The components of a great handle

Part 2: The NBA’s magical skill


The handle of your dreams takes work. It is fair to guess that an elite NBA dribbler like Stephen Curry has spent thousands of hours just working on dribbling. Typically we suggest players do whatever handling drills their team directs, plus five to ten minutes a day, every day, from age five or six through retirement. (Curry does at least this much in public before every game.)

In Part 1 we showed how beautiful it can be when the sport’s seven dribbling moves are elegantly combined to tell convincing stories to the defense. Today, we’ll get more granular and examine some key components of a successful dribble attack.

Hand placement is key

The ball goes where the hand sends it. 

Think of a clock face. Twelve is the top of the ball, 6:00 the bottom. Dribbling the ball straight down would require a hand at noon. A perfect side-to-side crossover, standing still, would start at 3:00 or 9:00. Moving forward would be more of a 2:30 or 10:30 start, with the dribbling hand set a little behind the ball to propel it forward. The receiving hand is just as important, it has to immediately put the ball back down where the dribbler needs it. So for a crossover starting at 3, the right hand has to be at 9 when the ball arrives. 

Players can only dribble with one hand but it takes both to be effective. Bob Cousy dominated with one hand, but those days are long gone. Nowadays it’s hard for guards to succeed in high school without impeccable two-handed ball control. That takes work.

This is what bad hand placement looks like. The ball is now in contact with his weakest two fingers and a bit of wrist. Turnover city. It was a major focus point for him when he first made the NBA. First it was basic stuff like getting the ball on his finger pads, not palm, with the middle and index fingers doing most of the work. Once he mastered the fundamentals he began adding new skills. NBA players make it look easy, but of course only with hard work does the ball attach to the hand.  JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Defensive demons pounce on these kinds of mistakes. Everybody makes them, sometimes because of intimidation, other times “just because.” Most elite dribblers are not just better at amazing moves, but also minimize careless errors. One of the rewards for all that dribbling practice is the confidence to keep attacking after a mistake like this. Players have to understand that mistakes are baked into the game, but daily work and being mindful of what went wrong allows the greats to push past mistakes.

Speed kills

The fastest runners in the world leap from the blocks low. Not even Usain Bolt in his prime could win a race if he began standing upright. A question for NBA players who want to score off the dribble: Can you move like that and maintain a controlled dribble? Few can. PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES SPORT
Trae Young isn’t far off Usain Bolt’s preferred starting position, with his head in front of his body,  one arm forward, and the other arm far back. His defender, the elite Matisse Thybulle, has no chance because he’s so upright. Every NBA game features hundreds of three-foot races. It’s why I teach “first two steps full speed” and “win the three-foot race.” TIM NWACHUKWU/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

See the court, not the floor

If you start a drive looking down, it’s a good bet something will surprise you between here and the hoop. One of our favorite sayings is, “amateurs play the game, professionals read it.” That’s not to say amateurs never read, or pros always read accurately. But it’s roughly true, and the biggest reason rookies rarely help teams win. It takes time to learn how to read the court and to impact defenders. ICON SPORTSWIRE
The Point God, Chris Paul, is guarded by center Bismack Biyombo. It’s a mismatch. TV commentators tend to say he should just attack! But to tip the odds in his favor, he keeps his head up and gathers information on the nine other players. Where are the shooters? Which defender will help once he drives, and who might “help the helper” in turn? Paul’s near-perfect handle permits him to keep his head up as he drinks in his surroundings. He can use his eyes to achieve a lot. He might stare at one of his shooters on the perimeter or that shooter's defender, in an effort to convince him to “stay home” and not help, giving Paul room to attack. There’s a reason Paul led the league in assist to turnover ratio—he sees the game like few ever have, an incredibly important aspect of a primary ball handler. As Coach Pop has been teaching in San Antonio, “avoid the crowd” on offense. Doing so requires the ability to “see” where the crowd will be before they’re there. JACOB KUPFERMAN/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Give the ball a human shield

All primary ball handlers have to master the behind-the-ankles and around-the-back moves. They are not the same. As you see, Curry is dribbling the ball from his right hand to his left, which is already in position to get the ball and dribble again. In this situation, behind the ankles is better than trying to cross or dribble through the legs, because of Al-Farouq Aminu’s length. Of course, the most exciting part of ball handling is the highlights that often come with great moves, but in reality, not losing the ball while probing defenses and drawing help are just as important. MEDIANEWS GROUP/BAY AREA NEWS/GETTY IMAGES
Changing directions on the move, Curry notes his excellent defender George Hill is ready to deflect the ball if Curry does what more inexperienced players would do in this situation: cross. Instead, he keeps the ball safe by dribbling around his back. The ball isn’t vulnerable until it arrives on the other side of his body, by which time Curry plans to have enough separation that it won’t matter.  MEDIANEWS GROUP/BAY AREA NEWS/GETTY IMAGES

Hide the ball at the end

Ball handlers are vulnerable when the ball releases from their hand toward the court (as the ball is literally loose) and then again when they gather it. The trick is to keep the ball opposite the nearest defender. Often that means extending the well-gripped ball forward and away from a trailing defender. James Harden demonstrates why. SARAH STIER/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Luka Doncic should either bring his right hand to the ball and keep it on the left side of his body, or gather it in two hands as he extends toward the rim. 

Defenders create turnovers by slapping the ball down into the dribbler’s leg and out of bounds. Typically it’s because the offensive player didn’t “hide” the ball well enough.

Never be afraid to innovate

Tim Hardaway had a blistering crossover. Some consider it the best ever. This mix tape has over 3 million views. Another has over 2 million. Millions of young players tried to emulate the way he weaponized what had been a sleepier move. Later, Allen Iverson created what became known as the DC Crossover, explained here by Chris Palmer in 2016: "Picture this: Allen Iverson driving right, then lunging left, carrying the ball way out there like he's got his hand around somebody's waist. Then sweeping the ball low across his body while some fool falls on his ass.” More than eight million views of his famous cross on Michael Jordan tell you how people felt about that.

Who is innovating today? Giannis’s spin dribble is nice but far from original, and it seems every dribble move now was weaponized long ago.

Maybe the innovation has to come BEFORE the actual dribble attack begins.

Check out James Harden’s eyes. They’re lasered on his opponent’s legs. This is unusual. Players who have guarded him tell me Harden generally surveys the entire floor first, then, weirdly, he often looks down at their legs and feet, and studies … something ... before attacking. They don’t know what he is looking for exactly, what he is reading, but they do know he tends to get by them. HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES

Just as professional poker players read each other for any kind of “tell,” NBA players read and react constantly to what their teammates and opponents are doing. This, however, is the only story I’ve ever heard about a ball handler in isolation studying his defenders’ footwork. 

Meanwhile, defenders try to read Harden. He’s ready to go in almost every direction. His handle is impeccable. His shot is deadly. His legs are split, so quickly dribbling between them can happen instantly. His right leg is anchored, meaning he can explode off it. Or he can pull a “hesi-go” where he pauses momentarily, his hand still behind the ball (rather than under it) then pushes a dribble out forward to beat his defender. Seeing that his hand is behind the ball I’d bet on the latter. Harden is the best in the league at these sudden stops and starts, and because he’s such a willing and capable shooter, his defenders can’t stay off him in anticipation of a drive.

Question: What’s James Harden going to do here? Answer: whatever he wants.

That’s the power of a great handle.

In case you missed it: PART 1 of this story. Thank you for reading TrueHoop! Please share!