1-on-1 basketball is an interesting thing. It strips away any advantages a player might have with his teammates, be it the style of play, chemistry or team camaraderie.
When a player is on his own, facing up against a sole opponent there’s a microscope bearing down on every flaw and every quality he may have.
Whilst Stephen Curry’s season has been remarkable, garnering the first ever unanimous MVP award in the NBA’s history, is he really the best when he suits up alone against a singular opponent? And if not, who is?
Steph Curry: 1-on-1 MVP?
There’s a reason this man has won the MVP for the last two years. Curry’s improvements for the Golden State Warriors have known no bounds.
Since being drafted in 2009, Curry has transcended all expectations of an NBA point guard. He’s become one of the most recognisable people in global sports and the NBA’s most feared offensive players.
Whilst his long range shooting fills hours upon hours of highlight reels, it’s not only this which makes him one of the best 1-on-1 players on the planet. In fact, it’s his ‘ball on a string’ handles and his craftiness which makes him so hard to stop.
If you play up on him to stop his jump shot, he’ll fly right by you. If you try to second guess his first step, he has the ability to stop on a dime and shoot in your grill – even some of the best defenders in the league have learnt the hard way guarding Steph in an iso play-set.
The biggest weakness in Curry’s 1-on-1 game is his lack of size and athleticism, meaning if he were to go up against a longer and stronger player, he’d likely struggle to be effective on the defensive side of the ball.
Jamal Crawford: Streetball on the Hardwood
“I feel like I can get any shot I want,” claims Crawford, via his musings within the Players’ Tribune.
“That’s not to sound cocky or conceited. It’s because I’ve played basketball basically every day of my life. So at some point, I’ve taken just about every shot there is. I know where to use the glass, which dribble I need and which spot I want to reach.”
“Because of that, I know I can get a clean look and get it up there.”
He’s a confident player, and he has a right to be. He’s well known for being one of the best sixth men to ever grace the league, but he’s also one of the best isolation players as well.
Unlike Curry, he hasn’t got quite the same range, but he’s less predictable than a toddler on a sugar high, and it makes him nearly impossible to guard.
Add to this a near-freakish ability to pull up at any time during a chosen dribble move and, as a defender, you’ll find yourself doing jumping jacks each time Crawford even thinks about shooting the ball. This has given him the enviable record of over 50 four point plays over the course of his lengthy career.
However, it’s defense once again which sets Crawford back in 1-on-1 play, with his wiry frame unlikely to act as a good repellent for other NBA elite players.
Kawhi Leonard: The Best Defensive Player in the Game
You want defense? Then look no further. Kawhi Leonard isn’t scared of doing the dirty work, and it’s earned him Defensive Player of the Year honours for the last two seasons.
Simply put, if you want to put your money on a guy who can stop an opponent scoring, this is your man.
Leonard’s length, footwork and general defensive awareness is impossible to overlook, and it makes him a fearsome 1-on-1 opponent. What’s more, he can extend his jump shot to the three-point line and is a powerful finisher around the rim.
His downfall is his fairly average ball handling ability. Whilst he can hold his own in a full game, when up against another elite player, he doesn’t quite match-up when putting the ball on the floor, and could struggle to find a reliable go-to move to open some space.
Kevin Durant: Seven Foot Guard
When you think of seven-footers, you’ll be forgiven for picturing lumbering centers throwing up jump hooks from less than 10 feet from the basket. This is what makes Kevin Durant one of the best 1-on-1 ballers in the league, because he has that kind of height with a skill set not too dissimilar from a guard.
Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson claimed earlier on this season that ‘nobody is scared of playing Kevin Durant’ – we’d disagree with that statement.
Whilst he may not look the strongest or quickest player in the league, Durant has the ability to rise up and shoot over almost any defender in the league. If you fall for a jump fake, he’ll stride by you with consummate ease, and if you somehow recover you’re more than likely to be on the wrong side of a poster.
His ball handling is like that of a guard, making him a nightmare to contend with off the dribble, and if he decides to go and bang down low, you might as well concede the game there and then. Also, unlike the guards in this list, he can guard all five positions on the floor thanks to his size.
Even the recently retired Kobe Bryant has given his support to KD’s 1-on-1 abilities, via CBSSports:
“Kevin Durant is the guy that would give me the most trouble [in a 1-on-1 situation]. With his length and ability to use the dribble, he'd be tough.”
With one of the NBA’s best ever backing his case, is anyone a tougher assignment than KD? It’s an interesting question, and one which could forever be a mystery, unless the NBA fancies making a 1-on-1 tourney an event in upcoming all-star weekends.
Now that’s something we’d love to see…