LOS ANGELES—But seriously, who's got the best handle in the NBA?
Ask any NBA player the question and expect a spirited, albeit varied response. Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, John Wall and Russell Westbrook all get their due. There's no wrong answer!
Jamal Crawford, owner of one of the NBA's best crossovers, told me last season that he'd put Irving and Curry "right at the top of the list, for sure."
I think if you look at those two, Chris [Paul], obviously. I would put myself up there, not to brag or whatever. I think us four, and Deron Williams can obviously handle the ball. I think the four I said—between Steph, Kyrie, Chris and myself—is pretty universal as far as other peoples’ opinions.
Clippers backup point guard Austin Rivers is more definitive. "The best ball-handler is Kyrie. It’s not even close."
He would know—Rivers has to check Paul and Crawford nearly every day in practice, then keep pace with the Currys and Hardens of the Western Conference in games. You can pretty much count on public embarrassment any day, he says.
"One thing you have to understand is, when you’re guarding these guys, you’re going to get crossed," Rivers told Bleacher Report in an extensive interview below. "It’s going to happen. I cross somebody once a game. Now whether you make an elite shot or whatever determines if it’s a highlight, but I cross someone once a game, James Harden crosses someone four or five times a game. When you’re guarding guys, you have to understand it’s going to happen. Just keep playing defense."
We asked Rivers to list the best handles in the NBA and elaborate on what separates the elite ball-handlers from mere mortals. His answers were thoughtful and merited full-length publication below.
Bleacher Report: Who are the best ball-handlers out there today?
Austin Rivers: The best ball-handler is Kyrie. I think it’s not even close. Honestly, I don’t think it’s close.
B/R: What makes him so great?
AR: He does moves that people haven’t done before. A couple guys have good crossovers. A lot of guys have a different array of moves. I think the difference for him is he can do any move going full speed without having to slow down. He will do three or four or five moves going full speed and he just doesn’t run out. You cut him off, he goes this way, this way, this way. You see the stuff he’s doing.
I don’t even think it’s close, to be honest. People try to make comparisons to him and other players. I think it’s hands down he has the best handle in the game. Second would probably be either Chris [Paul] or Steph [Curry]. They both can do any move.
B/R: It’s about ability to do moves?
AR: Yeah, I think it’s to be able to do it fast, slow, change speeds. When your move with your left hand can be just as potent as your right hand, I think that’s pretty special. I think that’s why Kyrie’s the best, because he finishes so well around the rim with his left or right. He does either move and it’s just as good.
The reason I put Kyrie first is because he does moves that no one’s ever done before. Like the stuff he does in transition, pulling the ball over his head. No one does that, at his size. That’s stuff that Dwyane Wade, LeBron would do. He’s 6’2” pulling it over centers’ heads coming down. It’s pretty impressive. I’ve taken a couple things from him, a couple moves from him, just quick crossovers, stuff he does behind his back. I take something like that.
I always watch guys and take a lot of little stuff. I’ve taken a lot of hesitation stuff from Steph Curry. I think he’s the best at that. I think those three guys right now are the best in the league.
B/R: What about Rockets guys like Ty Lawson and James Harden? Are they near that tier?
AR: Harden is. James Harden is, for sure. I put him top-five handles in the league. Not in this order, I put Steph, Kyrie, Chris and James Harden. Fifth would be Kemba Walker. I put Kemba Walker at No. 5 in there. Everybody else, right after that, there’s some guards with good handles. But I think those five kind of stand alone, and then there’s some guys, outside the box, people don’t know, my handles, I know I can do just about every move.
B/R: I used to watch those old clips of you in high school.
AR: I had someone on skates the other night. As far as having just a one-move crossover, I’d put my crossover against anybody’s in the NBA. I’m not talking about overall handle. But if we’re talking about pure crossover, I think other players would tell you that too. My right to left, people know that in the league. When I come down there, “Watch right to left.” That’s my move.
B/R: What goes into being a great ball-handler in the NBA?
AR: I think first off, you have to work on your game. I know it sounds so vague. You have to work on your handle consistently. I grew up, I used to two-ball dribble, one-ball dribble like three or four times a week for like an hour all the way up until I got into the league where I felt like I now have it in my head. Even before I go shoot, I do two-ball before every game kind of like Steph does, like Kyrie does, Chris does. I just do two-ball, other drills like that. In the summertime, I work with our trainer, just constantly working on my handles.
And then, the key to having good handles, you have to try that s--t out. You have to try it out and be willing to lose the ball in pickup, scrimmages. Once you start getting that confidence in the game, once you do it once or twice, then you just start feeling like you can do any move. When I’m in a game, I don’t know what I do. I read the defense. And then you just get that confidence with the ball. A lot of guys don’t feel comfortable dribbling the ball, like someone’s going to take it. Jamal Crawford’s up there too. You’ve just got to have that confidence in your handle, man. That’s it.
B/R: Anything you’ve tried to take from Steph or Kyrie that you haven’t been able to nail down?
AR: The one move is Kyrie putting the ball up and around peoples’ heads. He comes at you full speed, he hesitates, he throws the ball left, hesitates like he’s about to drive hard right and he switches over like this (motions ball going over) and goes under the rim. He does it all the time. It’s disgusting. He does that constantly. He does that like once a game, honestly. He knows if he doesn’t have a shot, he just passes it out. That move I can do, I just haven’t done it in a game yet. It’s hard to do.
Actually, I take that back. I did it versus the Magic here at home. I did it. It worked. I did a hesitation and went under the basket. I actually had a bad game that game. I had four or five points that game. That was like my basket right there. I came under the rim and did that. That was Kyrie’s move.
Steph, his hesitation is second to none because he shoots so well. When he pretends like he’s going to shoot, you have to jump and he knows that. I think he has the best "hesi" in the game. That’s definitely something I’m working on.
B/R: What is it that folks watching the game can’t or don’t understand about ball-handling in the NBA that you do from being out there, both doing it and defending it?
AR: Well one, people don’t know this, but one thing you have to understand is, when you’re guarding these guys, you’re going to get crossed. It’s going to happen. I cross somebody once a game. Now whether you make an elite shot or whatever determines if it’s a highlight, but I cross someone once a game, James Harden crosses someone four or five times a game. When you’re guarding guys, you have to understand it’s going to happen. Just keep playing defense. At this level, so many guys are quick. You just have to understand the bigger picture. That stuff doesn’t bother me. You’re asking me what do you go through trying to guard guys like that, I just focus on trying to stop them and get the win and not focus on getting crossed. That’s just going to happen to everybody.
B/R: Who did you pattern your ball-handling after?
AR: Dwyane Wade. I copied half my game off Dwyane Wade. People don’t know this because right now we play a little different, but I copied everything off of him, like the way he moved.
I used to watch his highlights on YouTube for like two hours a day, I’m not joking. I’d go on YouTube and look at Dwyane Wade. That was the dude. He and Deron Williams, old Deron Williams. Deron Williams in Utah, though, he was a problem. He was a problem. He still is a great player, but you know what I mean. Him in Utah, man, he had nasty handles. He and Dwyane Wade, I used to watch all the time. That’s where I got my handles.
B/R: Dwyane’s so smooth about it, too.
AR: Yeah, you don’t think he’s going fast. If you go back and watch Dwyane Wade crossovers from like 2003 to 2009, he’s had so many people on skates. His pullback, he’s the best in the NBA, pull back. He originated the Euro. He took Ginobili’s Euro and made it his own. Those guys I definitely watched their games the most.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.