The best guards are the ones who can go where they want to go with the ball, despite what the other team is throwing at them. Essentially, the best guards can penetrate through the heart of the defense in order to better threaten for a score (or easy scoring opportunity for a teammate). Of course, not all guards/wing players are built the same. Though, you do have your archetypes . . .
The Blur: These guys have existed in the NBA since the Cenozoic era. They are short in stature, keep their dribble low, and rely upon blinding speed to get from Point A to Point B. Examples of this include Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Michael Adams, Muggsy Bogues and Avery Johnson. Modern incarnations may be a little bit taller (like the actually 6’0 Chris Paul), or a little bit stronger (like Nate Robinson). These guys all have amazing handles and often go deep into the lane and score amongst the trees. Probably the best examples of this type of player would be Isiah Thomas or Allen Iverson.
Mr.Quick first step: These players rely less upon their top speed, and more on their quick trigger muscles. They utilize a series of triple threat moves (ball fakes, jab steps, etc), or nothing at all, to unnerve their defender. With a drop of a hat (or more often, with the batting of an eyelid) these players explode into decisive motion while their defender fails to react. Another, obvious, component of having a quick first step is having a long stride. Taller guards who have both quickness and length display this form of penetration beautifully. Naturally, Michael Jordan possessed both attributes and mastered the quick first step. Behold! Today some of the best at this were guys who grew up and emulated Jordan’s move in their individual periods of basketball development: Vince Carter (think Toronto version), Tracy McGrady (think Orlando version) and yes, Kobe Bryant.
The Pure Athlete: These guys aren’t top speed demons like Chris Paul, nor do they have all that it takes to be Quick first step artists . . . but they do possess some combination of the two, have ridiculous length and hops. It’s not that they have all the tools needed to get into the lane at any cost, but more of what they can do when they are in the lane that counts. Dr.J fits the bill here, same with guys like Dominique Wilkins and today’s versions: Andre Iguodala, Ronnie Brewer and Jason Richardson. After reviewing these types of players on YouTube I’ve come to the decision that everyone should watch this Top 10 video featuring just Scottie Pippen highlights … not just because he proves my point, but because of the crazy music in the background.
The Guy with all the Moves: Obviously at some stage, players can fit into more than one of these categories. Yes, a young Vince Carter had a great first step, but let’s not forget that he was among the top 5 most athletic players in the history of the sport as well; so a player like Vince could easily be placed in the quick step *or* pure athlete category. This is not what I mean when I say “guy with all the moves” though; while Vince is nice here, he’s not a true acrobat who drives the lane like an elusive running back: juking, spinning, side-stepping, hesitating his way to the goal line.
Some NBA players have mastered this form of penetration which allows them to use practiced talent and a learned skill to take them where others rely on purely physical abilities to go. Guys with all the moves do have to have speed, quickness and athletic ability as well, but these players string together a sequence of moves almost effortlessly – the only physical force these guys rely upon is momentum. (Like these kids in Russia displaying some of their parcour prowess: this video gets crazy at the 2:19 mark – watch at least 60 seconds of this video from that mark onwards, watch longer if you want to see this kid free run away from a dog in some guy’s private property.)
Additionally, these players have the over-all best handles in the game that allows them to use their Running back/Parcour movement skills while still holding onto the ball. Guys with all the moves eventually get from Point A to Point B, even if it takes a Point C, D and E to get there first. You may be familiar with their go-to move . . . the Crossover. Examples of guys who have all the moves include Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Ball Don’t Lie’s Bedlam ‘09 Tournament winner: Deron Williams.
While this post was mostly to categorize the different types of ways guards get into the lane, I kind of wanted to touch on how bigger guys get there (and the chance to post a few more links to videos).
The Freight Train: For the majority of these guard type movement skills, strength is an afterthought. Pure Athletes and some guys with all the moves do need strength to finish the plays they start. But they are a far cry for how forwards and centers start, follow through, and finish plays with strength. Some of these hulks take the concept of momentum to a whole new level as they plow through the lane, dispassionately going through anyone in their way. Not only are these guys big, but they are all also great at running the floor – regardless of their size.
We’ve all seen that Charles Barkley clip where he has a full head of steam and goes coast to coast for a two hander where his momentum swings him around the entire basket support system. (1:56 in this 10 minute video) This is a prime example of the Freight Train. Other players we can easily include in this category are Karl Malone, Amaré Stoudemire and, of course, LeBron James.
The Black Tornado (only one player ever): Someone like Vince, Jordan, T-Mac or Wade may defy the laws of gravity. That’s nice. They are able to bend the rules of the natural world to pull off extraordinary moves.
Other guys are forces of nature altogether. You don’t need to bend any rules when you make the rules. Shaquille O’Neal took pity on our world, and self-banned this move which he called “The Black Tornado” – a move that he himself agreed was “illegal.” Take cover below!
It is only natural that players of different sizes, speeds, talents and ability would evolve different ways of getting into the lane. Penetration is usually the initiation of good things on offense, as players create advantageous passing angles, draw in defenders, or just plan dunk it on people themselves. Take notice of this, and enjoy these categories as you watch the upcoming season!
EDIT: I completely forgot this category:
The guy who does not look pretty dribbling, but makes amazing passes: Sometimes God gives you seemingly conflicting gifts. For one, you could be 6’9 and a great passer. Unfortunately for you, you are so tall that in order for you to dribble the ball effectively, yet not actually leave it wide open to get stolen from you, you have a really ugly dribble. Not every big guy who dribbles does it poorly, Lamar Odom has a very nice looking dribble and has a great handle with the ball. Magic Johnson also had a great handle on the ball, but he really had to pound the heck out of the ball to make sure it got back up to him fast enough that the guys who defended him (big time steals guys like Isiah Thomas, Alvin Robertson, Mo Cheeks, John Stockton, etc) did not pick his pocket each time down the floor. It was far from the prettiest dribble in the half-court set.
The modern player who immediately comes to mind when I think of guys who pass well, but don’t look like they can dribble at all is Andrei Kirilenko. This is a guy who has played point guard internationally and in the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs – yet Jazz fans cringe whenever he drives to the basket. We don’t trust his dribbling skills at all – yet he does some really amazing things with the ball on occasion (not unlike Magic) with passes: through defenders legs (can’t find the vid of him doing this to Bosh); behind the back passes; no look passes (0:26); over the shoulder on a fast break (0:43); spinning through the lane (2:11); on the run in traffic with no eye-contact with any of your teammates passes; passes through his OWN legs; and so forth. Very good passer, and very creative player – he just looks like he’s murdering a goose when he dribbles. (really, the video to the left is a mixtape which starts out with him dribbling off his foot, and his goose killing continues at the 0:20 mark!)