In basketball, a steal occurs when a defensive player legally causes a turnover by their positive, aggressive action(s). This can be done by deflecting and controlling, or by catching the opponent's pass or dribble of an offensive player. The defender must not touch the offensive player's hands or otherwise a foul is called.
Steals are credited to the defensive player who first causes the turnover, even if they do not end up with possession of the live ball. To earn a steal, the defensive player must be the initiator of the action causing the turnover, not just the benefactor. Whenever a steal is recorded by a defensive player, an offensive player must be credited as committing a turnover.
Stealing the ball requires good anticipation, speed and fast reflexes, all common traits of good defenders. However, like blocked shots, steals are not always a perfect gauge of a player's defensive abilities. An unsuccessful steal can result in the defender being out of position and unable to recover in time, allowing the offense to score. Therefore, attempting to steal is a gamble. Steals, though risky, can pay off greatly, because they often trigger a fast break for the defensive team.
There is no prototypical position from which a player may get many steals. While smaller, quicker guards tend to accumulate the most steals, there are many exceptions. For example, forward Rick Barry led the NBA in steals in 1974–75, and for many years center Hakeem Olajuwon led his team in the category, consistently ranking among the league's leaders, and is the only center ranked in the top 10 all-time in steals. Karl Malone, a power forward, is currently number eleven.
Steals were first recorded in the NBA in the 1973–74 season, while the rival ABA league first recorded steals during the same season.
Kendall Gill and Larry Kenon are tied for most steals in a regular season NBA game with eleven. Kenon's was recorded on December 26, 1976 while Gill recorded his on April 3, 1999.
The most steals by a player in an NBA season is 301 by Alvin Robertson in 1985–86.
The NBA's all-time leader for steals is John Stockton with 3,265 in his career.
The NBA leader in steals per game (SPG) is Robertson with an average of 2.71 (career, 1250 steals minimum) and 3.67 (season, 125 minimum).
Baron Davis is the all-time playoff leader in steals per game for a career with 2.28 SPG.
Maurice Cheeks in the 1979 Playoffs averaged a playoff record 4.11 SPG.
Some of the greatest defensive specialists in the steals category in the NBA include: