How Kyrie Irving became the best dribbler in the NBA
The Cavs star’s handling skills are a thing of beauty — but he didn’t become the ‘unguardable’ guard overnight
Pay attention to the crowd and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench when Kyrie Irving is about to dribble.
Irving’s bag of tricks includes quick crossovers, hesitation moves and hard dribbles that can lead to step-back or step-side jumpers. There is also his trademark baseline dribble to an athletic reverse lay-in over an always late big man or a quick pass to a wide-open teammate. Always pretty. Always unstoppable. Always creative.
And once Irving’s use of his “weapon” on the poor defender is complete, fans and his teammates are always on their feet laughing and shaking their heads in amazement as the unguardable guard glides back on defense.
“It’s definitely a weapon,” Irving said about his dribbling. “But the fact that it’s a weapon with other weapons makes it a little more dangerous by being able to understand where my dribble can get me, what it can get me out of and how much more effective it can be if I utilize it more efficiently.”
Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford are NBA guards with undoubtedly intimidating handles. But when it comes to the best dribbler in the NBA, the name Kyrie Irving seems to come up the most.
The rest of the NBA seems to agree.
“Hands down, Kyrie has the best ball-handling skills that we have in our league,” Atlanta Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “The way he reads defenses, the way he reads your feet, it’s unbelievable … His biggest asset is his creativity. He is one of the most creative point guards we have.”
“Kyrie has the best handle of all time,” said Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon. “Very creative and uses different motions, as well.”
Irving is averaging 25 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 38.8 percent from the 3-point line for the Cavaliers this season. It’s rare for the four-time NBA All-Star to score a two-point basket or trey, or drop a dime, without using his weapon to set it all up.
Perhaps Irving’s two most notable dribbling plays came against the Golden State Warriors.
In a deciding Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving engaged in a seductive double crossover dribble from behind the 3-point line while being guarded by Curry before hesitating, dribbling once hard with his right hand to create space and launching the biggest shot of his career. Irving nailed the clutch 3-pointer with 53.1 seconds left to give the Cavaliers a 92-89 lead. Irving’s 3-pointer was the most notable shot of the franchise’s first NBA championship.
Last Christmas, with the Warriors up 108-107 with 13.5 seconds remaining, Irving patiently dribbled all the way to the low block with stellar defender Klay Thompson smothering him. After stopping on a dime, Irving dribbled once hard and low with his right hand, spun back the opposite way and drilled a game-winning jumper over the fellow All-Star’s outstretched hand. Merry Christmas, Cleveland, from Kyrie Irving.
“He is able to use both hands and he’s shifty and crafty,” Curry said. “He changes speeds to keep people off-balance. Perhaps the best way to put it into words, he has an uncanny kind of ability to go one way, stop on a dime, right to left, left to right, whichever, and still be on balance and get by you. It’s unpredictable. You just don’t know which way he is going.”
To learn how Irving fine-tuned his elite dribbling skills, you have to go to the Cleveland suburb of Independence, where the Cavaliers practice.
Once Cavaliers practice is over, requested players engage in media interviews and others head to the shower. And then there is the gym rat in Irving. With Cleveland assistant and player development coach Phil Handy always by his side, they engage in a post-practice workout that lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. Handy has Irving work on his hand speed in the dribble and the combinations that go with it. They practice on two- and three-low dribble combinations with a quick pickup for a jumper. It’s also not uncommon for Irving and Handy to get to shootarounds on the road 30 minutes early to get their workouts in, as well. The key ingredient to Irving’s handles is a very low dribble. But it takes work.
“A ton of practice, but also having an imagination that is sometimes out of my world,” Irving said. “You try things in practice in a solo session seeing defenders, putting myself in a situation that I can be able to execute in the game.”
Former Cavaliers guard Jordan McCrae has witnessed several of Irving’s behind-the-scene practice workouts and spontaneous ones that took place on the road.
“He shoots off the dribble a lot,” McCrae, now a free agent guard, said. “For him, he is putting a lot of different dribbles into a shot. Sometimes he is doing five or six moves into a shot in practice. You wouldn’t do that in a game. But it’s more for your reaction. He has so many moves that he works on all the time.
“There are times where people will try get him off the court. He will do his thing before practice and after. I’ve been with Ky before where we fly for four hours and then, when we get off the plane, he goes to the gym. For him to constantly work on his game is a testament to who he is.”
Before games, Irving typically has a 10-to-12-minute dribbling and shooting workout with Handy about 50 minutes before tipoff. ESPN NBA color analyst Mark Jackson said during the Christmas game that he saw Irving work on his game-winning shot against the Warriors during his pregame session. Practice has basically made Irving’s weapon of dribbling close to perfect once he’s on the court for real.
“There is creativity that goes into it, meaning to change on the fly with multiple combinations, multiple moves, being able to turn my practice into my work and really just have some fun out there,” Irving said. “Being able to keep your defender in an unpredictable state is always a fun thing because you can dribble, shoot, pass … You’re able to not only make plays for yourself, but for everyone on the court.”