The Top 10 Ballhandlers Since 2000

In the new issue of Dime Magazine, we took a look at the best – and worst – the game has offered since the turn of the century. From the players to jerseys to sneakers to teams to even trends, you can relive the past 12 years by scooping up the new issue currently on newsstands nationwide. In those pages, you’ll find the following feature…

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Dunking was always glorified, and while Pistol Pete captivated audiences during the 1970s with his infamous ball tricks, if given the choice, everyone would’ve always picked having nasty hops over an ill handle. But nowadays? We’re not so sure. Everyone wants to break some ankles. Here are the 10 NBA guys who’ve done it the best over the past dozen years.

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The Next 10 Who Will Shape The Future Generation Of Basketball
The Top 10 Worst Basketball Trends Since 2000

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The story goes something like this: during the summer of 1999 at Haverford College in Philadelphia, And1 brought some of their NBA endorsers – guys like Darrell Armstrong, Larry Hughes, Raef LaFrentz and Rex Chapman – to a gym to film commercials. In the green room that day, the NBA guys went crazy playing and replaying a tape of grainy footage, incoherent audio and one skinny kid who was abusing people on the court. When all the players finally met that kid – Rafer Alston – they treated him like royalty. Up to that point, the “Skip Tape” was used as entertainment in the company’s offices. It would later spark a revolution.

Without Skip 2 My Lou, who knows if we’re even making this list? Ballhandling is entertaining, but Alston helped take it to another realm. Yes, Steve Francis was just as nice with the rock, and broke people off almost every night in the league. Yes, Baron Davis was one of the sickest combinations of speed, power and handle we’ve ever seen. Yes, Jason Williams and Allen Iverson basically played streetball in the NBA. But Skip was different. Skip was the first to successfully merge streetball and the NBA, the first player to ever really be a professional at both.

In the NBA, Alston often busted out his patented spin move, and unveiled so many ball fakes, we’re surprised he didn’t break necks. He played 11 years in the NBA, and even started on the 2009 Eastern Conference champion Magic. Through it all, he was a symbol.

Whether you believe the influence of street culture on the game was a good or a bad thing, you can’t deny its impact. Skip was one of the originators of all that.

Hands. It starts with the hands. Those things are like saucers with suction cups, Raptor claws without the shredders at the fingertips. Over the past year, it became clear that Rajon Rondo is the best passer in the NBA, which is an enormous part of ballhandling. Last season, he led the NBA with 11.7 assists a night. Steve Nash was the only player even close. Playing on a veteran team that didn’t push the ball as much as he’d like, Rondo still found opportunities in the open court to unleash his incredible agility.

[RELATED: The Top 10 Plays Of Rajon Rondo’s NBA Career]

The Celtic isn’t about taking people off the dribble with the intent to score. Yes, he does have the crossovers, the spins and the behind-the-back moves that are staples of a guard’s one-on-one breakdown game. But Rondo specializes in the unique. His ball fakes are legendary. His passes off the dribble are on another level. His entire game is impossible to replicate.

Rondo’s most famous move, dribble straight at the rim before faking like he’s going to lay it in, and then reverse pivoting as the defender jumps at air, is prettier than Nia Long. How many others in the league can pull it off? It’s hard to say. No one else even bothers to try it.

Before Starbury headed to China, lost interest in the NBA, and then just went crazy on us all to the point that noted nutcase Eminem was dissing him in raps, the dude had a handle that could’ve navigated a Wall Street stock exchange room.

You can’t go on for a few paragraphs about Starbury’s handle without mentioning when he put Yao Ming on his ass with a crossover. Okay, so the move wasn’t anything special. It was only a simple left-to-right cross. But the Great Wall of China dropped to the floor faster than a Rudy Fernandez flop.

[RELATED: The Night Stephon Marbury Dropped Yao Ming With A Crossover]

Marbury nearly became the second player in NBA history to have career averages of 20 points and eight assists, and when he was younger, the man had every pass you needed, and could get to any spot on the floor. Some players use the handle as entertainment. They’ll use it to please the crowd. Others might just rock back and forth in place and never go anywhere with it. Marbury used it as a weapon, and defenders rarely picked his pocket because he kept the ball below his knees. Without a reliable jumper, he used it to get into the lane at will.

Marbury finished in the NBA with an entirely different legacy than we anticipated – a selfish, hotheaded gunner who could never win – and even if he’s rediscovered his human side while staring in China, we refuse to forget how he once owned cats off the dribble.

Remember a few years ago when there was a legitimate conversation about Deron Williams being the best point guard in the world? He regularly torched Chris Paul when they matched up; he took a very average Utah team to the Western Conference Finals in 2007, and then peaked as a 19/11 player the following year. Then he was traded out of the blue to New Jersey (now Brooklyn) and we all sort of forgot about him.

Thankfully, no one has forgotten about that hair – not the NBA’s proudest moment – or that crossover. That joint is filthy. It’s 104-temperature sick. It’s pure cancer.

Williams isn’t necessarily slick with the basketball. He has to move his whole body with it. But that’s part of what makes his handle so nasty. He’ll feint with his head like he’s going one way, lean his whole body in that direction, and then yank it back. We haven’t seen anything so nasty since The Human Centipede.

[RELATED: Deron Williams Will Stay With The Nets]

Williams has never played with an elite finisher or scorer, so he must finish many opportunities himself. That works for him – he was always a willing scorer, and last season, he averaged a career-high 21 points a night. He turns the ball over a little more than we’d like, but still, that crossover causes pain all over the league. Imagine if someone actually got him a legitimate running mate?

“Most of the time,” Williams once said about getting into his crossover off the pick-n-roll, “because the lane’s clogged up, I just clear out the whole floor and make everybody go low.”

From there, it’s time to cook.

Crawford’s initial inspiration came from Tim Hardaway, who was such a killer with the rock in his prime we nearly put him on this list despite morphing into a knuckle ball-shooting backup who barely played by the turn of the century. Crawford says he learned from Isiah Thomas too, even all the way up through their time with the Knicks – Crawford as the player, Thomas as the GM – when Isiah would occasionally make appearances at practice.

Crawford has a gift, and no player in the league is more universally known for their handle. Seriously, take away his crossover, and what do you have? He probably becomes just another decent player lost in time. But because of his gift, kids love him so much they convinced the developers of the NBA 2K series to give him his own signature dribbling package.

[RELATED: The Top 5 Crossovers In The NBA]

Crawford’s ankle-tweaking moves are so well known they even break rules. Normally, you can’t give yourself a nickname (unless you’re Kobe, and even that was pushing it). That’s somewhere between taking a charge on LeBron and challenging Jerry Stackhouse to a fist fight in the “Things you shouldn’t do if you’re an NBA player” list. But now Crawford uses it as his Twitter name, and not a damn thing is said about it.

We also can’t forget the “Shake and Bake” move the current Clipper invented out of nowhere to turn Kirk Hinrich and Deron Williams into statues. It defies all description. Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr. glamorized their own “Shake and Bake” move, but Crawford’s version can’t be imitated.

If we were comparing handles to mob movies, Kidd would have to be Goodfellas. Scarface had more memorable one-liners and over-the-top highlights. The Godfather trilogy is the apex, and represented the best of the genre. Nothing else comes close. But Goodfellas tells the story of the everyday man. No fluff. No family legacy. No one was turned into an outrageous caricature. That was Kidd. He wasn’t about the highlights, had no memorable moves, or at least plays that’ll be talked about 20 years down the line. He was just super efficient and effective.

One of Kidd’s best dribble moves ever was a slick in-and-out he put on Tim Duncan during the 2003 NBA Finals. Duncan took a step the wrong way, and New Jersey’s lead guard laid it in. But as far as highlights, you can limit his tape to that move, and a few off the glass alley-oops to Kenyon Martin that only worked because K-Mart had rocket boosters in his calves.

[RELATED: Mark Cuban Won’t Retire Jason Kidd’s Number]

Actually, Kidd’s signature move was his coast-to-coast forays. During his prime, he was a relentless rebounder, and would take off like a light-skinned Usain Bolt. Moving at full speed, no one was better at changing direction, and every once in a while, he’d add a little sauce on the dish at the end.

Kidd’s handle is overlooked at times, but to stick in the league until you’re 39 years old (and counting) despite being a career 40 percent shooter, you better do something right. Kidd was nasty with the rock, at one point averaging at least eight assists a night for 16 consecutive seasons.

The crossover wasn’t a part of basketball vernacular until the Answer learned it, patented it and then unleashed it on everyone from Charlie Ward to the G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan.

In fact, Iverson’s handle was so nasty it was illegal. Literally. David Stern tried taking the fun out of the game when he cautioned his referees to watch for the little skinny guy in braids who was whipping the ball across his body from one side to the other. Eventually, they started calling it a palming violation, and with that, a small part of basketball fans everywhere died.

[RELATED: The Night Allen Iverson Became A NBA Icon]

Iverson took the one-on-one game and added a break beat to it. He made it hip-hop. Whereas some players dribble the ball like they’re struggling through incoming traffic, Iverson made it a dance. The ball was a part of his arm, his hand, his wrist. He never lost it, and reaching just wasn’t in the cards. Reach for the ball, and he was gone. Was it a coincidence that And1 blew up immediately after Iverson started pulling off street moves in NBA games? They are definitely linked. Iverson was a Reebok guy, but he might as well have been the face of the streetball movement.

Iverson’s handle was so revolutionary they even built a commercial off of it. Early in his career, one of his initial ads with Reebok had No. 3 in a basketball lab, explaining to a scientist how to execute his favorite moves.

The only reason Philly’s finest isn’t higher is because handle is more than just making some look bad. You have to find teammates off the dribble, hit their shooting pockets with perfect dishes. Iverson could do it; he just didn’t do it often.

Still, have you ever seen Iverson dribble a football? We have. He could’ve crossed up Champ Bailey.

There were hundreds of better players, dozens of better lead guards. Williams’ knack for quarterbacking playoff teams was a tragically overlooked subplot, but still, there were plenty of winners more deserving of shine. In 2000, he took an absurd 6.2 triples a game, making less than 29 percent. In his first year in Memphis, he called himself and his teammates the worst team in the league. Williams never reached the potential many felt he had coming out of college, yet no one got your nerves tingling like the Chocolate Bunny did on a 3-on-2 break.

[RELATED: We Reminisce – White Chocolate]

When Rick Adelman first unleashed J-Will on the unsuspecting basketball world in 1998-99, the tricks started pouring out of him every night. Sacramento let loose a wild child, and while fans relished his outrageously high dribble and his no-look, over-the-shoulder passes in traffic, coaches didn’t. Hubie Brown eventually got to him, told Williams things like, “Instead of shooting pull-up 28-footers, why don’t you step in a few feet?” Soon Williams found the perfect balance, and it wasn’t long before he spent entire seasons as one of the NBA’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. In 2003, he finished second in the NBA with a 3.76 assist-to-turnover ratio. Then over his final seven years, his turnover averages dropped every season.

Going off pure talent, Williams might’ve had the best handle of anyone in NBA history. Watch his repeated undressings of John Stockton. Check out the cuff pass he once fooled Indiana’s Travis Best with. The dude was so good with the rock he received standing ovations after missed layups. His ballhandling skills were special. He just didn’t always use them correctly.

CP3 has literally every move in the book. Twice during Team USA’s Olympic run this summer, he put devastating in-and-out moves on defenders that could’ve caused torn ACLs. Instead, the defenders spun in a circle. Another time he uncorked the first “Shammgod” move we’ve ever seen in the Olympics, nearly sending his defender to the floor off the fake. He’s quick. He’s deceptive, and most of all, he loves making guys look bad. Loves it.

[RELATED: The NBA’s Top 10 Crossovers Of The Season]

If we were an NBA big, let’s take Marc Gasol for example, the last thing we’d want is a switch with us left to guard Paul on an island. No one is deadlier when they get a mismatch with a bigger player. Paul might flop – he does that quite well – but more likely he will set you up with a between-the-legs move, go at your weak side and soon have you lunging at air. If it’s in the final five minutes of a game, forget about it. You’ll be strung up to dry by your jersey.

Paul is still the best point guard in the world, and with his combination of guts, intensity, skill and heart, it’ll be a while before someone wrestles that title away from him. He’s not a bad ballhandler either.

Could Nash be flashy? Absolutely. But his pizzazz won’t come wrapped in twisting spin moves or behind-the-back missiles. He made fundamental fun. Nash was so good at the basics – bounce passes off the screen-n-roll, pushing the ball ahead on a fast break, breaking down a clumsy big man off a switch – that he didn’t need any theatrics to entertain.

Nash was a master of running pick-n-rolls, so good at reading the defense and knowing exactly when he should dish it off or keep it himself. Phoenix nearly won a championship with an offense that completely revolved around Nash’s instincts. His handle made Amar’e Stoudemire. It revived Tim Thomas. It discovered Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa. Stockton was the first to introduce America to the pick-n-roll, but Nash supercharged it.

[RELATED: Steve Nash’s Top 10 Assists]

Then, there was Nash’s signature move: the probe dribble. It sounds a little nasty, and at times watching the little Canadian pull out his blades and uncork an opposition’s heart was disgusting, but Nash’s ability to keep his dribble alive is truly unprecedented. Nash was always a solid scorer – for his career, he averages 14.5 points a night – but never a willing one. Most guards drive to the rim to score. Nash might do that, he might dish it off… or just as likely, he’ll keep his dribble, drive back around in a circle, and find an even easier shot. That move set him apart from everyone else and helped him lead the NBA in assist average five different times.

Steve Nash will probably never make a top 10 crossovers list. But no one could throw the deft passes he repeatedly did. No one had an entire offense on the tips of their fingers. And since 2000, no one else had a better handle.

Who do you think was the best ballhandler of the century?

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