Greatest NBA Passers Ever
When evaluating the top passers in NBA history, one might be tempted to make a fast break for the record books and simply count down which players had the most assists.
That’s a good place to start, since no one would dispute Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, John Stockton and Magic Johnson put on some of the game's most mesmerizing passing displays.
But any student of the sport knows that passing the ball is about more than nifty court generals going behind their backs or lobbing perfect alley-oops on their way to highlights shows.
Some of the sport’s most gifted passers were prolific shooters and dominant big men who had an innate sense for the perfect moment to distribute the ball just as defenses were closing in. Their keen instincts and dead-eye accuracy in moving the ball to the right player at the right time could be overlooked among their other feats on the court.
That's why the 20 greatest passers in NBA history are a combination of statistical leaders, acrobatic showmen and all-around greats better known for taking the ball to the hoop than handing it off.
Note: All numbers for active players are through Feb. 10, 2019.
#20: Michael Jordan
Years in NBA: 15 (1984-93, 1994-98, 2001-03)
Teams: Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards
Games played: 1,072
Assists: 5,633 (5.3 per game)
Championships: 6 (1992, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)
Let's begin with the greatest player of all time.
Michael Jordan was a monster scorer from the moment he stepped onto an NBA court, but Air Jordan could do much more than drive to the hoop. In fact, Jordan’s unparalleled athleticism was often seen in his passing prowess, and he could dominate the stat sheet in assists and points.
Take, for instance, his 29-point, 14-assist effort in a crucial 1993 playoff win over the New York Knicks, when no other teammate topped three assists.
Still, nothing proves Jordan passing skills more than his performance in the 1991 NBA Finals, when he twice dished 13 assists (topping Magic Johnson’s total in both games) to lead the Bulls over the Los Angeles Lakers for the team 's first NBA title.
#19: Wilt Chamberlain
Years in NBA: 15 (1959-73)
Teams: Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers
Games played: 1,045
Assists: 4,643 (4.4 per game)
Championships: 2 (1967, 1972)
The greatest passing center in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain, like Jordan, tends to be remembered only for his amazing shotmaking ability.
A center leading the NBA in assists seems about as likely as a point guard leading the league in rebounds. But that’s what the four-time NBA MVP accomplished in 1967-68 when he collected a league-high 702 assists, averaging 8.6 a game.
His passing ability was on full display in the 1967 playoffs, when he averaged nine assists per game in leading the Philadelphia 76ers to their first NBA title.
The playoff run included a 19-assist performance (topping Oscar Robertson’s 13) in a victory over the Cincinnati Royals.
#18: Ricky Rubio
Years in NBA: 8 (2011-present)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz
Games played: 479
Assists: 3,699 (7.7 per game)
Our list of flashy point guards starts with this Spaniard, who has averaged more than eight assists a game in five of his first eight seasons in the NBA. The current Utah Jazz star also has totaled at least 14 assists in a game in each season he’s been in the league.
But numbers alone don’t do justice to Ricky Rubio’s effortless style when it comes to moving the basketball.
Before he stepped foot in the NBA, Rubio already was a passing legend in the Spanish league, earning the nickname "La Pistola," in honor of "Pistol Pete" Maravich, who knew a thing or two about dishing the ball.
#17: Tim Hardaway
Years in NBA: 13 (1989-2003)
Teams: Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers
Games played: 867
Assists: 7,095 (8.2 per game)
Also a great shooter, this five-time All-Star did enough passing to teammates like Chris Mullin, Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond during his career to rank 16th on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
Tim Hardaway, one of the game’s most entertaining point guards during the 1990s, averaged at least 10 assists a game three times during his career. In Game 4 of a 1991 playoff series, he outpassed Magic Johnson in a losing effort, totaling 20 assists compared with Magic’s 12.
#16: Andre Miller
Years in NBA: 17 (1999-2016)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs
Games played: 1,304
Assists: 8,524 (6.5 per game)
Nicknamed "The Professor," Andre Miller did plenty of schooling in the art of passing during his 17-year NBA career, ranking 10th all-time in assists.
Miller led the league with 10.9 assists per game for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2001-02. That year, he also collected a career-high 22 assists in a loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers.
#15: Gary Payton
Years in NBA: 17 (1990-2007)
Teams: Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat
Games played: 1,335
Assists: 8,966 (6.7 per game)
Championships: 1 (2006)
"The Glove" got a lot of attention for his trash-talking skills during his nearly two-decade career, but his ability to move the ball was every bit as impressive as his ability to move his mouth.
Surprisingly enough, Payton only led the league in total assists once during his career (and never in assists per game), but his consistency was enough to land him at eighth place on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
The nine-time All-Star averaged at least eight assists a game in seven seasons.
#14: Pete Maravich
Years in NBA: 10 (1970-80)
Teams: Atlanta Hawks New Orleans Jazz, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics
Games played: 658
Assists: 3,563 (5.4 per game)
One of the sport’s all-time great showmen, "Pistol Pete" Maravich only ranks 149th all-time in assists, but what he lacked in passing quantity, he more than made up for in quality.
Maravich was a true magician when it came to ballhandling, as exemplified by his signature feigned two-handed pass.
His passing numbers surely would have been more impressive if not for the fact he also was an explosive scorer and had the misfortune of playing much of his career on weak teams that offered little reason for him to give up the ball.
#13: Jason Williams
Years in NBA: 12 (1998-2008, 2009-2011)
Teams: Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic,
Games played: 588
Assists: 4,611 (5.9 per game)
Championships: 1 (2006)
Unlike most players on this list, the man nicknamed "White Chocolate" never will find a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. He never even made an All-Star Game and only ranks 77th on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
But like Maravich, Jason Williams made up in style and showmanship what he lacked in raw numbers. With his incredible ballhandling, Williams was a one-man circus act. His gifts went beyond his hands, as he showed with his incredible behind-the-back elbow pass.
Win or lose, plays like that made Williams one of the sport’s all-time great, and most unforgettable, passers.
#12: Mark Jackson
Years in NBA: 17 (1987-2004)
Teams: New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets
Games played: 1,296
Assists: 10,334 (8.0 per game)
Some may find it surprising that Mark Jackson ranks No. 4 on the NBA’s all-time assists list, ahead even of Magic Johnson and only one behind third-place Steve Nash.
Jackson was a picture of consistency during his 17-year career, leading the league in assists only once (and making only one All-Star Game) but averaging at least 8 assists per game in 11 seasons.
Playing for the Denver Nuggets, he had a career-high 22 assists in a game against the New Jersey Nets in 1997.
#11: Rajon Rondo
Years in NBA: 12 (2006-present)
Teams: Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers
Games played: 801
Assists: 6,778 (8.5 per game)
Championships: 1 (2008)
Rajon Rondo currently ranks 21st all-time in assists and figures to keep climbing the ladder before he calls it a career. He has led the league in assists per game three times and averaged more than 11 per game in four of his 12-plus seasons.
The four-time All-Star helped lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA title in 2008, but his most impressive playoff passing performance came in 2012, when he averaged 11.9 assists in 19 postseason games.
His passing game has shown few signs of slowing down with age, as evidenced by his career-high 25-assist performance for the New Orleans Pelicans against the Brooklyn Nets in December 2017.
#10: Bob Cousy
Years in NBA: 14 (1950-63, 1969-70)
Teams: Boston Celtics, Cincinnati Royals
Games played: 924
Assists: 6,955 (7.5 per game)
Championships: 6 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963)
The "Houdini of the Hardwood" was far and away the game’s greatest passer during the 1950s, leading the league in assists eight consecutive seasons from 1952 to 1960 as he helped build the Boston Celtics dynasty.
The 13-time All-Star was just as lethal in the playoffs as the Celtics rolled to six NBA titles during his career. In 1957 and 1959, he posted 19-assist playoff games.
Cousy had his best season passing the ball in 1959-60, when he averaged 9.5 assists per game, and ranks 18th all-time in assists.
#9: Chris Paul
Years in NBA: 14 (2005-19)
Teams: New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, New Orleans Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets
Games played: 924
Assists: 8,961 (9.7 per game)
Chris Paul has earned the nickname "The Point God" in large part due to his electrifying ability to distribute the ball. Now in his 14th season, he ranks ninth in NBA history in assists, and is within striking distance of Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas, the two directly ahead of him on the list.
The nine-time All-Star has led the league in assists average four times, and averaged at least 10 assists per game in six seasons.
His career average of 9.7 assists per game is third all-time behind legends John Stockton and Magic Johnson.
#8: Larry Bird
Years in NBA: 13 (1979-92)
Teams: Boston Celtics
Games played: 897
Assists: 5,695 (6.3 per game)
Championships: 3 (1981, 1984, 1986)
Like Jordan, Larry Bird was much better known for his shooting prowess than his passing skills during a legendary NBA career, but few players in history were as deft at finding the open man as "Larry Legend." At times, Bird seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, and he could thread the needle to find a teammate streaking to the basket as skillfully as he could drain a 3-pointer.
Bird ranks only 41st on the NBA’s career assists list, but that’s still an impressive total for a shooting forward who wasn’t his team’s primary ballhandler. And he will forever own one of the most memorable passes in NBA playoff history, the last-second steal and pass to Dennis Johnson for the win in the 1987 playoffs against the Detroit Pistons.
#7: Isiah Thomas
Years in NBA: 13 (1981-94)
Teams: Detroit Pistons
Games played: 979
Assists: 9,061 (9.3 per game)
Championships: 2 (1989, 1990)
The "Baby-Faced Assassin" was the engine that drove the Pistons' "Bad Boys" championship teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. A 12-time All-Star, Isiah Thomas could slice and dice opposing defenses with both his shooting and passing skills.
Thomas led the league in assists per game at 13.9 in 1984-85, the same season he posted a career-high 25-assist performance against the Dallas Mavericks.
He ranks seventh all-time on the NBA’s career assists list.
#6: Oscar Robertson
Years in NBA: 14 (1960-74)
Teams: Cincinnati Royals, Milwaukee Bucks
Games played: 1,040
Assists: 9,877 (9.5 per game)
Championships: 1 (1971)
"Mr. Triple Double" led the NBA in assists per game seven times during his illustrious career, and his career assists total places him sixth all-time.
Oscar Robertson’s skill in distributing the ball also helped make him the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season, a feat he accomplished in 1960-61 when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
The 12-time All-Star averaged 8.9 assists during the 1970-71 playoffs, when he led the Milwaukee Bucks to the championship.
#5: LeBron James
Years in NBA: 16 (2003-present)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers
Games played: 1,181
Assists: 8,490 (7.2 per game)
Championships: 3 (2012, 2013, 2016)
The highest-ranked non-point guard on our list, LeBron James has helped cement his place as one of the most versatile and dominant all-around players in NBA history with his passing ability.
In fact, one of the few knocks on "King James" over the years is that he’s been too willing at times to give up the ball, often to teammates who were not nearly as equipped to convert at the hoop as he was.
James currently ranks 11th all-time in assists but is already No. 1 when it comes to players who didn’t primarily play the point. With a career average of more than seven assists per game, he’s ranked in the top 10 in the category in 10 seasons and has had at least one game with 12 or more assists in each of his 16 seasons.
#4: Steve Nash
Years in NBA: 18 (1996-2014)
Teams: Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers
Games played: 1,217
Assists: 10,335 (8.5 per game)
The two-time NBA MVP made his name with his ability to dish the ball, ranking third all-time in career assists. Perhaps there was no more unselfish player in NBA history.
Steve Nash was so inclined to pass the ball rather than shoot it that one of his coaches, Don Nelson, threatened to fine him if he didn’t attempt at least 10 field goals a game.
An eight-time All-Star, Nash led the league in assists average five times, topping 11 per game in four seasons. He totaled a career-high 23 assists in a 2007 Phoenix Suns playoff win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
#3: Jason Kidd
Years in NBA: 19 (1994-2003)
Teams: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks
Games played: 1,391
Assists: 12,091 (8.7 per game)
Championships: 1 (2011)
The 10-time All-Star ranks No. 2 all-time in career assists behind only John Stockton. Kidd led the league in assists per game five times and registered a career-high 25 assists in a 1996 win over Stockton’s Jazz.
The ageless guard was still picking apart defenses in his 15th NBA season, when he averaged 8.2 assists per game in leading the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship.
He ranked among the league’s top 10 in assists per game an incredible 17 seasons.
#2: John Stockton
Years in NBA: 19 (1984-2003)
Teams: Utah Jazz
Games played: 1,504
Assists: 15,806 (10.5 per game)
The NBA’s all-time assists leader spent nearly two decades baffling opposing defenses with the Utah Jazz, teaming with Karl Malone to form the most prolific passing and scoring duo in league history.
John Stockton, a 10-time All-Star, led the league in assists per game nine times, including twice averaging more than 14 per game. He set the single-season assist average record with 14.5 during the 1989-90 regular season.
Remarkably, Stockton averaged double figures in assists for 10 consecutive seasons from 1987 to 1996.
#1: Magic Johnson
Years in NBA: 13 (1979-91, 1995-96)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers
Games played: 906
Assists: 10,141 (11.2 per game)
Championships: 5 (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
Magic Johnson’s inimitable ability to move the basketball in electrifying fashion is what earned him the nickname "Magic" and crowned his 1980s Los Angeles Lakers "Showtime." He is indisputably the greatest, most entertaining passer the sport has ever known.
The only player in history to average more than 11 assists per game for his career, the three-time NBA MVP led the league in assists per game four times and averaged double digits in the category nine consecutive seasons from 1983 to 91.
Had his career not been cut short by his HIV diagnosis, he likely would stand today as the league’s all-time assists leader. The four players ahead of him all played in at least 300 more games than Magic did.