stuff that coaches get excited about.

Good scorers who are average ball handlers can become great scorers with improved dribbling. Harden, Durant, and Giannis have traveled this path. Average dribblers are automatically limited in where and how fast they can get somewhere on the court, great ball handlers are not. It’s the difference between “solid” and “star,” or as is often the case, from potential star to disappointing player. Jayson Tatum exploded in year three with a far better handle, Andrew Wiggins has never quite gotten that part of the game down and has hit a lower ceiling than he should have. 

But as every elite dribbler knows, as long as there’s a ball and a floor, there’s a chance for improvement. It’s simple: All it takes is time invested into the craft, just about every day of the year, for years on end. 

Thank you for reading Part 1 of this TrueHoop story! Here is PART 2.