A typical Mavericks practice ends with each player shooting free throws and jump shots before heading up, one-by-one, to the locker room. This season, however, there’s an extra step. Every player spends time with Johnny Stephene in an effort to improve their ball-handling. That might seem like an odd thing for professional basketball players to work on, but everyone in the Mavs organization would tell you otherwise.
What’s more unique than an NBA team hiring a ball-handling coach through training camp is how Stephene, also known as “Johnny Dribbles,” came to be involved with the club, and only in this era would it be possible. Stephene’s Instagram account, dribble2much, is incredibly popular — the coach has more than 980,000 followers and a successful business.
What started with videos of Stephene showing off some impressive moves soon turned into one-on-one sessions with NBA players like Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, and Nate Robinson, and a business called Handlelife. Soon, Mavs player development coach Mike Procopio took notice and, working with proprietor Mark Cuban, recruited Stephene to work with the rookies shortly after the NBA Draft. After a few days’ work, head coach Rick Carlisle and the Mavs invited him back to work with the team throughout training camp. The result: a mutually beneficial partnership that has led to noted improvement up and down the roster.
“It’s an awesome relationship. I really love coach Carlisle, I really love the way he handles the team,” Stephene said. “It’s a blessing to be able to learn under a coach that just recently won a championship. He’s really direct, to the point, great sense of humor as well, but he also gets the job done.”
“He’s been a real positive here,” Carlisle said of the coach. “He’s been with us all summer. He’s a positive, upbeat guy who’s got a very good reputation.”
Added a joking Carlisle: “Somebody told me he’s got like 2 million Instagram followers or something like that. He must be popular.”
Some might wonder why pros would need to sharpen ball-handling, but you’d be surprised how often players neglect that area of their game as they get older. Many bigger forwards and centers, for example, typically don’t spend any time handling the ball in games, so why would coaches ask them to work on dribbling in practice? But, as Carlisle and Stephene agree, it’s becoming more and more important for every player to be able to operate effectively on the ball. One thing the head coach brought up specifically after the Mavs drafted Justin Anderson this summer was his goal of adding an off-the-dribble game to the rookie’s arsenal.
“We just feel like playmaking is such an important part of the game now,” Carlisle said. “If we can bring in a guy to help all of our guys even a little bit with their ball-handling and playmaking abilities, that’s a big help to our team.”
Stephene’s sessions with the younger players during camp have been open to the media, and they’re a sight to see. Most, if not all, of the drills involve each player dribbling two basketballs simultaneously. First, the players bounce them in unison and then staggered at their ankles, then the knee, then the hip, and all the way up to the shoulders.
Then it’s time for the mind-boggling stuff, like dribbling one ball behind the back and the other between the legs, or crossing one ball in front of the other and then back behind it again. While complex, the drills are not excessive. Players like Stephen Curry and James Harden thrive on making seemingly impossible dribble moves en route to the rim, and it’s because they’re so comfortable on the ball. Stephene said it all starts with exercises like the ones he has the Mavs working on.
“You’re not gonna see players playing with two basketballs in a game, but it gives the player a sense of security and freedom,” he said. “If he can do it with two basketballs, it’s easier to control one.”
Whether he’s working with one player or eight, Stephene’s demeanor doesn’t seem to change. He’s relaxed, sure, but he keeps the intensity of his workouts high. Each drill lasts no longer than 10 seconds (or sometimes 10 bounces) and there’s no rest before the next one. And while dribbling might only work out your arms, watching the faces of any player working with Stephene will show just how hard they’re working to maintain control. Running sprints might be physically taxing, but there aren’t many more things you can do more mentally strenuous than alternately bouncing two balls in different directions. So far, Stephene has been pleased with the team’s progress, but a few guys have stood out to this point.
“Wesley Matthews works really hard on his handles,” he said. “When I work with him he gives me 100 percent. All the guys give me 100 percent. John Jenkins is improving, and Chandler Parsons is surprisingly really good with two basketballs. He’s improving as well.”
As is the case with anything else, ball-handling perfection takes practice. Stephene has been at it for years — having played professional ball himself before entering the coaching and clinic sphere — but he’s already noticed the fruits of his pupils’ labor around the league. And considering the amount of time he’s spent with the Mavericks this summer, the ball should be in good hands this season, no matter who’s dribbling.