The Timeless Art Of Deflections

It’s a statistic that won’t show up in a traditional, everyday box score, but can certainly lead to something that does, if done well. When it comes to this particular era of NBA basketball that is so heavily influenced and at times, dominated by ball movement and spacing, the skillset required to accumulate this particular measurement is as valuable as ever.

Deflections – defined as any time a defensive player gets his hand on a ball in a non-shot attempt – have been officially tracked by the league for the past several years, and unofficially, long before that. At the moment, the Hornets have taken a couple steps forward defensively already this season and their ability to deflect is a major reason why.

“The best indicator, usually, of effort in the game is deflection numbers,” says Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford. “It’s important because you want to get in the habit of being hard to play against. It’s contagious. When a guy brings the ball up the court and [our players are] meeting him at halfcourt and putting pressure on the ball, you can extend the offense and create easy offense with your defense. It’s a habit that if you don’t stay on, it’s easy not to do.”

Thirteen games into the season, the Hornets rank fifth in the NBA in deflections (17.9), despite not having LaMelo Ball and Cody Martin, who finished first (2.8) and third (2.3), respectively, on the squad in this category last year. Charlotte was fourth overall as a team in 2021-22 (16.0).

Amongst the current collection of players, newcomer Dennis Smith Jr. has emerged as the Hornets’ team leader in this area, registering 3.9 deflections per outing, which is the fifth-highest nightly output in the NBA. Kelly Oubre Jr. is closely behind him in eighth (3.7), while Jalen McDaniels (2.3) and PJ Washington (2.0) are also averaging multiple deflections.

All those deflections have helped the Hornets tally the 19th-most steals in the NBA (7.4), which again, comes without Ball and Martin, who combined for almost 3.0 together last season. The team is tied for seventh in frequency of offensive transition opportunities created off steals (72.8%) and seventh in points scored per 100 such possessions (149.2), according to CleaningtheGlass.com. Basically, Charlotte is one of the best in the league in turning live-ball steals into fast-break opportunities and then scoring on them, as well.   

But even when steals aren’t being created, deflections are still a valuable part of the purple and teal’s defensive identity. “Breaking rhythm, taking time off the shot clock,” explained Clifford. “It would fall under being hard to play against, which is ultimately what we need to become.”

“Deflections is about having a defensive presence,” said McDaniels. “Having active hands so you can tip the pass and either we get it or delay the pass from going to the other team. We can then get our defense set. If we can tip a pass, it can get you back on timing. It just shows you’re there. We’re here, we’re swiping at the ball, not trying to foul, but hitting the ball.”

Putting an emphasis on deflections can have some drawbacks, too, though. The Hornets had a few outings earlier this season where over-swiping got them in some hot water with foul issues, which can quickly pivot the dynamic of a game. The trick is finding a balance between being disruptive, but not to the point where it puts the team in a compromising position.

It also helps to have an abundance of lengthy, switchable players, which is something the Hornets have really prioritized with regards to their roster construction in recent years. From an offensive perspective, McDaniels provided some insight on what it’s like going against a team that generates a lot of deflections similar to the Hornets.

“It’s annoying,” he said. “They’re everywhere. It seems like they’re there, but they’re really not. That’s what it does. It plays a trick on you. I know when [other teams are] doing it to us, I wonder if we’re open? Do we pass it or keep it? It’s weird. It plays a mind game.”

Having been in the NBA for over 20 years now, Clifford has worked for and helmed some elite defensive teams along the way, many of which had their fair share of timely deflectors.

“Bob Sura with the Rockets was really good,” he recalled. “Charlie Ward with the Knicks way back when. [Then-Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau] used to be the charter of deflections. Charlie used to look over and signal to him a deflection. We always used to laugh and guys on the bench would say, ‘That’s not a deflection.’ The players knew which assistant charted it. Tracy McGrady was good – great with his hands. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was phenomenal with his hands.”

There’s plenty that goes into building a high-level NBA defense and it takes time, development and tinkering to make it all happen. Being a great defensive team is something that the Charlotte Hornets ultimately want to be known for and their ability to already generate a well-above-average amount of deflections should serve as a strong foundation for it.