When it comes to stealing the basketball, no NBA player has stickier fingers than Hawks point guard Daron Oshay (Mookie) Blaylock. He's had 200 or more steals in each of the past five seasons, including a league-best 212 in 1996-97, his ninth year in the league.
Blaylock, who still holds NCAA Division I records for most steals in a game (13) and a season (150) from his days at Oklahoma, has been studying the art of the steal for years. "Some guys get a lot of steals off pure quickness," Blaylock says. "You take a kid like Brevin Knight"—the Cavaliers 5'10" rookie, who at week's end was leading the NBA with 2.79 steals per game—"he's so short and so quick that he's going to get a lot of steals off the dribble. I get some off the dribble, like when a guy turns his back to me and shows me a piece of the ball, but mostly I get them by anticipating the pass." Blaylock won't say which NBA players are the easiest for him to steal from, but he admits he loves facing tall guards with high dribbles. "All you do is put pressure on them and jump at the ball," he says. "They're going to give it up eventually."
Blaylock, who stands 6' 1", has a far more difficult time defending shorter players. "The real little guys like [5' 10" Raptors guard] Damon Stoudamire and Knight, I can't steal from them," he admits. "I just can't get under them [to stab at the ball]."
Earlier in his career, Blaylock says, he would watch film of opposing players to pick up tendencies. But now, he says, "I've been around long enough now that I don't need to watch film. I know which guys I can pressure and which guys I have to sit back on."
For Blaylock, the key to being an effective ball thief is to make the heist while meeting the demands of the team's defense. The real masters—such as the Sonics' Gary Payton, the Jazz's John Stockton and the Bulls' Scottie Pippen—don't leave their teammates vulnerable. "You can't just run out there and leave your man to try for a steal," Blaylock says. "You've got to make sure that it's the right time, like when your guy has his back turned."
For much of this season Blaylock has been nagged by a groin injury that has hindered his ability to make steals. At week's end he was ranked eighth in the NBA, with 2.22 per game. Still, he expects to be closer to the top by the end of the season—and he backed up that prediction last week with five against the Sixers.
"Some people think steals are overrated," Blaylock says, "but I disagree. When you get a steal and an easy basket, it gives you and your teammates a boost. It's very important." The Hawks apparently think so, too. Partly because of his ball-hawking acumen, Blaylock was given a four-year, $18 million contract extension in the off-season. Who says crime doesn't pay?