With the NBA perpetually on the lookout for the next Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving, the spotlight on the ball-handling skills of college basketball stars has never been brighter. Whether they’re distributors drawing the defense away from a shooter or scorers darting through traffic to the rim, the country’s top guards can put on quite a show with the ball in their hands.
One of the most impressive this season, to no one’s surprise, has been Louisville’s Russ Smith. The Cardinals senior is equally at home leading a deadly fast break or dissecting a defense from the inside out.
Read on for more on Smith’s artistry and the rest of the 20 best dribbling specialists in the collegiate ranks.
Players were ranked primarily according to their ability to penetrate the D (especially those who can beat defenders without the aid of a pick). However, other factors were also taken into account, especially the ability to minimize mistakes.
Penetration: B- Fred VanVleet, as great a passer as he is, uses (and needs) ball screens far more often than the other dribbling artists on this list.
Ball Security: A+ His dazzling 3.8 assist-to-turnover ratio is doubly astonishing for a sophomore.
X-factor: The Shockers, loaded as they are with standstill shooters, depend more heavily on their star point guard than almost any Top 25 team.
Penetration: B Even with his improved three-point accuracy, DeAndre Kane does the bulk of his offensive damage by slicing through the paint.
Ball Security: B- He’s gone from disastrous to merely worrisome in the turnover department (from 4.2 per game last season to 2.9 in 2013-14).
X-factor: Kane is quicker than he has any right to be at 6’4”, 200 pounds.
Penetration: B When the shot clock (or game clock) is winding down, Aaron Craft can usually find a way to squeeze through a crack for a look at the rim.
Ball Security: B With fewer weapons around him this year, he’s pressing more and losing the ball at a career-worst rate (2.4 times per game).
X-factor: He edges out Duke’s Quinn Cook (who’s a year younger) as the nation’s standard-bearer in leadership from the point guard spot.
Penetration: B Physical D.J. Newbill has largely supplanted pass-first Tim Frazier as the designated driver for PSU.
Ball Security: A- He’s nearly cut his turnover count in half since last season (from 3.9 to 2.0 per game), when he had to run the offense by himself.
X-factor: Productive though he is on paper, he lacks the “wow” factor of the quicker guards on this list.
Penetration: B+ Teammate Semaj Christon gets all the press, but Dee Davis has the best moves of any Musketeer.
Ball Security: B- Davis isn’t as productive as you’d like for a player who coughs the ball up 2.1 times a night.
X-factor: He looks even smaller and quicker than he is—and the 6-footer is plenty of both—in the sizable Musketeers lineup.
Penetration: B+ Despite his sky-high total of 145 three-point attempts, Yogi Ferrell does his share of work on the interior, too.
Ball Security: B Without Cody Zeller as a security blanket, Ferrell’s turnovers have spiked from 2.1 per game last season to 2.7 in 2013-14.
X-factor: Tom Crean is happy to send screens Ferrell’s way, but the freelancing sophomore seems to be at his most effective when he’s dismissed them.
Penetration: B+ Bryce Cotton still prefers his pull-up treys to battling the big bodies in the paint, but his quick cuts make him a nightmare to stop when he does drive the lane.
Ball Security: A- Stuck without a point guard thanks to Kris Dunn’s injury, he’s done an exceptional job of avoiding turnovers, averaging 2.3 per game.
X-factor: An acrobatic finisher, he excels at getting around traffic rather than through it.
Penetration: B+ Xavier Thames provides much-needed half-court offense for the defense-first Aztecs.
Ball Security: A Don’t be fooled by the ugly assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.6—he really limits his mistakes, but he’s not that great of a passer.
X-factor: He doesn’t attack the rim as often this year, largely in the interest of leaving room for SDSU’s stalwart post players to operate.
Penetration: B+ Scottie Wilbekin doesn’t have the top-tier moves to beat a great defender without a pick, but he’s lethal once he gets by the first man.
Ball Security: A Calling his own number more often has trimmed what was already a solid turnover average of 2.1 per game in 2012-13 to 1.9 this season.
X-factor: His ability to both create and lead fast breaks is vital to an offense with more dunkers than shooters.
Penetration: B+ Not all of T.J. McConnell’s assists are long-range alley-oops—he’s just as likely to dart into the paint and thread a bounce pass to one of his big men.
Ball Security: A+ On a star-studded team, McConnell doesn’t need to take many chances, allowing him to maintain a sparkling 1.9 turnover-per-game average.
X-factor: He might well be a great finisher, too, but nobody would notice: He’s shooting just four times per game from inside the arc.
Penetration: A- Marcus Smart is more sledgehammer than rapier when it comes to driving the lane, but he certainly has enough finesse to get the job done.
Ball Security: B Though he’s not as mistake-prone as he was last season, he still has a long way to go to improve on his current 2.7 turnovers per game.
X-factor: No point guard draws more attention than this soon-to-be lottery pick, but it hasn’t slowed him down much.
Penetration: A- Although many of his best drives do start with picks, Russ Smith can weave through a defense with anybody once he gets into the lane.
Ball Security: B Increased responsibilities as a distributor have only exacerbated his risk-taking style (3.1 turnovers per game this season compared to 2.7 in 2012-13).
X-factor: With apologies to Arizona State’s Jahii Carson, Smith is still the fastest player in the country when it comes to leading the fast break.
Penetration: A- Like so many Roy Williams point guards, Marcus Paige can absolutely fly in transition.
Ball Security: B+ His respectable assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1) looks even better on a 17-points-per-game scorer.
X-factor: Like Yogi Ferrell, he often forgoes the dribble-drive for a pull-up three-pointer.
Penetration: A- He isn’t quite as productive in the box score as some other stars here, but Joe Jackson makes up for it in flair.
Ball Security: A Jackson is on pace (at 1.9 turnovers per game) to shatter his career low in giveaways, 2.4 from back in 2011-12.
X-factor: In a backcourt rotation with four high-powered seniors, he’s the one Josh Pastner wants with the ball in his hands.
Penetration: A At 170 pounds, Isaiah Taylor wouldn’t survive long in the Big 12 if he couldn’t slither through defenders largely unscathed.
Ball Security: B Unsurprisingly, the freshman is still relatively mistake-prone, giving the ball away 2.5 times a game.
X-factor: His extreme lack of a three-point shot (4-of-13 on the year) makes him even more dependent on the dribble for creating space.
Penetration: A If something positive happens for the Minutemen offense, Chaz Williams probably dribbled past a defender to start it.
Ball Security: B+ Although he does commit an awful lot of turnovers (3.3 per game), that’s partly a function of running the entire offense for 35 minutes a night.
X-factor: An equal-opportunity playmaker off the drive, he’s third in the country in assists but also scores more than any other UMass player, averaging 16 points per game.
Penetration: A Keith Appling’s ability to break down defenses has been a relatively unsung part of the great seasons from teammates Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.
Ball Security: A Part of Appling’s career year has been to pare down his mistakes even as his responsibilities have increased, turning the ball over 2.0 times per game this season compared to 2.3 in 2012-13.
X-factor: The Spartans’ uncharacteristic success on the fast break owes a lot to his combination of speed and vision on the run.
Penetration: A Tyler Ennis loves to turn down his teammates’ ball screens and slice past his defender on sheer quickness.
Ball Security: A+ He keeps his turnovers staggeringly low for any starting point guard—just 1.4 giveaways a night—but especially for a major-conference freshman.
X-factor: Syracuse’s still-perfect record doesn’t hurt Ennis’ reputation any, either.
Penetration: A+ The 5’9” Deandre Mathieu is arguably the country’s quickest player, and he’s got the dexterity to back up his athleticism.
Ball Security: B- He hasn’t entirely readjusted to Division I defenders after a year at the JUCO level, averaging 2.8 turnovers per game.
X-factor: When a Big Ten guard can shoot .502 from the field, you know he’s getting to the rim on a regular basis.
Penetration: A+ Shabazz Napier can put his crossover up against any player’s in college hoops.
Ball Security: B His high turnover rate (2.8 per game) is surprising given the presence of fellow playmaker Ryan Boatright in the backcourt.
X-factor: His quickness also makes his pull-up jumper second to none.