Top 5 Passers in the NBA
by Andrew Kennedy
If you watched the Knicks game last night (Carmelo Anthony in particular) and couldn’t stand it, then you’ll appreciate this list.
There are a lot of advanced statistics out there for basketball and believe me I am in love with all of them. When it comes to passing there’s more to it than just how many assists a guy racks up.
Any point guard running an offense can have a game where they get a lot of assists if their teammates just knock down shots. Every point guard throughout the course of a game will make at least 10-15 passes to players coming off screens for jump shots.
That’s why I’m not going just by the numbers. Point guards get more opportunities for assists, that’s no surprise.
I’m making this list taking everything into account. How do you stack up as a passer for your position? Are you also a threat to score which gives you more passing opportunities? Do you dribble the air out of the ball every possession or are you obsessed with ball movement?
These are questions that need to be asked when thinking up the best passers in the league. Everyone knows Chris Paul and LeBron James get a lot of assists but they also have the ball in their hands as much as anyone. They’re bound to get a ton of assists.
The truly great passers take advantage of every opportune moment within the flow of the game to give their team the highest percentage chance possible to make shots.
5. Boris Diaw, Charlotte Bobcats
I know, you think this list is crazy already but give me a chance.
Diaw’s historically one of the best passing centers including the 2005-06 season for Phoenix when he was one of only two players (LeBron was the other) to average 10 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game in a season.
This year, he has tailed off lately but began the season on a tear and as the starting center for Charlotte. In the first game of the season he had 9 points, 9 assists and 11 rebounds in a 1-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Diaw’s ability to accumulate assists and make so many great passes inside the paint is one of a kind in this league for someone playing his position. He is no threat to score on most nights, pump-faking on wide-open shots and refusing to look at the rim.
He has also been extremely out of shape for the past 3-4 seasons (okay, 5- seasons) and forced to rely almost entirely on his Basketball IQ to make plays.
Diaw is first among forwards who have played at least 10 games with a 41.45 assist rate per 40 minutes. He’s also averaging 6.2 assists per 40 minutes and second only to the next player on this list.
4. LeBron James, Miami Heat
I already said how LeBron is bound to come up with a good number of assists because he has the ball in his hands so much. But nevertheless for a small forward, there is no better passer in the league today.
He’s basically a point guard for a lot of the game with how much he handles the rock and at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he is always a load to handle.
Couple his ability to score with the fact that he is too much of a willing passer and LeBron is always among the tops in the league at making the defense pay with a great pass.
LeBron is averaging 7.6 assists per game this season to go along with nearly 30 points per game.
He becomes most deadly for Miami while passing out of the post. Now posting up the most he ever has in his career, while LeBron might not have the largest repertoire of post moves yet, he can still hurt the defense with his ability to hit teammates for wide open threes with his tremendous skip-passing vision.
3. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
Rondo is third in the league averaging 10.3 assists per 40 minutes. He does this as one of the shyest players in the league when it comes to shooting.
It’s no secret that Rondo isn’t a great jump shooter and regularly clangs 14-footers off the side of the rim, yet he still manages to fool defenses into respecting him on offense to get his assists.
Rondo has improved his scoring ability in recent years but defenses still play him under pick-and-rolls and sometimes sag down around the free throw line when he’s on the perimeter.
Rondo is the best at showing a dribble penetration move while a teammate is simultaneously coming off a screen to create a better passing lane for an assist.
Rondo leads the league this season in assists leading to jump shots from 16-23 feet. No one is better at getting their teammates wide-open two-point jump shots in this league.
2. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Watch Rubio play if you haven’t yet. After the first few possessions you will be left with your jaw on the floor over how good his court vision is.
The hype has existed for some time now surrounding Rubio and now that he is finally in the NBA, it is easy to see why he was such a coveted player and worth the wait for Minnesota.
He along with head coach Rick Adelman have changed the attitude in Minnesota and have everyone around the league talking about the new, exciting Timberwolves.
Rubio is especially great as a passer when it comes to creating passing angles. He is quick but not an elite athlete. He has to rely on superior physical wit to create lanes previously unknown to defenders.
His experience playing at the international level gives him an edge over some of the American players and he takes advantage of it.
Rubio is second in the league in weighted assists per 40 minutes averaging 12.1 per game. Weighted assists take into account assists for 3-pointers which is an area Rubio thrives in.
Rubio is second in the NBA in assists leading to threes. Watch Rubio and see how many times he throws no-look passes to players spotting up on the perimeter. It’s amazing how he does it.
Of course, Rubio’s ability to convert assists this year is extra amazing because he’s not the best shooter on the planet. Defenses play Rubio for the pass but he still burns them time and time again.
1. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
Nash is still king of the assist even at age 37.
Nash is leading the league in assists this season averaging 10.0 per game despite playing only 31.4 minutes per game, about five less than most other point guards.
If you thought Nash was slow before, just watch him now. He’s not playing with Amare Stoudemire anymore either. Instead, he’s turned Marcin Gortat into one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league this season.
Nash is also leading the league in the best assist in basketball: those leading to makes around the rim. He’s averaging four of those per game and again, doing so without any premiere scorers on his team anymore.
Year after year teammates of Nash have career shooting seasons when they start playing with him. See Raja Bell, James Jones, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley.
Nash has been my favorite player ever since he entered the league and his passing ability is why. He is always looking to set up his teammates more than any other player. He is relentless in doing so even at his ancient age.
Every year we keep thinking Nash is finally going to be washed up. Every year you look in the NBA’s assists leader and you see Nash’s name right at the top.