Dribbling the ball is the most fundamental skill in basketball. Before a player ever shoots a ball, he will have dribbled it. It is the one skill that, if not possessed, would not allow you to even play the sport. But, the question remains, what makes a great dribbler? Is it ball security and the ability to control the ball without turning it over? Is it the ability to change speeds, accelerate, and then stop on a dime, all while maintaining control of the ball? Maybe, it's a flashy move like a killer crossover, spin move, or a behind-the-back dribble. The truth is there is no definitive answer. The standouts tend to be players who have these elements, while having mastered or pioneered a move their peers could not match.
One of the harder elements when determining the greatest of all time is trying to figure out how skills would translate over different eras. How would modern players fare in the 50’s and 60’s when palming, and travelling rules were much more strictly enforced? How would players from the 50’s compete with the modern day athleticism of NBA players? It is an impossible debate, and it makes any list highly subjective. What was considered flash in the golden era, are moves that high school kids could pull off today, but not paying respect to the history of the game would be a grave injustice. These pioneers paved the way for the ones after them, and they all possessed world class athleticism. How each player would have fared in different eras is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that these players were a sight to behold with the ball in their hands. This list will try to do the impossible and break down the top 25 dribblers of all time.
25 Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio is the reigning showman of the NBA. There have always been players in NBA history who recognize they are also entertainers, and will always try to add flair or dramatics to their game. The fans love these players, while coaches want to ring their necks for them adding extra layers of difficulty for no reason. Ricky Rubio is that player right now in the NBA. Blessed with tremendous ball skills, Rubio has entertained crowds, with behind-the-back dribbles, no-look passes, spin moves, and ankle-breaking crossovers. Rubio had been doing this for years in Europe before finally bringing the show to the NBA, and the fans have been soaking up every minute of it. The only shame is we didn't witness Rubio and his talents sooner.
24 Mark Price
When most people hear the name Mark Price, they think he was just a pure shooter. If they think that's the case, then they're sadly mistaken. Yes, Price is one of the greatest shooters of all time, but he got the space to do so with some incredible dribbling skills. Considered one of the hardest players to defend on a pick and roll, Price developed a move that nobody had really seen before. Price would split the pick and roll to get to the lane, and he did it with such quickness. Price’s change of speed was so deadly, because you had to respect his jumper, and when you pressed that jumper he could knife by the defender. His highlight film is a thing of beauty. Mark Price will go down as one of the most underrated basketball players of all time. Do yourself a favor and watch his highlights. They are truly special.
23 Magic Johnson
There is no debate as to Magic Johnson being one of the greatest point guards of all time, but one of the best dribblers is another debate. Johnson was never the flashiest dribbler. He was not breaking ankles or blowing by anyone. His game was ball control, and no other player was as good as Magic in transition. This is was when his dribbling skills were at their best. He could drive the lane and finish in the crowd, or deftly pass it off to a teammate at the last possible moment. What might have been the most impressive thing with Magic was that he was 6’9", but played like a 6’0" guard. Despite his height, he kept a very tight dribble and it allowed him to transition very quickly to a pass. Magic ran Showtime in L.A. but it was more his control than his flash that made him a great dribbler.
22 Calvin Murphy
Calvin Murphy is the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Standing only 5’9" Murphy was able to make larger players play down to his size. The low center of gravity allowed Murphy to have taller players off balance, allowing him to use his speed and quickness with the ball in his hands to move around the court at a blinding pace. One of his unique skills was that he was a world class baton twirler. There is an excellent video on Youtube of Murphy showing off some of his dribbling skills. In the video he is seen twirling a baton, showing off the dexterity in his fingers which gave him superior dribbling skills. You would be hard pressed to find many modern players who would be able to pull off some of the things Murphy did in that video.
21 Dwyane Wade
While some players will have a bunch of “fluff” moves that don’t really do anything to beat a defender, Dwyane Wade is all business. When Wade makes a move it is always to attack a defender. Wade’s quickness and agility are beyond elite, his crossovers always look so simple, but have floored many defenders because of the sharpness of his cuts. Wade has been un-guardable due to the variety of moves he could come at you with. Wade always has defenders backing up, and when he slams on the breaks defenders look foolish. When it comes to speed to the basket, few have been as good as D-Wade.
20 Derrick Rose
It’s been awhile since we have seen Derrick Rose 100% healthy, but when he is, he is one of the most gifted dribblers this league has ever seen. Rose has a special blend of speed and power to his dribbling. Rose on an isolation is a scary thought for a defender. He has one of the most explosive crossovers to get the initial step and then once he does he is so strong on the dribble that he can take contact and finish in traffic. The NBA needs a healthy Rose back, as his dribbling skills are amongest the most amazing we have seen ever.
19 Kenny Anderson
New York is the mecca of street ball, with many great players with sick handles coming out of the city. Many of the greats from the city consider Kenny Anderson the all-time best. Kenny Anderson was a high school legend, and one of the first from the city to grab national headlines. Anderson parlayed that into a scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he announced his presence to the nation with a slick triple crossover move on Bobby Hurley. In the NBA, Anderson played for nine teams over 14 years, where he would display a multitude of dribbling skills. Anderson had tremendous instincts when driving at full speed. He had a great spin move, and a deadly behind-the-back crossover that he would use to get to the paint. Kenny Anderson never won any major awards in the NBA, but when people mention dribbling skills his name is at the forefront.
18 Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is not often mentioned as one of the great dribblers in league history. This tends to be because he was so skilled in other areas, and it is hard to put one skill above the others. Nobody will argue that Jordan was one of the most skilled scorers in history, but when you break down how he got in position to score, you start to see his dribbling skills. Jordan was always able to get to the spot on the court that put him in the best positions to score. Whether it be driving hard to the basket, or getting separation with the jab step, the ball seemed like it would never leave his side. The dribbling was second nature, to the point you didn't even notice it. The greatest compliment one can pay to Jordan is that it almost seemed Jordan walked to where he wanted to be without even having to dribble. Jordan was so skilled as a dribbler, you forgot he was even dribbling. That is one of the many reasons Jordan was the best.
17 God Shammgod
God Shammgod may not be a household name as he only played in 20 NBA games, but amongest his peers he is regarded as one of the best dribblers to have ever played the game. Another street baller out of New York, Shammgod would have a great college career in Providence leading his team to an unexpected Elite Eight appearance in the 1997 tournament. After the tourney run, Shammgod jettisoned for the NBA becoming a 2nd round pick of the Washington Wizards. His NBA career was short lived, but Shammgod left a mark with his signature move, that is named after him. “The Shammgod” is a dribble move where the player throws the ball out in front of his body, and pulls it back with the opposite hand. It is a move that is used by many of the elite NBA dribblers today. When they name a move after you, you know you have left your mark as a great dribbler.
16 Steve Francis
In Steve Francis’s prime there were few better dribblers then him. He had an array of moves that could break ankles, and he did them with such explosion. The biggest knock against Francis was his high turnover rate, as he was often very careless with the ball, bringing a street ball swag to the NBA court. But, that street ball mentality often made defenders look downright silly. The most memorable was the time he toyed with Troy Hudson. Francis jabbed Hudson, multiple times stepping back each time, before finally getting Hudson in the air, and driving pass for an open jumper. It is one of the most ridiculous ankle breaking dribble moves ever seen.
15 Steve Nash
For some players it seems as if the game is moving in slow motion, and that is what it seemed like when watching Steve Nash. One of the most cerebral players in NBA history, the two time MVP has been a joy to watch. One thing that stands out about Nash’s dribbling skills is his ability to maintain the dribble. Watching Nash navigate the paint amongst seas of legs and arms is among the best ever. Nash is one of the few players who would have the patience in the paint to recognize when the play wasn’t there, and then dribble out to open space to get to a better angle to score or find a teammate. There were many times you would think Nash was about to spin out of control, just to find him gather himself make a move to open space, and then drop a jumper or throw a no look pass from a ridiculous angle. The ability to keep the dribble in crisis is one of the reasons that make his ball handling skills special.
14 Oscar Robertson
The legendary announcer Chick Hearn once described Oscar Robertson as “the greatest dribbler who ever lived.” When you watch Robertson’s highlights you are not going to find any killer crossovers, or flashy behind the back dribbles. What you are going to see is sound fundamentals, and control. Robertson was renowned for having tremendous control with his dribble, and rarely turned it over. The ball was an extension of his body, and he was so fluid with it. Robertson was the first “big guard” as he combined the dribbling skills of a smaller guard with the size of a forwarder. In this day in age where we marvel at a player who get a triple double, Robertson averaged one over his first five seasons. In just his second season in the league he put up a season that will never be touched, where he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists. If you consider dribbling skills just as flashy moves, Robertson won’t wow you, but at the root fundamental level there were few better than the Big “O”.
13 Rafer Alston
Rafer Alston and his alter ego “Skip to My Lou” could have been two different people. Rafer Alston was a middling NBA guard that played 11 years in the NBA with six different teams. Skip to My Lou was a New York street ball legend, that had some of the most creative and unique dribbling skills ever seen. Skip to My Lou got his name for a dribbling move that saw him skip while dribbling the ball, but that is one of the many moves he would display. His legendary status spawned the and1 tour, where the legend grew. Fans marveled at his dribbling skills, from behind his back, to behind the backs of defenders, Skip had moves that left the audiences in awe, and gasping for more. Sadly in the NBA he was just Rafer Alston, and he couldn’t be Skip to his full extent. If he could have ever unleashed Skip in the NBA, he would have been one of the most marketable players in the history of the game.
12 Nate “Tiny” Archibald
In the 1972-73 season Nate “Tiny” Archibald became the only player in NBA history to lead the league in both points and assists. At a time when the game was dominated by the big man, Archibald proved that there was still a place in the game for a small, quick guard, with uncanny dribbling skills. Archibald was tenacious on the dribble, playing like a man 10 inches taller. He was never afraid to drive the net, and he used his array of dribble moves to get there. Archibald had a great behind the back dribble, and could turn the corner on the dribble with such speed. His roots came from the streets of the South Bronx, and the flare of the street game was part of what made Archibald such a popular figure. Archibald will be remember as one of the greatest point guards of all time.
11 Dwayne “Pearl” Washington
In the early 1980’s Dwayne “Pearl” Washington was the face of college basketball. His electrifying shake and bake style of play elevated the Big East into a big time conference as fans flocked to watch him. Pearl used an array of moves to get to the basket, and for those who watched him it appear he was getting there at will. Pearl is considered one of the pioneers of the crossover, as he used this move often to breakdown defenders, and get to the rim to finish. Washington’s NBA career sadly was not as great as his college career, as he lasted only 3 NBA seasons before moving on to the CBA. Despite his struggles at the pro level many fans still consider Washington one of the best dribblers they have ever laid eyes on.
10 Jamal Crawford
Jamal Crawford is one of the most electrifying players in the NBA right now. Crawford is the career leader in four-point plays, almost doubling 2nd place Reggie Miller. Crawford’s dribbling skills are a major reason for this. When watching defenders on Crawford, you would swear they were on skates. Crawford has one of the best hesitation moves to freeze defenders. What makes Crawford so deadly off the hesitation is that he can hesitate then crossover to blow by, or pull up for the jumper. It is that pull up jumper that has developed Crawford into an all-around player. Crawford is just incredible with the ball in his hand, and you can hear the crowd hold their breath with anticipation every time he touches the ball.
9 Earl "The Pearl" Monroe
Growing up in the streets of Philadelphia, Monroe was called “Black Jesus”, and he later became known simply as the “The Pearl”. Monroe was drafted into the NBA by the Baltimore Bullets Monroe and would electrify crowds for 13 seasons. Monroe did not have great speed, or hops, but he was able to drive the paint, and hit a variety of off balance shots. His claim to fame was the dribble spin move, as many consider him the first to use, and perfect this move. Observers claimed that watching Monroe was like listening to Jazz due to his improvisation skills. Monroe himself claimed that many times he was unsure himself what he was about to do. As one New York reporter claimed “He has the greatest combination of basketball ability and showmanship”. Monroe is a shining example of a players whose skills was before his time.
8 Kyrie Irving
One of the few things Pepsi Max did right was the Uncle Drew commercials, where Kyrie Irving is dressed up as an old man schooling young bucks on the street courts. In these commercials you truly get to appreciate the skills Irving possesses. Irving has remarkable change of direction speed, and one of the best in and out dribble moves ever seen. Irving claims that most of the moves he makes are simple, and that they key is having a counter for every move he makes. His offseason trainer compared him to the great Barry Sanders, and that is a fitting description. Like Sanders, Irving seems to be able to see an open space before it has even developed, setting up the defender in order to cut back into it. Irving is just scratching the surface of his potential as a dribbler, and when all is said and done, he could be considered the greatest. His potential is that immense.
7 Chris Paul
There are moments when it seems Chris Paul can get to any spot on the court that he pleases. Paul is not the most spectacular dribbler, but he is always in control. He has a very low dribble, which adds to his control. He is a master at changing speeds, and has a trunk full of moves that he can string together. What really stands out for Paul is his turnover rate. Point guards handle the ball often, and are among the leaders in turnovers, but not Chris Paul. Chris Paul over the past four years has not been in the top 40 turnovers/game. In his career he has only been in the top 40 once. For a player that handles the ball as often as Paul does that is an unheard of stat, and it tells you how much control he has over his dribble.
6 Bob Cousy
One of the great nicknames in basketball history is “The Houdini of Hardwood”, and what a fitting nickname it was for Bob Cousy. He was flash before it ever existed, and brought things to a basketball court that were never seen before him. Once benched in college because his coach did not approve of his entreating style of play, Cousy would become an NBA favorite for it. He completely changed the way fans looked at basketball, and was a true pioneer with his dribbling and ball handling skills. His skills will never be as awe inspiring as some of today’s greats, but in his era those moves were jaw dropping. Moves such as the behind the back dribble, spin moves, and the no-look pass, were all things first seen from Bob Cousy. If it were not for Cousy, a list like this would have not existed.
5 Jason Williams
Jason Williams took the league by storm in 1999 as a member of the Sacramento Kings. The Kings were a young, brash, up tempo team, and Williams led the way with his array of dribbling and passing skills. It was a sight to behold watching Williams run a fast break. Williams’s signature dribble was a behind the back move that he used to drive by defenders. Williams had tremendous vision, and could throw a pass from any angle. He could throw a pass without looking, do it behind his back, or even off his elbow. He was the type of player that brought the crowd to their feet, but caused coaches to pull out their hair. Williams loved the dramatic, and would tend to make plays more spectacular than they had to be, much to the delight of the crowd, but this lead to many ill-advised turnovers, that ultimately led to his exit from the NBA. Williams has been last spotted on tour in China and in US pro-am leagues still dazzling crowds with his remarkable skills.
4 Isiah Thomas
In a time where Magic, Bird and Jordan all reigned, there might not have been a harder player to defend than Isiah Thomas. He could break you down with a multitude of moves, but all them were done at blinding speed. There were times Isiah would be moving so fast he would break his own ankles and take a spill, but amazingly he was also able to maintain the dribble even when on the ground. Thomas had a dribble that was very low to ground, add in that he was only a shade over 6’0, and it made defending him off the dribble extremely hard for larger defenders. Thomas was such a feisty player, and he played as if he was 10 feet tall. It was his once in a generation dribbling skills that allowed him to navigate the court, and become the dominant force he was.
3 Allen Iverson
When your first big crossover comes against Michael Jordan, you know there is greatness ahead of you, and that was the case for Allen Iverson. He changed how the crossover was done. His crossover was much higher than anyone else's, and the motion back to the other hand was much more exaggerated. The purest will claim that Iverson was carrying the ball, and he did get called on it as the move became more effective. But, one of the reasons the move was so deadly was that Iverson sold the initial move with a large step, before locking the leg and driving it back the other way. No other player before Iverson would have such an exaggerate step, and that really sold his crossover. But it wasn’t only his crossover that made Iverson such a great dribbler, the speed of his dribble, and how he would use it to get into scoring position help Iverson become one of the best scores in NBA history. When you throw in the speed with the innovation Iverson brought to the crossover, it's no surprise he ranks this high.
2 Tim Hardaway
The killer crossover, the UTEP two step, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line was it was the fastest crossover in NBA history. Tim Hardaway started in Golden State as part of RUN TMC, before moving on to Miami. The one thing that followed him throughout was his lethal crossover. Hardaway added a wrinkle to the standard crossover by bringing it back between his leagues before crossing the defender over. It is a move that many have since duplicated. The one thing the imitators have had a difficult time matching is the sheer speed with which Hardaway pulled off the crossover. He was literally past you in a blink of an eye. He could do it from a dead standstill, or at full speed coming up the court. There was rarely a wasted movement from Hardaway. It was usually two quick moves and he was right by the defender. To date, the Hardaway crossover is the most effective dribble move to beat a defender.
1 "Pistol" Pete Maravich
"Pistol" Pete Maravich was not the first player to do a behind the back dribble, or make a no look pass, but it was the way he brought all those elements together with flair that made him special. He never did anything conventional; for him everything was a show. Maravich once stated, "If I have a choice whether to do the show or throw a straight pass, and we're going to get the basket either way, I'm going to do the show." He defined creativity, and showed what spectacular things could be done while dribbling a ball. Your eyes never left Maravich, as you would always wonder what would come next. He combined all this flair, while still being a great scorer (he is still the all-time Division I leader in scoring). What Maravich did in the 70’s changed the game forever, and when you can be that type of pioneer, you deserve the top spot.