No Days Off: Jay Hernandez On How To Get Expert Handles

Jay Hernandez has been training basketball players of all ages for over a decade. He’s worked with everyone from high school kids to Kemba Walker and Wally Szczerbiak. And as a basketball performance coach, his forte is ballhandling.

Growing up as a star at St. Dominic High School on Long Island, and then even playing professionally in Puerto Rico, the kid Wally called Hot Sauce was known for his ridiculous shake moves and dribble drives. With his playing days over, he’s since parlayed that into a thriving company called Pro Hoops, working year-round with players on their skills.

I caught up with Hernandez recently to talk about how best to train to gain expert handles.

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Are you training players right now?
Jay Hernandez: Yeah. I do everything from mostly high school girls and guys to the college and then pro guys. We got other guys coming back now into town and getting ready to get workouts in. Most of the guys take a little bit of time off but then they start getting back into it right about now for the next month and a half hard before they go back overseas or get ready for training camp.

You’re doing it full-time, all year?
JH: Yeah, this is it. This is our 10-year anniversary of the company and it’s been going well. We just finished up with the draft and we do two-a-days, two days a week. We had six core guys and a couple guys that rotated. Usually that’s like 8:30-3:30 and then I drive from there to my other gym and then I go from 4:00 to 10:00 with my high school and my other college guys so it’s been hectic. But it’s that time of year so it’s good.

You’ve been a great ballhandler since you were a kid, talk about how you worked on that.
JH: I tell this story when I do lectures. When I grew up, I had a tumor in my right ear that basically crushed everything in my ear. I had to have surgery to get to remove it and then another surgery the following year to do reconstruction so I could regain my hearing. I had over 10 major operations. Part of the reason why my handles got pretty good from the standpoint of coordination and stuff like that as a kid was because I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t swim or do anything. The only thing I was allowed to do was ballhandling drills. That’s how the foundation for me started. At the time, I just did reps of crossovers, betweens, behinds. There really was no time limit. It was really until I got comfortable with what I was doing at full speed over and over again.

What I would do was what I called freestyle handles. I’d play one of my favorite songs and I’d try to freestyle through the whole song. Then I’d actually take a rest period during that time and either go right into push-ups or something like that or I’d rest and then I’d go back to another song. I usually did that for three songs and I was just freestyle. It was a good way for me to get into my offensive stance and really work out on things. It got me into a situation where I was really reading or feeling moves.

The other thing that I would do was a whole left-handed series. I’d do stuff strictly with the left hand both while I was playing and off. I remember being a kid and trying to write the alphabet with my left hand, eat food with my left hand, brush my teeth with my left hand, anything I could do with my left hand so that my motor skills would be better and get more coordinated. I do drills specifically with my left hand. I’d do two off dribbles, then hard low dribbles and then two back up high dribbles and five low. I’d do that for a minute. I’d do the same thing with an inside-out. I’d do two really slow, high inside-outs then I’d do five low inside-outs. I’d try to burnout the hand and all along the forearm and everything else so I could build up the strength.

Did you watch any specific players to study?
JH: Yeah, at the time I enjoyed watching guys like Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway, who had the killer crossover. I had a tremendous amount of respect for the way they handled the ball. I loved watching John Stockton because he wasn’t fancy with the ball but he rarely got ripped. I tried to study how he used his body, his pick-n-rolls and what he was doing from a visionary standpoint. There were definitely some tremendous amounts of point guards and you learned there were different styles of point guards. You start to try to pick things up from each one and say, “Okay I like this.” I imitated some of the blow-by moves that Michael Jordan had at the time, try to incorporate a little of everything so that when you play, you have it all.

Does the summer take on any added importance for players looking to improve their handles?
JH: I think it’s important and something that should be worked on all year round because I feel like the better you are with the ball in your hands, the more rhythm you have with the ball in your hands, the more likely you are to make better moves and also to get into your shot a lot cleaner. It doesn’t have to be a full workout, but I feel like having a ball and doing specific dribbling drills and different coordination-based drills will definitely help you.

When we talk about dribbling we don’t just talk about handles, we talk about movements. If you can’t sell the move, it won’t work. That’s why there’s a big difference between the guys you can fit into a hat with the best crossovers in the game and the guys that don’t. It’s not that the other guys can’t throw the ball necessarily as hard, they set you up better. They set you up with their head and shoulders. They set you up with their feet for the counter moves. They set you up with a primary move to go by you and then all of a sudden you cut that off and they have their counter.

It got away from strictly just ballhandling drills but it also got to movement-based drills to help these guys coordinate the feet with the upper body.

Do you have any mainstay drills that you have all your players do regardless of skill level?
JH: Yeah, we have a dribble series and we use that because it’s based on throwing and catching the ball full-speed. That’s what ballhandling is when you go for your pull-up. Regardless of position, regardless of age, you have to be able to throw the ball full-speed and catch the ball and be able to get into your shot pocket as quickly as possible.

We do what we call juggles. We start with two balls. We bounce the ball from the right hand down to the left hand. The left hand has the basketball and that rotates over to the right. It’s just a series of playing left over the top to the right hand and the right hand will dribble the ball down to the left side. It’s a constantly pace, only dribbling in the left hand, only catching it and bringing it back over. We do that usually for about 45 seconds to a minute and then we switch it over to the left hand so they remain balanced.

We have variations. From the two-ball series, we take it to the one-ball and we start incorporating throwing the ball at full-speed from right to left, catching the ball with the left and then bringing it back over the top to the right hand again. We just keep rotating like that and we do the same thing left hand and then it goes over to moves like between-the-legs and behind-the-back as well.

Ballhandling is about constantly working on it. But is there anything extra players can do outside of the norm to help themselves? Something that maybe you wouldn’t expect?
JH: Something that can really help is the heavy ballhandles. We tend to do some stuff with a real heavy ball that’s definitely much heavy than a regular basketball. We really believe that there’s no right or wrong necessarily, it’s just about getting those reps. We usually have people do a minute of crossovers, between, behind from stations and just keep doing it over and over again, and then we do it with the heavy ball and we get a little faster depending on how well conditioned the athlete is. Then we get the regular basketball in their hands and now it feels like a balloon. The thing there is that if it looks out of control when you’re throwing it full-speed, that’s fine. We want guys to make mistakes at full speed and get used to catching. If they start to slow it down, then they stay at the same speed they were at before and won’t learn how to catch at that speed.

With a heavy ball, you do a cross, between, behind for a minute, and then you get a regular ball and you do the same thing, cross, between, behind for another minute and it’s going to feel like a balloon, real light. If you try to throw it at full-speed, the regular basketball, it’s going to feel out of control and that’s your newfound power and your newfound speed in your handle. We try to get guys to get away from worrying about losing the ball, lose it, lose it, lose it so you can finally catch it at that speed and then you start developing a much faster handle that way, a much stronger handle, a much faster handle.

What I’ve got is doing those kinds of series back and forth from a stationary to dribble-drive moves going to the basket with the heavy ball and then switching to the regular one. We are seeing more guys getting better and being much more successful with the dribble going about it that way. In the past, I did a lot of heavy ballhandles and I got great at it. But when I got the regular ball, I didn’t feel so good with the ball in my hands because I wasn’t used to dribbling it quite as much. So I made sure when I became a trainer, we started adjusting it so guys could get used to that speed and go back and forth with it until it became a habit.

Who’s the best ballhandler you’ve ever trained?
JH: I’d probably have to be Kemba [Walker]. Yeah, I would say Kemba. Just really good ballhandling skills. He’s one of those guys where it comes down to his shiftiness, his feet, and the way he moves to set you up for moves. You think he’s driving and then he steps back off of it, kind of the rocker-step series that we work on. He’s really hard to guard, especially when you get him into the open court.

Is there anything at all that you do that you don’t see anyone else doing?
JH: Well we started with the rubber handles and now that’s out. A few years ago, we took a 12-inch hurdle that people use for agility and we had guys doing different types of splits and crossovers, behind-the-back underneath the hurdles. It didn’t give them much room for a mistake and it really came down to the type of angles that you worked on. That was one of the first major stages of getting our guys to find those angles. They really enhanced the level of our guys in terms of how confident they were to get that movement, get it in both hands and sell their moves better. That’s something we established a long time ago and you’re starting to see more trainers utilizing that and it’s pretty cool to be able to add that avenue of ballhandling for the next generation of players.

In terms of basketball skills – shooting, defense, passing – how important do you think ballhandling is?
JH: Ballhandling is one of the pieces of the pie. By being a good ballhandler, it allows you to be a better passer because it allows you to get to spots on the court to feed your big man or feed other guys on the court. It allows you to create space for yourself and be able to get your shot off or go by guys and draw fouls. It’s rare for guys who are just shooters to get to the free throw line because they don’t go inside that much. I think guys that can handle it, create that space or blow by guys, it just opens up a lot more doors.

The good thing about ballhandling is you can get better at it quicker than you can your shot just from a standpoint of reps. You can get 1,000 reps of ballhandling with your left hand than you can 1,000 shots. The shot is more results-based. If you miss two or three then you’re second-guessing yourself and you might change your shot to try making it again. I think ballhandling is an area that just based on a player’s work ethic and desire to get in the gym and give themselves 20 to 30 solid minutes a day on that to give themselves an advantage.

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