NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Q&A: Who are the best ball handlers in NBA history? Tiny Archibald weighs in

Nate 'Tiny' Archibald gives his thoughts on the best point guards he has ever seen.

Maurice Brooks for NBA.com

Check out the top plays from Nate Archibald's legendary career.

Nate “Tiny” Archibald helped usher the NBA into a new era of guard play, where speed and playmaking combined with ball handling to unlock a new path to the rim.

Recently named to NBA 75, the six-time All-Star led the league in scoring (34 points per game) and assists (11.4 per game) in 1971 as a member of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and won a championship in 1981 with the Boston Celtics.

NBA 75 Profile: Nate Archibald

Over the course of an hour-long conversation, the 73-year-old NBA Hall of Famer shares his thoughts on modern NBA guards, the toughest players he ever faced and the work Stephen Curry has put into becoming an all-time legend.

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited. 


NBA.com: Congrats on being selected to the NBA 75. What was your initial reaction?

Archibald: First of all, it was an honor. You got a lot of other people who aren’t a part of the 75. I didn’t expect to be on the 75. I don’t expect to do anything besides breathing and trying to live. When you look at the 50th, it’s a different era.

Nate Archibald's quickness and speed made it difficult for opponents to guard him in the NBA.

Who are some of your favorite players to watch?

You got to have a unique handle. I love to see Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. They are what you call prototypical New York guards who can go to the basket. They can shoot, but they are what I call creators. They can pass and know how to get their shots off against bigger players. Especially Kyrie. Teams are going for bigger guards because they are shooting and defending better. Bigger guards can maybe defend three positions. People say guarding but it’s defending. If I’m 6 feet, I’m defending one.

A player I really enjoy watching run the show is Dallas’ Luka Doncic.

You have some European players who should have been included in the 75. Him and my man from Denver (Nikola Jokic), that’s the new breed of basketball. They aren’t prototypical guards like the guy who used to play for the Lakers (Magic Johnson). They are big, strong, better shooters, not saying better passers. They are dominant players in the backcourt. They are not just backcourt players. They post up, shoot the three, good passers. My thing, why not include them?

You were known for your attacking style of play.

Yeah, I’m coming at you guys. You can’t keep me from coming in here. They would knock me down and guess what, I’m gonna keep coming. First of all, ya’ll didn’t grow up like I did. I wasn’t hungry, I was starving. A lot of times we didn’t get meals. I grew up poor. You can be in suburbia and grow up poor. One of my teammates didn’t grow up rich – Larry Bird – but he went across those tracks and got better. I was lucky and fortunate that I got to play in the NBA. You got guys out there who would kill to play.

Earlier you mentioned Kyrie. Does his game remind you of yourself?

I don’t watch the games anymore because he ain’t playing. His dad (Drederick) said he plays like me and I was like nobody plays like him. Nobody in the world plays like this kid.  Kyrie Irving is much better than me. I don’t compare my game to anyone – it’s not unique, it was different back then than it is now. You can’t put yourself in the game now and I can’t put him in the game back then.

Back in the day, who were two of the best point guards you either faced or saw?

There were two guys I didn’t want to play against when I was playing – best ball handlers ever. They were Pete Maravich and Isiah Thomas. You didn’t know where they were going. It was like a yo-yo on a ball with an imaginary string. Isiah was quicker than Pete and could handle the ball better. He could score but Pete could score better than anyone I know. Look at the history, he played at LSU and he could pull up at any time and shoot the ball. His ballhandling skills were off the chart. When it comes to shooting, Steph Curry is the best shooter I’ve ever seen. Talking ballhandling skills, best I ever saw was Kyrie. But, Pete and Isiah could embarrass you on any given night. I put Kyrie in that same category.

I’m a life-long Sixers fan. No love for my guy Allen Iverson?

Iverson was more of a scorer. He was a prolific scorer but he really didn’t pass the ball. He was relentless going to the basket and had big heart but I’m talking about ballhandling.

Even though I think he is more of a combo guard, Curry is going to go down as one of the greatest point guards ever.

The only point guard who is consistent with the three is Curry. Isiah and Pistol handled the ball better than Curry, but they didn’t get to shoot the three like he did. All it is is practice. I know that’s a bad word but a lot of times guys are like practice, what is practice? You know that’s your guy. But anyway. You ain’t seen Curry practice. He can be out all night and all day for days and he come to practice and bust everybody’s (butt). It was installed in his little body, like ya’ll just can’t beat me.

The City Game

Nate 'Tiny' Archibald takes us back to the Bronx.

What I love about basketball is with repetition, you can quickly get better. 

Someone said to me, what about all the 3-pointers they shoot now? I was like I wouldn’t have had to shoot that many because they couldn’t stop me. All it would have been is a little practice. You have great shooters now cause that’s what they do, they practice those shots. But I’m practicing going to the basket because they couldn’t stop me from going to the basket. You’re relentless on doing certain things. It’s repetition. I would go to the parks and play against kids, play against the invisible man. Going to the rim. Putting Wilt under the basket. Putting Jerry on me. Putting Oscar or Clyde on me. Or Earl or somebody smaller. I would go out and look for guys quicker than me and play against those guys and see if I could get to the basket on those guys. In your imaginary dream, you’d be playing against guys you look at as All-Stars, Hall of Fame guys and go at those guys. Different moves to the basket, how to go around, how to go under. How to get to the other side of the cup, how to use the backboard, how to twist your body. If you look at guys now, more guys are doing shooting than going to the basket. When you see someone going to the basket, you’re like that’s the first time he did that. No, he practiced that. He practiced that – using both of his hands.

Crazy that the best 3-point shooter ever played at Davidson, not some big Power 5 school.

When he was at Davidson, just giving you the history my man, he didn’t handle the ball. People be like yes he did and I’m like no he did not. He was a straight shooter. His skillset right now, he’s currently one of the top two to four best ballhandlers in the game. He can go anywhere he wants. I don’t need for you to pick for me, bro. I can get to the cup, I can get to my spots, and you better pick me up at halfcourt because I can shoot from half court, too. His ballhandling skills are off the charts now. Pete, Isiah and Kyrie were more penetrators. Kyrie shoots more jumpers now, but when you saw him play in Cleveland, he was penetrating. I’m complimenting Curry on his gift of perfecting his ballhandling skills. Early on he wasn’t breaking people down like he does now.

Although lead guards are scoring more now than ever before, Chris Paul is still the ultimate pass-first quarterback on the floor.

Chris Paul is unbelievable. I watch him and it’s unreal he can still do what he do on these young guys. He knows the game. He knows the areas where he can attack. I know he went to school and he must have been a geometry major because he knows angles and stuff and has that down. He’s a professor. Some guys have their undergraduate degree and some have their masters. He’s a professor at what he does. You might say he’s too old to do what he does. Too old? How is he getting 5 to 10 feet from the basket when you have a guy on him who are faster, stronger and younger on him? Because he has knowledge on how to break guys down. That’s what he does. He’s a better passer than anyone else in the league. When it comes to crunch time, he breaks the defense down. He gets into the heat of the defense. See, he wants to beat you first, so once he gets over the pick, what happens? A big man will come and they don’t want to guard him because they don’t know where he is going. His danger is from 15 feet and in. The situation with his pull up, you don’t know when he is going to shoot. He knows he can get to his area. It’s in the heat of your defense. You don’t know if he’s gonna shoot cause he knows he has some finishers. He don’t turn the ball over that much. At his age, he’s a professor.

Russell Westbrook with the Lakers and James Harden with the Nets have struggled at times this season. What do you think is going on?

James needs Kyrie. People can disagree with me but I don’t care. James is trying to figure out his teammates. Remember he was hurt last year and then they got almost a new team. He’s scoring a little less, taking less shots but passing the ball more. That’s amazing to me because if you watched him in Houston, he didn’t pass the ball at all. He’s not getting that many foul calls – got to be the fewest he ever got in his career. Plus he was trying to play himself into shape. He’s gonna figure it out. He has to do more scoring.

I know Russell Westbrook is happy to be in Lala land. I thought he would be a good fit for them. Playing with LeBron is an adjustment he has to make. I love Westbrook’s game but he’s not playing the same way. You gotta take a backseat to LeBron but when LeBron was out they were still bad. If you’re a coach, you need to let Westbrook play more with the second unit. When he was with the Wizards, nobody could stop him.

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