Players need to be skilled in a variety of areas to make it to the NBA. Basketball is far too complex for players just to focus on one or two aspects of the game in practice.
That said, there are players who especially stand out from their peers in one particular skill in the game. These players have used their physical attributes and their own hard work to get specific skills to an insanely high level. In this piece, USAbetting will be picking the top players in eight main basketball skills.
Passing: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
James beats out a variety of talented players here, including Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and James Harden. LBJ’s assist numbers hit another level this season (a league-leading 10.6 per game) when he started playing the point guard position for most of his minutes, but it’s remarkable that he’s averaged 7.4 dimes per game despite playing the No. 3 or 4 position for the entire rest of his career.
If we are talking about simple pass accuracy, the 35-year-old James would be near the top, but maybe not the very best. LeBron leverages his advantages in size, athleticism, ball-handling and basketball IQ to find the open man at an extremely high rate. Occasionally, he’ll add some flair to his passes, as well.
Ball-handling: Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ball-handling is a category that requires some clarification. Most NBA fans would tab the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving as the king of ball-handling due to his mesmerizing dribbling moves that leave defenders embarrassed. While I considered Irving for this distinction, I place more emphasis on a player’s ability functionally to keep control of the ball than his ability to perform difficult moves.
Paul sometimes pulls off spectacular dribble moves, but the 35-year-old point guard’s ability to run an offense as the primary ball-handler for so many years with such a low turnover rate is what makes me pick him.
In NBA history, there have been six individual seasons where a player has averaged at least 18 points and 10 assists with fewer than three turnovers per game. All six of those seasons belong to Paul. Irving also protects the ball pretty well, but I like CP3 as my choice here because I ultimately prefer function over form.
Three-point shooting: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
This is probably the easiest choice on this list. Curry is the active leader in three-point field goals made all time (2,495) and he also holds the record for most threes made in an NBA season (402). He holds a host of other records related to his ability to light up the scoreboard from behind the arc.
Curry is not only extremely accurate (43.5 percent for his career), but he is able to stay accurate with so much defensive attention on him. He has been the Warriors’ primary offensive option for many years now, but he still finds ways to get up lots of three-point attempts both off the dribble and off the catch.
Midrange shooting: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
I wouldn’t be too worried about whether Durant can still perform at a superstar level once he finally returns from his torn Achilles tendon. While he does use his athleticism now and then, his game is heavily based on skill, basketball IQ and his 7-foot frame.
Durant’s best skill might be his midrange jumper. He is consistently near the top of the league in both two-pointers made outside of the paint and success percentage on such shots. In the postseason, he relies on those shots even more and gets even more reliable at making them. KD is 175-of-323 (54.2 percent) on non-paint two-pointers in the postseason in his last three playoff runs for the Golden State Warriors.
While the midrange jump shot is becoming less and less common in the NBA because it is less efficient than most other shots, Durant is one player who should absolutely keep taking them, especially when he is relatively open.
Inside scoring: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Two players were in serious consideration for this distinction: James and the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In a neck-and-neck battle, I have to give the nod to King James. Antetokounmpo’s outlier length, size and athleticism enable dunks that shouldn’t be possible, but James has the better combination of power and finesse.
Sometimes, James will roar through the lane for a posterizing tomahawk slam. Other times, though, he’ll adjust to the defense by putting up a softer attempt that avoids the reaching arms of defenders.
Giannis’ shooting percentages at the rim have been a little bit higher during the past few years, but I attribute that to him getting a higher percentage of shots at the rim that are not strongly contested.
Perimeter defense: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Which defender do NBA ball-handlers fear the most? I think Leonard is probably the answer. His 7’3” wingspan combined with massive hands and great strength, quickness and instincts make him a constant threat to embarrass offensive players by snatching the ball away. If a player happens to get past him, he is always a threat to get back into the play and disrupt the drive and shot.
Admittedly, Leonard has become slightly less dominant on defense since his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016. I attribute that to his attempts to stay fresh for the offensive end of the floor now that he’s been the clear No. 1 scoring option for his teams since his final healthy campaign with the San Antonio Spurs.
Interior defense: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
The winner of the interior defense category is another two-time Defensive Player of the Year: Gobert. Like Leonard, Gobert has some ridiculous physical characteristics (7’1” height with a 7’9” wingspan and a 9’9” standing reach) that are a major aid to his defensive impact.
Gobert’s interior defense has to do with his skills as well as his physical tools. He has filled out his frame with muscle and is adept at knowing when and how to challenge shots with good technique and without fouling.
You might see Gobert’s averages of between 2 and 2.6 blocks per game for the past six seasons and assume that he is a really good rim protector, but maybe not the best in the league. However, it’s important to keep in mind that offensive players hardly ever challenge Gobert at the rim because they realize that it’s extremely unlikely that they will score.
Rebounding: Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
If you have been following Drummond’s career, you might be slightly disappointed with how things have turned out for him. His numbers steadily improved in his first four seasons, culminating in his first All-Star appearance at the age of 22 years. In the past four years, he has plateaued as a player and has really only improved his free-throw shooting significantly. He still hasn’t won a single playoff game.
Rebounding is one area where you can’t fault Drummond, though. He asserts his massive 6’10”, 279-pound frame extremely well by fighting hard for position, and his 7’6” wingspan and solid leaping ability helps him bring in almost every missed shot he tries to snare.
Drummond has led the NBA in rebounds per game in four of the past five seasons. I see no reason why he won’t win more rebounding titles in the future.