The fundamentals of sick handles

While the rest of the basketball world has spent the summer focused on pick-up leagues, foreign tournaments and the CBA negotiations, Pro Training Center’s Anthony Macri has been churning out excellent posts on how NBA players can use the off-season to take that next step forward in their games. The summer is a vital time for an NBA player. During the season, there’s just not enough time and energy between games, flights, rest and team-specific work for individual players—especially those who log heavy minutes—to dramatically improve individual skills.

Remember how Derrick Rose got off to such a hot shooting start last season and then tapered off? I’m willing to bet that’s because he worked on his technique all summer, but wasn’t able to get the repetitions necessary for upkeep during the grind of the season.

A meteoric rise in shooting percentage is a conspicuous indicator of productive off-season work. But there are subtler skills that, when improved over the summer, also make a big difference during the year.

Dribbling remains one of the more basic—yet mysterious–techniques in the game. What makes an NBA ballhandler good? A filthy crossover, enormous hands, and a creative mind certainly help. But Macri argues that more than moves, ballhandling is about body position and changes in speed and “status”:

At least 85% of the time, a player does not need more moves. Rather he needs to restrict the quantity of moves, and instead focus and the way he executes a small, yet reliable stable of moves.  His focus should be on how to change speed and status, and less on the variety of ways to execute the same basic skill.

Players should have at least four and preferably more distinct gears on the basketball court as they change ends.  Each speed should be identifiable by observation: an onlooker should be able to tell when a player has moved from one speed to another without anyone else on the floor, and the transition should be quick and powerful, whether the player is speeding up or slowing down.  Transitioning between speeds effectively is how really great players, even ones who have lost a step like Steve Nash, get past defenders – not variety of moves.

Another area that is often overlooked is how players change status.  Changing status means going from an upright forward-facing posture, to a sliding position, in which the player rotates his hips 60-90 degrees (keeping eyes forward) and the ball is moved to behind the back leg in a protected area.  A great example of the ability to change speed and status happens when a player (imagine Chris Paul) is moving up the court with the ball and two defenders move to trap.  A quick change of status, coupled with a few negative steps (ball protected) sucks the defenders in, and then a rapid change of speed and status back into attack mode allows CP3 to explode past the advancing double-team.

Post-oriented players can use this maneuver as well – imagine a bigger player like Dirk Nowitzki receives the ball on the wing.  He moves to attack baseline in a normal attack posture but is shut down by his defender.  Changing status, Dirk backs the ball back out to the perimeter, and then advances via the slide into a post-up position at a different speed.  These kinds of maneuvers are universal in basketball, and much easier to practice (and perfect) than the ability to perform fifteen different dribble moves.

Chris Paul is the best dribbler in the NBA. Not because his moves are nastier than those of Deron Williams or Derrick Rose—they aren’t—but because he marshals his footwork, body position and ball location better than anyone else. And he does all that with his eyes up, ever-searching for open teammates.

NBA players spend so much time in the gym that all of them can perform just about every dribbling trick in the book. But expertise demands technical precision and an understanding that great dribbling is about more than how you bounce the ball.

Check out more of Coach Macri’s summer training series, including  position-by-position breakdowns of what specific NBA players can do to excel in their roles.

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