What is a Steal in Basketball?

There are plenty of important stats in the basketball world, but most are focused on the offensive side of the ball. Defense (including steals) matters too.

This article looks at what stealing means in basketball, and breaks the term down within the larger context of the game. That will shed light on how important solid defense can be, and reveal just how hard it is to force turnovers at any level of play.

Taking the Ball

In basketball, there are five key statistics that show up on the stat sheet. Points, rebounds, and assists are the three offensive ones, while blocks and steals are the defensive ones. Though they all have merit, steals are by the far the hardest to achieve.

A steal occurs when a defensive player legally causes a turnover by deflecting, catching, or intercepting the ball from the offense. As long as the defender doesn’t commit a foul, and as long as they successfully cause a turnover, it counts as a steal.

However, getting the ball away from the offensive is not easy. In fact, it’s so hard that most NBA players only get a steal or less a game. Averaging more than one per contest puts a player into top percentile territory, especially as the season goes on.

That’s made even more difficult by the fact that steals are not attributed to the person who comes up with the ball, but rather the player that caused the disruption. If someone grabs a deflected pass, the person who deflected the pass will get the credit.

Different Strokes, Different Folks

Steals are typically straightforward. A defender deflects the ball away or intercepts it, which then leads to a turnover. However, not all steals happen in the same way. There are a few different scenarios where the defense can take the ball throughout a game.

The first, and most common, is when playing one-on-one defense. In that scenario, a defender will steal that ball by either reaching in and taking the ball from an offensive player as they dribble or sit in the triple threat position. 

Next, a player can get a steal by intercepting a pass. There are many times when the offense needs to move the ball around the court. A good defender can predict when a pass is coming and step or move into a passing lane to take the ball away. 

Finally, good defenders can get a steal during an in-bound pass. That’s one of the more common scenarios, where a player reads an in-bound play correctly and snatches the ball away before the other team can react.

No Easy Task

As mentioned, stealing a pass is tough. It’s one of the most difficult things to do in basketball, and that’s because it combines a range of different skills. Not only do players need to be quick, they have to have a deep basketball IQ as well.

Steals are as much about anticipation as they are about anything else. Players need to be able to get into lanes or know what move their opponent will make. It doesn’t matter how skilled a defender is if they can’t read the offense correctly. If they can, however, it pays big dividends. 

The one downside to steals is that, while they do lead to turnovers, going for them too often or at the wrong time can lead to an easy basket for the offense. 

Basketball is a game of set positions, especially in a half court scenario. If a player lunges out of where they should be in order to intercept a pass, or if they try to get around their opponent and knock the ball away, everything can fall out of sync at the wrong time.

The reliance on speed is why most steals come from guards. Their smaller frame and inherent quickness allow them to more easily get into passing lanes or knife between offensive players while still being able to recover.

Still, there have been a few big men who could steal well too. Though nine of the top ten all time NBA steal leaders are guards, Hakeem Olajuwon is in the top 10 despite being a center. Power forward Karl Malone clocks in at number eleven as well.

Final Words

Steals are one of the five core basketball statistics, and they also happen to be the toughest one to get. While every category takes a certain amount of skill, steals are incredibly rare even for the best players. They require a blend of traits very few athletes have.

Still, they play a key part in the game, and are essential to the sport. They make contests more exciting, show good defense, and bring another exciting dimension to basketball that raises the stakes even higher for every offensive possession.

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