The art of the steal: college basketball's top defenders explain their methods
It’s an origin story in some ways: Jordan Adams broke his foot in March, spent months recovering and then returned to the floor for his first UCLA practice since the injury. It seemed like he never left, and his teammates might have wished at least a little that he’d stayed away. Because in that first workout, Adams stole the ball at least six times.
The Bruins players were flummoxed, but the staff was pleasantly surprised. As the pilfering piled up, the coaches put a name to it. And this is how Jordan Adams became known as Spider-Man.
“Every time I got a steal, they said, ‘There goes Spider-Man,’” Adams recalled, “with my web on the ball.”
The 6-foot-5 sophomore resides in a select group of players with the stickiest fingers in America. Four players average three-plus steals a game while also posting a steal rate of better than five percent – meaning, simply, that they end opponents' possessions with a snatch five percent of the time or more. All nicknames aside, theirs is not superhuman ability but a marriage of keen instinct and preparation. Instead of Wilson or Spalding, game balls might as well read Pinch Me.
“The majority of the time it’s instincts,” said Seton Hall swingman Fuquan Edwin, third nationally with 3.067 steals per game and a steal percentage of 6.48. “If a guy has the ball and is trying to attack the rim, and that second he puts it down, so I can swipe down and take it -- I’m always in that position. It’s not only in games, but in practice. Even my big fellas are aware to not put the ball right in front of me. Because I’m gonna take it.”
Army’s Tanner Omlid is, percentage-wise, the nation's most infuriating defender. The 6-3 freshman comes off the bench and steals the ball on 7.46 percent of opponents' possessions, tops in the country. VCU’s Briante Weber leads the nation with 3.737 steals per game and ranks second to Omild with a steal percentage of 7.21.
Surely, the Rams’ infamously unremitting “Havoc” press offers constant opportunities to force mistakes. Weber, though, embodies the notion that the art of the steal largely owes to innate talent and sensibilities, with a little bit of technical fine-tuning along the way.
Weber began, as most do, playing in local recreational leagues as a grade-schooler. Unlike most, he began to sense something immediately that other newcomers to organized basketball in the Norfolk, Va., area hadn’t yet picked up: Just because someone had the ball didn’t mean he or she deserved to.
“It was me understanding that some people just shouldn’t be dribbling,” Weber said. “I guess I took that and I grew up with it.”
Taking from the poor, for Weber, made simple sense. For Adams, it was a laughing matter. “I just always thought it was funny, when somebody would throw it to me,” Adams said. “Like an interception in football. You’re on the complete opposite team and you just run in front of it and catch it. It’s kind of embarrassing, just throwing the ball to the other person.”
Ultimately, it’s not a complicated endeavor. But for the best at it stealing is an art and a science. Some of it is high-tech: UCLA’s strength and conditioning coaches post a sensor on a wall that flashes, with Adams explaining that a player has a matter of seconds to cover it with a hand as a way of measuring quickness. Some of the methods are not quite as advanced. In order to maintain speed, Weber says he’ll try to swat a fly or drop a pen and catch it before it hits the ground.
And film work offers clues as well. Before the game, and then during it, Weber absorbs how ballhandlers endeavor to escape the press, what type of hesitation dribbles they use, what sort of crossovers they prefer when attempting to beat him one-on-one. Adams sizes up how loose a player is with the ball or how lazy they might be with their cuts, gleaning information about how he might time a lunge into a passing lane. For Edwin, it’s a matter of examining preferences and exploiting them.
He recalled guarding Syracuse’s C.J. Fair and noticed that the left-handed forward would “rip left” to begin an offensive attack. Anticipating that tendency didn’t mean Edwin cut the lane off; rather, he tracked Fair in that direction and put himself in position to strip the Orange’s forward as he went up for his shot. “I stripped him like three times, twice back-to-back,” Edwin said. “And he was just complaining to the refs – ‘That’s a foul! He’s on me!’ I knew he was frustrated.”
Deception goes a long way, too. Adams baits opponents into making the decision he is most prepared for as a defender. The key, as the Bruins guard put it, is to “make it seem like you’re resting.” Likewise, Edwin reads opponents’ eyes to time his gambles, but he also does much of his work by fooling the very eyes he’s reading. “I try to make it seem like I’m off-guard, but really I’m on-guard,” he said. “I’ll fake like I’m not looking, you know?”
Once the trap is set, the easy part begins.
“If he’s calling for help, then he’s dead meat,” Weber said. “And if he clears out, then I know he’s a little confident in what he can do. But at the same time, I know I have somebody else that’s about to help me in a sense, so I just do my part. Sometimes they’re worrying about the person that’s trapping and not the person that’s on the ball. That’s when I go in and pretty much do my thing.”
Robbing people of general mental wellbeing is a welcome byproduct. Weber recalled VCU’s first Atlantic-10 game against Dayton in the 2012-13 season, in which Flyers guard Kevin Dillard started out relatively hot but literally wound up on his knees after Weber forced him into back-to-back turnovers that altered the course of the game.
Though their individual numbers aren’t among the nation's leaders, Ohio State guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott two of the best thieves in the game – they combine for roughly 4.5 steals per game, with Craft’s steal percentage at 4.0 and Scott’s at 4.6 – and they know the effect they have on people. Without naming names, Scott recalled one team that disintegrated completely under duress.
“You saw how mad they were getting,” Scott said. “You see players arguing with each other, coaches talking to them but they’re not really listening. Nobody really wants to make a move on offense. They’re just passing the ball around, trying not to make mistakes after a while.”
Still, what’s given can be as critical as what’s taken. The steal is an act that prevents a scoring chance while typically creating a fairly easy opportunity on the other end. Done early or often enough, it sets a tone others follow.
Against Georgetown on Jan. 18, Edwin recorded two of his five steals midway through the second half, with Seton Hall trailing by four at the time. Immediately, he perceived teammates pressuring ballhandlers and playing with more active hands. Eventually, a nine-point halftime deficit became a 10-point road win. At Seton Hall, this is known as The Fu Effect.
“It gets everyone energized,” Pirates coach Kevin Willard said. “[Edwin is] so active with his hands, so active off the ball, if you’re not playing hard as he is and you’re not doing the same thing he is, you’ll stand out on film. It kind of changed the way we can play defensively.”
The Fu Effect also may prompt medical assistance. Edwin notes that his fingernails tend to grow long, so when he swipes at the ball, he often leaves a mark for opponents or even teammates to remember him by. One Seton Hall player received a red slash on the face from one of Edwin’s forays. Edwin understands his teammates get frustrated, and he laughs about how they complain about him playing dirty. He believes he’s a Pirate in every sense, taking what’s yours and making it his in practice in order to ensure he can do so in a game. The best in the nation at boosting the ball are wired for it. They never emerge from stealth mode.
Six steals a day. That’s the quota Edwin is after. Even if there isn’t a coach or manager counting.“They don’t,” Edwin said, “but I do.”