Sensational passers have the ability to impact the game in ways that other players cannot. Players that don’t seem to be open can be suddenly whipped the ball from the most precise angle at exactly the right time, forcing defenses to stay aware at all times. Passing however, should not be confused with playmaking. Playmaking refers to the volume of shots created, which can be done in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, passing is the physical act of releasing the ball to a teammate.
For the purposes of this list, passers are ranked on a combination of their ability to make difficult passes, release quick passes and deliver passes to teammates in angles that are not obvious. Statistics such as assists per game and assist to turnover ratio can give a quick proxy of who the best passers are, but do not tell the full story. Of course, other factors tend to play an indirect role in a player’s passing acumen as well. An excellent shooter will force the defense to react differently to their ball-handling, which in turn may increase their passing options.
10. Oscar Robertson
Years Active: 1960-1974
Assists: 9,887 (9.5 apg)
Oscar “Big O” Robertson is widely recognized as one of the first legitimate large point guards in the NBA at 6’5″. Playing in an era with no three point line and strict assist requirements, he still managed to become the very epitome of versatility. While not possessing some of the same panache on his passes as others on this list, Oscar often found the open man and dished the ball exactly where his teammates could catch it. His versatility kept defenses honest at all times and he never needed to force the action as a result.
Years active: 1984-2003
Assists: 15,806 (10.5 apg)
Known primarily for his longevity and absolute strangle-hold on the total assists record, John Stockton is unquestionably one of the all-time great passers in NBA history. Though some unfairly try to pin his success on his pick-and-roll partner, Karl Malone, Stockton is without doubt a legend in his own right. Much like Robertson, he was not a flashy passer but was effective in getting it to his teammates where needed. Holding him back from a higher place on this list however is that Stockton was not exactly known for his ability to complete high difficulty passes, largely because he didn’t attempt them.
8. Larry Bird
Years active: 1979-1992
Assists: 5,695 (6.3 apg)
Larry Legend is perhaps more famous for his sharpshooting exploits than his elite passing. Make no mistake however, his passing was elite. Despite not being a point guard, or tasked with being the primary playmaker, Bird’s court vision was exceptional by any measure. Never one to miss an open teammate, he also possessed deft hands and could make instant decisions on the fly with his passing. As a result, the ball never stagnated and his assist numbers though good for his position, clearly do not do justice to his passing ability.
7. Chris Paul
Years active: 2005-Present*
Assists: 9,653 (9.5 apg)*
Point God Chris Paul is actually more well-known for his playmaking than his passing, but that’s only because he’s potentially the best playmaker in NBA history. Possessing the ability to throw accurate passes with either hand, complete passes at tight angles and find the open man, Paul’s case for an all-time passer is hardly in question. Paul would be higher on this list were it not for his tendency to over-dribble not force passes to his teammates deep into the shot clock.
Years active: 1970-1980
Assists: 3,563 (5.4 apg)
The late, great “Pistol Pete Maravich” largely revolutionized the flashy pass. Far from being all sizzle and no steak however, Pistol Pete had an array of passes in his arsenal that kept defenses guessing. Maravich was the rare combination of flash and substance on the very highest level.
5. Steve Nash
Years active: 1996-2015
Assists: 10,335 (8.5 apg)
Though somewhat of a late bloomer in terms of reaching his full potential as a player, Nash was always a great passer. Nash was a wily wizard with the ball, able to weave in and out of defenses effortlessly and always a threat to score or dish at the perfect time. Rather than force the action, Nash knew how to perfectly read and react to the defense, something his teammates benefitted immensely from.
4. Jason Kidd
Years active: 1994-2013
Assists: 12,091 (8.7 apg)
Contemporary and one-time teammate of the previous entrant on this list, Jason Kidd personifies the term floor general. Essentially an extension of the coach on the court, Jason Kidd was an extremely high-IQ player that both found his teammates and created opportunities for them that was not necessarily there. His laser accurate passes and above average size at his position helped keep him elite deep into his impressive career.
Years active: 1998-2008; 2009-2011
Assists: 4,611 (5.9 apg)
“White Chocolate” as Williams is often affectionately referred to as is the definition of a passing legend. As some take pride in their shooting or defense, such was Williams with his craft. Jason consistently demonstrated an elite level of passing creativity, court vision and consistency. Casual fans may know and revere him for his over the top flashy passes, but he was not attempting any passes that wasn’t fully within his skillset to make. Much in the vein of Pete Maravich before him, Williams knew what he was great at and leaned fully into it.
2. LeBron James
Years active: 2003-Present*
Assists: 9,346 (7.4 apg)*
LeBron obviously requires no introduction. As arguably the greatest player in league history, his passing acumen is a large part of what keeps him in that conversation. Unlike some passers on this list, LeBron’s passing toolbox is full. Able to make touch passes, quick passes, and create opportunities that did not exist. Flashy passing is not a staple of his game, but he has proven more than capable of completing those as well. All of this allows LeBron to control the pace of the game. He does not react to the defense, he dictates what the defense reacts to.
1. Earvin Johnson
Years active: 1979-1991; 1996
Assists: 10,141 (11.2 apg)
Magic Johnson was a giant point guard with a very well-earned nickname. Able to make seemingly any pass at anytime, Magic had a reputation for making defenses look silly. Magic had the high IQ also seen in LeBron James and the flash factor of Jason Williams. Though he could make difficult passes, he made them look easy. Magic controlled the game with his free-flowing passes and offense generating talents.
Nikola Jokic– Nikola is re-defining “position-less” basketball as a point center. Jokic has impeccable timing and enviable court vision. Still a young player, he can potentially earn a spot on this list in the future.
Isiah Thomas– Isiah’s exclusion from this list says more about the level of passers that have competed than it says about his abilities. A quintessential floor general, an argument could certainly be made for his inclusion.
Mark Jackson– though not a flashy passer, Jackson established his reputation in the league by making the right play, a penchant for completing difficult passes and his unselfish attitude on the floor.
*Accurate as of 11/1/2020.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.