Top 10 best ball handlers in NBA history

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Ryan Murphy

March 3rd, 2021

Long before kids learn how to shoot, they learn how to dribble. It’s the most elemental skill in the game of basketball, and although it’s easy to learn, it’s extremely difficult to master. Those who do it well, like Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, are celebrated for their ability to put the ball on a string and effortlessly blow by defenders.

Join us now as we turn the spotlight on the 10 best ball handlers in NBA history.

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Orlando Magic guard Rafer Alston (1) during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

10. Rafer Alston

Teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, New Jersey Nets
Years Active: 2000-2011
Accolades: Finished in the top 20 in steals per game four times

Known to millions of fans as "Skip to My Lou," Rafer Alston became a national sensation in 1999 after showcasing his patented high skipping dribble on the AND1 Mixtape Tour. His distinctive moves led to a free agent deal with the Golden State Warriors, and he later became a starter with the Heat, Rockets, and Magic.

Alston’s streetball DNA was mostly stifled by his old school coaches, but he still produced plenty of eye-popping highlights during his 11-year career.

9. Isiah Thomas

Team: Detroit Pistons
Years Active: 1982-1994
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 5x All-NBA, 2x NBA Champion, NBA Finals MVP, AST leader

Younger fans know Isiah Thomas mostly as that grumpy old guy on The Last Dance, but prior to being demoralized by Michael Jordan he was a phenomenal point guard with a penchant for weaving among the trees.

Zeke’s ability to navigate impossibly tight spaces helped him become a two-time NBA champion and Detroit’s all-time scoring leader.

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Tim Hardaway of the Miami Heat smiles during an NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

8. Tim Hardaway

Teams: Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers
Years Active: 1990-2003
Accolades: 5x All-Star, 5x All-NBA

The floor general of Golden State’s "Run TMC" lineup, Tim Hardaway sliced and diced defenders with his patented "UTEP 2 Step," a killer crossover he developed during his four years at Texas El-Paso.

The jitterbug move helped the burly guard to average 20 points per game or more in five of his first seven years in the league.

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Phoenix Suns Guard Jamal Crawford looks on before an NBA game between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

7. Jamal Crawford

Teams: Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets
Years Active: 2001-2020
Accolades: 3x Sixth Man of the Year

You’d be hard pressed to find a nickname that fits any athlete better than "J-Crossover" fits Jamal Crawford.

The three-time Sixth Man of the Year parlayed his signature move into 19,419 points, 4,541 assists, and too many broken angles to count.

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Steve Nash (13) during game 2 of the NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Icon Sports Media)

6. Steve Nash

Teams: Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers
Years Active: 1997-2014
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x All-Star, 7x All-NBA, 2x MVP, 5x AST leader

The best ball handlers are often the best innovators, and Steve Nash is no exception. The hockey-loving Canadian took a page from Wayne Gretzky’s playbook by dribbling under the hoop, just as the "Great One" used to skate behind an opponents’ net.

It was an unorthodox move that consistently threw off defenders and led to more than a few alley-oops and uncontested reverse layups.

5. Pete Maravich

Teams: Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans/Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics
Years Active: 1971-1980
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 5x All-Star, 4x All-NBA, scoring leader

If you were a hoops-loving nerd in the 1980s there’s a good chance you owned a well-worn VHS copy of Pistol Pete’s Homework Basketball. The four-part collection featured Pete Maravich showing off the dribbling drills and skills that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

It’s must-see TV even now, as the late, great Pistol Pete shows off his blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moves and sleight-of-hand wizardry.

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry warms up. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

4. Steph Curry

Team: Golden State Warriors
Years Active: 2010-2021
Accolades: 7x All-Star, 6x All-NBA, 2x MVP, 3x NBA Champion

Steph Curry is destined to be remembered as the greatest shooter in NBA history, but the two-time MVP wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his legendary handle. Unlike Klay Thompson, who is primarily a spot-up shooter, Curry gets to his favorite spots by knifing through double teams and dancing around the outstretched hands of frustrated opponents.

His ability to keep his dribble alive makes him virtually impossible to guard, and has made Curry one of the league’s most entertaining players well into his 12th year in the NBA.

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Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul being defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

3. Chris Paul

Teams: New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns
Years Active: 2006-present
Accolades: 11x All-Star, 9x All-NBA, 4x AST leader, 6x STL leader, Rookie of the Year

Unlike many of the other players on our list, Chris Paul isn’t an especially flashy player. He seldom does something you’ve never seen before, and there’s practically zero streetball flair to his moves. However, what he lacks in panaches he more than makes up for in rock-solid fundamentals.

His crossover is as smooth as they come, and he’s been rendering defenders helpless for more than 15 years with his trademark pullback dribble.

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Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers. (Photo by Manny Millan/SI/Icon SMI)

2. Allen Iverson

Teams: Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies,
Years Active: 1997-2010
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 11x All-Star, 7x All-NBA, MVP, 3x STL leader, 4x scoring leader, Rookie of the Year

We could go on and on about Allen Iverson’s impressive list of achievements, but if you’ve made it this far in our list it’s because you want to see the classic video of AI putting Michael Jordan on skates during his rookie season in Philly.

It remains, to this day, one of the few times MJ ever looked mortal on a basketball court.

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Kyrie Irving of Team USA celebrates scoring during the Final game of the FIBA World Cup. (Photo by By Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)

1. Kyrie Irving

Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets
Years Active: 2012-2021
Accolades: 7x All-Star, 2x All-NBA, NBA Champion, Rookie of the Year

We won’t blame you if you don’t like Kyrie Irving. Most of his former teammates don’t. However, it’s impossible not to respect his ability to handle the rock. The seven-time All-Star is a maestro at splitting defenders, executing crisp spin moves, pulling off yo-yo dribbles and zipping the ball between his legs – and he often does it all on the same possession.

No player in the league has more moves and countermoves, making Irving the best ball handler in NBA history.