When the NBA began tracking hustle stats in 2016, it was to highlight the effort plays that impact the game but do not fit into the traditional box score. This includes taking charges, recovering 50-50 balls, boxing out, contesting shots, setting great screens, and deflecting passes, which we’ll take a closer look at today.
Deflections are a key stat to measure — and one that NBA teams and scouts have tracked for years — in order to see the full impact of a defensive player. Similar to how not every shot at the basket needs to result in a block in order for a player to be considered a strong rim protector, not every deflection needs to result in a steal to influence a defensive possession. If the offensive team is in a half-court set and a defender deflects a pass, even if the offense recovers, the flow of that possession is now completely thrown off. Will some offenses recover the deflected pass and still execute and score? Sure, but that deflection made it a bit more difficult.
And while not every deflection results in a steal, there is a strong correlation between players that rank high in deflections also being among the league leaders in steals. Below is a list of top 10 players in deflections through games played on Jan. 11. Seven of these 10 players also rank in the top 10 in steals, with another two in the top 15 and only one below 25th.
The name at the top of both lists is San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray, who is having a career year on both sides of the ball, averaging 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Murray has a chance to post just the third NBA season (since steals became an official stat in 1973-74) to average at least 18 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals. The other two seasons belong to Magic Johnson in 1981-82 (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg, 2.7 spg) and Michael Jordan in 1988-89 (32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 8.0 apg, 2.9 spg). That’s pretty good company!
We can do a deep dive on Murray’s overall play another day, but today we’re focused on his defense. Murray is part lock-down corner (playing strong man-to-man on-ball defense) and part free safety (reading the offense and pouncing when the time is right to make a steal or deflection). Murray has all the physical tools to be an elite perimeter defender, standing 6-foot-4 with a 6-10 wingspan, super-athletic, quick feet, fast lateral movement and great elevation. He also has the intangibles such as superior court vision and strong instincts to know when and when not to gamble for a steal or tip a ball in the passing lanes. And if he guesses wrong, he has the speed and quickness to get back in position and not blow up the defensive possession.
Fred VanVleet (TOR): VanVleet led the league in deflections per game in each of the past two seasons: 4.2 deflections per game in 2019-20 and 3.8 deflections per game in 2020-21. He’s well within striking distance to make it a three-peat, trailing Murray by just 0.2 per game.
Matisse Thybulle (PHI) and De’Anthony Melton (MEM): Grouping these two players together as they share similar stories. Both have been strong defenders that racked up deflections and steals while they were on the court from the day they entered the NBA. With more playing time, they have both risen up the leaderboard this season. Thybulle finished 10th last year, while Melton enters the top 10 for the first time.
Take a look at how they stack up in deflections per 36 minutes since their rookie seasons.
|Season||De’Anthony Melton||Matisse Thybulle|
|2018-19||4.8 (2nd)||Not yet in NBA|
|2019-20||4.8 (3rd)||4.7 (4th)|
|2020-21||4.4 (3rd)||5.6 (1st)|
|2021-22||4.7 (3rd)||5.1 (2nd)|
Gary Trent Jr. (TOR): The combination of VanVleet (4.2) and Trent Jr. (3.5) has led the Raptors to a league-high 18.7 deflections per game as a team. Trent Jr. currently ranks fourth in steals (1.9 spg), nearly doubling his career high.
Alex Caruso (CHI) and Lonzo Ball (CHI): Pairing the Bulls teammates to show the impact they have had defensively since joining the team during the offseason. Last season, the Bulls finished 26th in deflections and 28th in steals; this year those rankings have climbed to 16th and 10th, respectively.
|Stat||2020-21 (rank)||2021-22 (rank)|
|Steals||6.7 (28th)||8.0 (10th)|
|Deflections||12.9 (26th)||14.2 (16th)|
|Opponent turnovers||12.7 (24th)||14.6 (10th)|
|Points off turnovers||14.5 (26th)||18.6 (6th)|
|Defensive rating||111.5 (12th)||107.8 (9th)|
Marcus Smart (BOS): The 2018-19 NBA Hustle Award winner knows the importance of doing the little things like deflecting passes (121), taking charges (5) and recovering 50-50 balls (league-high 47). Smart finished seventh in the league in deflections per game last season (3.3) and has matched that ranking this year at nearly the same mark (3.2 per game).
Robert Covington (POR): Covington has ranked in the top 10 in deflections per game every season that the NBA has tracked hustle stats. The teams may have changed — from Philly, to Minnesota, to Houston and now in Portland — but the defensive impact has not.
- 2016-17 (PHI): 4.2 deflections per game (1st)
- 2017-18 (PHI): 3.9 deflections per game (1st)
- 2018-19 (MIN): 3.7 deflections per game (2nd)
- 2019-20 (HOU): 3.4 deflections per game (8th)
- 2020-21 (POR): 3.6 deflections per game (2nd)
- 2021-22 (POR): 3.1 deflections per game (8th)
Paul George (LAC): George is the only player to lead the league in both deflections per game (3.8) and steals per game (2.2) in the same season (2018-19). Can Murray join him by maintaining his lead on both leaderboards for the remainder of this season?