Many players and trainers make a big mistake when it comes to ball handling. They approach training their handles as if being able to dribble is the end goal.
If you think about it, dribbling is simply a means to an end. You use the dribble to get from point A to point B. To open up a passing angle. To create an advantage on offense. To get a step on your defender and get to the rim.
Despite what most YouTube videos would suggest, dribbling is not about breaking ankles or looking cool. It's about effectiveness in getting to your spots (and protecting the ball).
It looks great on Instagram to practice double crossover-behind the back-spin move combinations against a cone, but how much is that helping you? If you can’t do it in the context of a game, it’s useless. And there are two game-like contexts that are consistently missing from most ball handling drills that I see:
1) They lack defense
2) They don’t require court awareness.
1) Where’s The D?!
In a game, the vast majority of the time you're dribbling the ball, there's one thing in common: defenders! But most ball handling workouts don’t include any defenders. That’s ridiculous! Practicing your ball handling without defenders takes away a huge component of what makes dribbling difficult. As a result, the drill becomes way less realistic and game transfer decreases.
2) Read the Floor
How often in a game do you get to dribble the ball without having to worry about the rest of the floor? Maybe in a 1 on 1 fast break situation, but that’s about it. The rest of the time, you always have to be able to see and read the rest of the floor.
Even as you’re trying to break down your defender, you have to recognize where the help side is coming from or if you have a teammate who’s open. This court awareness is a key ingredient to being a successful ball handler that most skill development programs overlook.
Just in case it seems like I’m all high and mighty, let me tell you this: I made this exact same mistake for essentially my entire career.
95% of the ball handling drills I’ve ever done have been against cones and without having to read the floor. And my performance suffered for it.
I put in a ton of time on my ball handling. For an entire summer, I did a full ball handling workout every morning by myself before I even shot a single basket. I hated pure ball handling drills so I knew I had to get them done before I could indulge in some shooting drills. Through my efforts, I improved...but only a little bit...and not nearly as much as I should have (given the time and effort I put in).
After many years of stationary ball handling drills and practicing moves against cones, I was dynamite during my workouts. If you told me to do a between the legs spin move, I could do it quickly and easily. If you told me to do a stationary figure 8 drill with 2 balls, no problem. But I still was not a great ball handler in the games. Why not?
Part of the reason I never became a great ball handler was because I was afraid to turn the ball over, so I never tried to make any creative moves and never got a great feel for dribbling the ball in traffic.
But, I’d argue that perhaps an even bigger reason why my ball handling never reached the level I hoped was because I was training wrong. I completely neglected to add defense and court awareness into my workouts. Sure, I looked great doing a move by myself, but when defenders started to pressure me, I became a different player. When I had to focus on other things besides just ball handling, all that dribbling prowess fell away.
In the hopes that you can avoid the mistake I made, I've designed a ball handling drill that takes into account both of the crucial factors I mentioned above: on-ball defense and court awareness. I use this drill most often when training point guards because it simulates having to initiate the offense under pressure.
Pressure Ball Handling With A Passing Option
Put 30 seconds on the clock.
There are 3 people involved in the drill. The first player is the offensive player. He starts with a live dribble in the jump circle at half court. He cannot leave the jump circle. The second player is a defender that starts about arms distance away. The third person is a player or coach that is 10-15 feet away from the center circle.
As the timer starts, the defender presses up on the offensive player. Since the offensive player cannot leave the jump circle, the defender can pressure the ball aggressively: slapping at it, reaching, pushing etc. (don’t be afraid to foul). The offensive player’s goal is not just to protect the ball. His goal is to execute as many change of hand dribble moves against the pressure defense as possible in the time allotted (spin moves, crossovers, between the legs, behind the back).
But that’s just the first part, what makes this drill more realistic is the addition of the passing option. The passing option is the third person who is standing 10-15 feet away. His job is to move around and occasionally raise his hands. When he raises his hands, the offensive player has to pass him the ball as quickly and accurately as possible against defensive pressure. After catching the ball, the third player immediately throws the ball back to the offensive player and the drill continues.
The addition of the passing option has 2 benefits. One, it forces the ball handler to dribble with his eyes up. Two, it makes the offensive player distribute his focus between multiple tasks. A ball handler who focuses only on his defender is one-dimensional. He can’t see cutters, read mismatches, or check out the shot clock. This drill trains players to compartmentalize their focus as they learn to mentally deal with the chaos of a pressuring on-ball defender while still being able to focus on the rest of the floor.