We love our high-scoring NBA superstars, don’t we?
They’re the players that we honor the most and come up most in the discussion when we talk about the greatest of all-time. From older players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain to today’s superstars such as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and LeBron James. Putting the ball in the basket is the name of the game, after all.
These players that rack up points endlessly, getting buckets by the bucketload play after play, and the commentators often refer to the most-talented scorers as “the best in the game”. Behind these scorers is an important secondary stat – assists.
Most Assists in a Single Game Record
The assist isn’t always as glamorous as a dunk or a three, but without the wingmen, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar certainly wouldn’t be as high up on the all-time list without the likes of John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson getting them the ball in their sweet spot. These superstar playmakers know when and where to give up the ball to the player they know can turn that pass into two points.
Stats compiled since 1984 show us how difficult it is for players to record 20 or more assists in one single NBA game. In this recent NBA history, a player that recorded 20 or more assists in an individual game has occurred just 150 times (as of this post) according to the basketball bible website Basketball Reference.
And games become increasingly rare with each additional assist recorded after that. This is evidenced by how relatively often players passed for 20 or 21 assists in one game compared to games with 22, 23, 24+ assists. Games with players that recorded 20 or 21 assists accounted for 109 out of the 150 times, or 72% of the total.
Not to forget about those players with 22 or 23 assist games, we only have so much space. For this post, we’ll get right into the 24 assist games which is the assist total that separates from the pack — and makes it easier to come up with an approximate top ten players who passed for the most assists in a single game. There are 15 instances of 24+ assist games and 10 players on this list.
Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and John Stockton show up on this list multiple times, so we’ll speak to each when we reach their career-best on the list.
Starting with players that have handed 24 assists out in one game, there have been 7 players to have accomplished this. Together they tie for the 66th most assists in one game all-time and tied for 16th all-time as far as instances. Or you can click here to see our full list.
24 assists in one game
John Lucas (24 assists), San Antonio Spurs, 1984
In a game against the Denver Nuggets, Lucas passed for 24 assists in the San Antonio win. Lucas was on the reserve list for the 83-84 Spurs, the only season he played for the Texas team. John Lucas placed on the list one other time – also during this season – for 20 assists.
Magic Johnson (24 assists), Los Angeles Lakers, 1989-90
Magic just was an all-around success that earned him the name. He was not known for his scoring though his career per game average was a surprising 19.5 points, his play making earned him the most prestige. Despite not holding the all-time assist record any longer (he is still the all-time playoff assist leader), Magic Johnson has gone down in history for his passing and leadership of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the 89-90 season, Magic hit his career-high of 24 assists twice- a win against Denver and a loss in Phoenix. In each game, Magic posted 24 points along with those 24 assists for his Lakers. This is the highest that Magic appears in this “top ten”, but he showed up 18 times on the 20+ assist list over his 13 year career.
Ramon Sessions (24 assists), Milwaukee Bucks, 2008
Our first player on the list who is currently active on an NBA roster, Sessions posted his 24 assists in this loss to Chicago. A starter for the Milwaukee Bucks, just a month after his debut with the league, Sessions showed his value as a real team player with this game. This is Sessions’ only appearance on the overall list.
Rajon Rondo (24 assists), Boston Celtics, 2010
Rondo’s fifth season with the Celtics, following his career high fourth season on points, assists, steals and rebounds, gave him the 7 spot on this list with a 24 assist win over the New York Knicks. The 2010-11 season started Rondo’s climbing assists average, with 11.2 averaged for the season. His high season average shows in his 8 total appearances on the list and were certain the current Sacramento King will have a few more games of 20+ assists before he retires.
Isiah Thomas (25 assists), Detroit Pistons, 1985
Isiah Thomas averaged double-digits in assists for four consecutive seasons (from 83-84 to 86-87 seasons). The leader of two championship teams, Thomas led the league in assists once during his career – in 1984-85 season – it was in that then record-breaking 13.9 assists average (since broken by John Stockton) when he passed for his career-best 25 assists.
In a close game over the Dallas Mavericks, Thomas lead his team with those 25 passes that led to teammates’ baskets. While he was two points shy of the lead in scoring, this game attributed to the career high season Thomas had in assists – a total of 1127. Thomas appears on the list with 9 games, 8 of those occurred in that special 1984-85 season.
Nate McMillan (25 assists), Seattle SuperSonics, 1987
Another rookie season makes the list with “Mac” McMillan. This point guard for Seattle belongs on the list of assists – most of his career posted higher assists than points per season. In this game, a win over the Clippers, McMillan was the only starter who didn’t hit double digits on points, but he pulled 25 assists for the Sonics. This is one of two appearances for Nate McMillan on the assists list.
Kevin Johnson (25 assists), Phoenix Suns, 1994
San Antonio versus Phoenix was a meeting of titans during this era. Smack in the middle of the Olympic takeover by the Dream Teams in ‘92 and ‘96, watching Barkley and Robinson meet on the court was exciting for spectators. Adding to the excitement was Suns point guard Kevin Johnson, pulling 25 assists in the win over the Spurs. This is the only appearance of his 6 on the list that takes place in the later half of his career.
Jason Kidd (25 assists), Dallas Mavericks, 1996
Jason Kidd posted 25 assists in this tight win over the Utah Jazz. Though it wasn’t a playoff year for the second-year Mav, Kidd brought in high scores as a starter against some of the legends of the NBA. Both appearances on this list of highest assists happened when Kidd played in Dallas, but the second was 13 years after this game, after he played in Phoenix and New Jersey.
John Stockton (26, 27, 28 assists), (Utah Jazz)
Hall of Fame. Two Dream Team Olympics. Ranked #19 on the ESPN 100 Greatest of the NBA. Stockton, in 19 years with Utah, partnered with fellow star Karl Malone to become one of the most well-known duos in NBA history.
Though there are bigger superstars in the assist game, Stockton’s name litters the record books for assists. He is the all-time NBA leader in career assist; his 15806 assists is 3000+ more than Jason Kidd in second place. And 5000 more assists than the other players in the top five: Steve Nash (#3), Mark Jackson (#4) and Magic (#5). Stockton had ten consecutive seasons where he averaged double-digit assists, and he led the entire league nine of those seasons (1987-88 through 1995-96) including NBA records for 14.5 assists per game in 1989-90 and 1164 total assists in 1990-91.
It’s no surprise that Stock holds an amazing 34 spots on the highest assists in a single game record, including the number 2, 3, and 4 spots for the most assists in one game.
During the 1990-91 season, Stockton passed out a career-best 28 assists in a 124-102 win over the San Antonio Spurs in January of 1991. Karl Malone (32) and Jeff Malone (26) were the main beneficiaries of Stockton’s record night.
By the time short-shorts Stockton had reached 28 assists in one game, that would tie him with Bob Cousy and Guy Rodgers as the players with the third-most assists . Cousy and Rodgers were two early-era guards that held the record for the most assists in one game funtil 1978.
Kevin Porter (29 assists), New Jersey Nets, 1978
For the ten years that the 5-11 Kevin Porter played in the NBA, he made a huge impact with his passing. A hugely-underrated and often-forgotten player when it comes to assistmen, the point guard led the league in assists four times and finds himself on this list a handful of times. On the night of February 24, 1978, Kevin Porter broke the NBA record for assist total by one player in one game when he assisted on 29 baskets. This record would hold for 12 years.
1. Scott Skiles (30 assists), Orlando Magic, 1990
On those rare once in a career, an athlete finds a magical blend where everything comes together. That’s what happened on December 30, 1990 for the Orlando Magic’s scrappy point guard Scott Skiles. The former Michigan State star posted an NBA record 30 assists in a single game against the Denver Nuggets.
It’s one of those special nights for an NBA player that was a really good playmaker, but Skiles wasn’t what anyone considered a spectacular player, nor did he record the record in a year where he had his highest assist average. That year (1990-91) Skiles averaged a respectable 8.4 assists, second to the 92-93 season when he passed for 9.4 assists a game.
Skiles does appear three other times on the longer list but the 6-1, balding PG only accumulated 3,881 assists in his career. Nothing to sneeze at, but that number barely sniffs the top 100 assists totals of of all time.
Don’t get us wrong, Skiles was a very good point guard in his day and he had several good years. Our point is, no matter how many times we see it, it’s always a surprise not to see a more prolific guard in the top spot and the only one to reach the 30 assist plateau.
In a way, Skiles humbly says this himself: “To be a really good passer, you have to be able to see the whole floor and see all 9 guys. Magic Johnson, John Stockton they see all 9 guys and I think most times I see about seven and that’s what keeps me a little short of those guys.”
Slow and Steady (and Talent) Won Assist Race
Younger NBA fans running across this anomaly today are probably saying to themselves — “Scott who? You mean the coach of Orlando?” fully expecting to see a John Stockton, Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson. Or even modern players like Rondo, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd or Chris Paul holding the record. A player from ESPN’s top 10 point guards of all-time, at least? Please?
As much as we’re used to seeing a recognizable player, usually all-star, holding these records, the fact that Skiles is at the top of the list says a lot.
Skiles nickname was “gritty, gutty” during his days as a Michigan State Spartan. And it wasn’t his toughness and persistence that made him successful in college and the NBA. Most people see a Skiles as non-athletic slow, balding small guy and assume that he didn’t have natural talent – that all of Skiles’ accomplishments were all guts and grit, heart and hard work. Not so, for a player to even sniff the NBA, you have to have a lot of natural talent. That may not always translate to jumping ability, speed and quickness, or the most beautiful jumpshot but Skiles didn’t pass for 30 assists, earn a starting job in the NBA or make the broader list three more times by simply being a tough guy.
It may be an anomaly on the surface, but look deeper: Skiles possessed a unique mentality, natural talent and skill set that allowed him to succeed; not just in one NBA game or one season, but Skiles played 10 seasons in the NBA; most of which he was a significant contributor.
Full List of Most Assists in One Game
Still we expect someone legendary to hold that top spot. That’s why it’s even more surprising to not see a mention of players like Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Oscar Robertson, star players that are in the top 12 all-time, in assists.
Though Nash, Paul and the Big O are all-time leaders in this category, these three suprisingly don’t show up on the top 10 list. They all come short. Nash’s career high in assists is 22 and Paul’s is 21. Oscar’s career highs weren’t available.
For current assist men like Paul, Curry, Russell Westbrook, Rondo and any starting point guard, all it takes is one night where everything comes together.