In basketball there are few plays as exciting as the fast-break bucket generated after a steal. When a player picks off a ball and takes it the other way for a lay-up or dunk, fans go wild. These plays are often harbingers of a momentum shift. Teams will use such entertaining plays to end the run of an opposing team or to jumpstart a run of their own. At the very least, the squad on the receiving end of these actions will often burn a timeout to temporarily quell the crowd noise.
In many ways, the steal that results in a coast-to-coast basket mirrors an interception returned for a touchdown. In fact no less an authority than Michigan State coach Tom Izzo refers to such basketball plays as "turnovers for touchdowns." In football each pick six is tracked. To my knowledge, such a convention has not been proffered for the similar play in basketball, even as coaches like Izzo have acknowledged their importance.
We can take an approach to measuring these plays in our game by using available play-by-play data. I'm calling them "points per steal," but in honor of the pick six, I'll also offer a colloquial version: the take and make. My method of tracking points per steal is fairly simple: record every fast-break point a player generates after stealing the ball, then divide by the number of steals. There is some subjectivity involved in determining what constitutes a fast-break point, but generally it involves any points scored within five seconds of a steal. The goal is for the stat to capture which players succeed at picking off the ball and flying up the court for a field goal or free throws. In other words, who are the Charles Woodsons and Ed Reeds of college basketball?
Thus far I have tracked points per steal for players from four teams: Missouri, Ohio State, Syracuse, and VCU. The former three squads are among the national leaders in defensive steal rate, and from my own observation appear to generate a lot of easy buckets after steals. VCU is included because the Rams happen to lead the nation in steal rate. Only in-conference results through January 29 are considered.
Points per Steal
Ohio State 0.20
I quickly learned that teams with a high steal rate may not always have a resounding points per steal figure. One reason for this is because the stat is limited to only those points produced by a single player directly after a steal. Therefore, it does not favor a player like Jared Sullinger, who may make strong outlet passes to teammates streaking up the court after getting a steal under an opponent's basket. Moreover, it's clear that a team like Syracuse generates a lot of quick buckets after a steal, but more often than not these points come after a pass or two has been made down the court. But for a team like Missouri, which employs constant ball pressure in the backcourt, it can show us how effective a squad is when it comes to producing points after the steal.
While Mizzou may take the cake when it comes to take and makes, there are a few individuals from the studied teams who stand out as well. The following table presents the top eight players in points per steal. To qualify, a player must have a minimum of ten recorded steals in games played in their respective conferences.
Points per Steal
Marcus Denmon, Missouri 0.75
Troy Daniels, VCU 0.50
Juvonte Reddic, VCU 0.40
Kim English, Missouri 0.40
Darius Theus, VCU 0.39
Dion Waiters, Syracuse 0.38
Brandon Triche, Syracuse 0.31
Phil Pressey, Missouri 0.29
This measure backs up the notion that Marcus Denmon is a player to be feared in the open court after a steal. Denmon and teammates Kim English and Phil Pressey have been making opposing backcourts pay with their ball-hawking ability, which has often resulted in easy points for the Tigers. VCU is not unlike Mizzou in this sense. The take and make stats suggests that VCU's counterparts in the Colonial should beware the many weapons that coach Shaka Smart can throw their way on the perimeter. Likewise, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche have wreaked havoc on Big East backcourts with their ability to disrupt passing lanes. Ohio State's William Buford, not listed here, lurks just outside the qualified list as he has turned nine steals into eight points in Big Ten play.
There are certainly limitations to the points per steal stat. It does not consider pace, nor does it reward players who steal the ball and take it down court before dishing off to a teammate for an assist on a fast-break basket. What it does do is offer a way to pinpoint players with a combination of the vision, quickness, awareness, and finishing ability needed to execute what is indeed a rather rare feat in college basketball.
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