How well does Little's risk-taking mentality translate to team defensive success?

Seattle Storm forward Camille Little has been lauded for her hard work on defense, which has her near the top of the league in steals. But how exactly do those steals translate to team success? Photo via Kailas Images.

When the Seattle Storm face the Indiana Fever on Thursday, the game will feature the league's top two leaders in steals.

#1. Tamika Catchings (2.9/game)

#2. Camille Little (2.8/game)

While the former is probably no surprise to you, the latter probably is if you've kept track of Little's career -- she has averaged less than 1 steal in her four previous years in the WNBA and is actually averaging nearly five less minutes per game than 2009 when she averaged 1.1 steals per game.

Like most of the other Storm players, Little is not a player who's going to do a whole of bragging about herself. After the Phoenix Mercury game in which she tied for a team-high 6 rebounds she attributed it to luck. She was only slightly less matter-of-fact about her career-high 5 steals against the Sparks.

"I just try to be aggressive anytime I can," said Little after the Sparks game. "When I see an opportunity, I try to take it. Those times it was about the right decision."

So that just makes the improvement difficult to understand: was she not seeing opportunities previously or just not as eager to take them? Was she making wrong decisions before? It's sort of difficult to explain, but her teammates did provide some insight into what makes her effective.

It's not like you can go to the gym in the off-season and work on your stealing skills. If anything, steals are often a good proxy for "athleticism" but it's also not often that a 5th year player suddenly gets "more athletic" in the off-season either. It's not like you set out to improve your steals, even on a defensive-minded Brian Agler coached team. Almost everyone on the team attributed her defensive success to her mindset.

"She's very comfortable, she's being a risk taker," said forward Swin Cash. "Camille is very quick for her size. She's just going out there and doing the great things we need her to do on the defensive end."

In the Storm's last game against the Sparks, that was evident from her defense on DeLisha Milton-Jones in the second half. On one play, Jones got the ball on the right wing and Little closed out quickly, bouncing on her toes while swiping at the ball wherever Milton-Jones moved it. Milton-Jones took a dribble in and as she gathered the ball, Little tapped it. As Milton-Jones briefly raised the ball above her head to make a move, Little reached around and tried to knock it away. Milton-Jones eventually passed the ball away in frustration. Little is in constant motion in bothering opponents on most every play, which eventually creates turnovers.

"Just trying to get my hands out there and I'm getting some deflections and some steals, but I also got three fouls," said Little. "So it's kinda one of those things where I'm trying to be a person where I don't want to do the wrong things but it worked out for us."

The risk taking mentality that Cash identified and Little described was echoed by point guard Sue Bird.

"For her, I think she's using her God given ability," said point guard Sue Bird after practice yesterday. "She's so quick -- quick first step, quick hands, quick jumper -- and she's just using that. I don't think it's something she improved on - I think she's being aggressive. When you get your confidence going, you tend to look for things a little more, take some risks and I think she's good at that."

If confidence is part of the equation, then certainly the Storm's strong overall defensive performance is part of the equation. However, the anticipation, quickness and risk taking mentality that Little has exhibited is quite remarkable. But how much do those steals tell us about Little's defensive ability overall? I'll draw on the insight of Tom Haberstroh for that.

NBA HD Tom Haberstroh HoopData | Hardwood Paroxysm
Most steals come from the stripping variety but players also can "steal" the ball by being in the right place at the right time and picking up a loose ball that falls to their feet. Just like you can’t assume a double play in baseball, you can’t assume the possession would change until a player physically picks up the ball. Additionally, players who go for steals all the time are playing risky basketball. What we’d really like to look at is net steals, or the ratio of successful steal attempts to failed steal attempts. Many players get tons of steals without actually improving their teams defense. Who are they? One way to find these sly cats is to compare their percentile ranks in steal percentage and defensive on/off court differential.

First, I would just add that if a player always seems to be in the right place at the right often, it's probably more indicative of a high basketball IQ or above average instincts rather than coincidence. But otherwise his point is well taken -- how do we know that the risk of fouling or getting beat on a steal attempt actually results in defensive rewards for the team?

Haberstroh's entire article is worth a read and without going through the entire WNBA, consider this: a steal percentage -- the percentage of possessions on which a player makes a steal -- of 5% is generally considered very good. Catchings has a reputation as a perennially good perimeter (and overall) defender, which usually results in more steals due to playing passing lanes more and guarding players who handle the ball more often. Last season, Catchings had a steal percentage of 4.7% and Minnesota Lynx center Nicky Anosike -- who I've previously noted was historically good last season in terms of steals for a post player -- was second with a steal percentage of 4.6%. This season Catchings has a very good steal percentage of 5%. That's fourth in the league at this early stage in the season.  Little's steal percentage of 5.6% is first. She was only at 2.0% in 2009.

More telling is the possession stats thus far -- in 2009, Fever opponents were 7.4 points worse when Catchings was on the court compared to the 1.1 points worse that Lynx opponents were when Anosike was on the court. For context, Sparks forward Candace Parker had the best on/off differential of any rotation player with opponents being 10.5 points worse when she was on the court. So thus far in 2010, Fever opponents are 1.5 points worse with Catchings on the court whereas Storm opponents are 7.7 points worse when Camille Little is on the court.

As Haberstroh notes, these numbers don't mean that Little is unquestionably an excellent defender -- there are certainly faults with on/off possession numbers and steals as a measure of defensive ability. In fact, Little's on/off differential is only 4th on the Storm (Bird is #1 at 12.4). However, what we do know from these numbers is that Little's risk taking is certainly not hurting the team and is probably a huge asset. Storm coach Brian Agler attributes that partially to her natural athleticism and anticipation and partially to her preparation.

"Camille's just got great anticipation," said Agler when asked about Little's five steals after the Sparks game. "She studies the scout, she knows what's coming so she can anticipate where they're looking. She just is a very valuable player to us."

As valuable as her defensive play is to the Storm, the improvement in Little's steal percentage is only one of many improvements across the board. With her league-leading steal percentage, she is also second in "value added" (Model Estimated Value - scoring output) meaning that even if she isn't scoring points Little is finding ways to make an impact, starting of course with her nearly tripled steal percentage. Her turnover percentage is down nearly 7% from last year. Even though her usage rate -- the rate at which she "uses" possessions while on the court -- has increased, so have her efficiency numbers, a feat that is remarkable all on its own. Again, given that her minutes have gone down, this isn't just about a player putting up bigger numbers in bigger minutes. Nevertheless, guard Tanisha Wright who sits next to Little in their Key Arena locker room, doesn't see Little doing anything particularly different that would explain the improvement.

"She’s the same: she’s a blue collar worker," said Wright. "She’s gonna get things done for you. She works hard, she makes the dirty plays. She’s gonna come up with the important plays that maybe you don’t necessarily see on the stat sheet but we notice as a team because we know it helps us whether it’s offensive or defensive – she may get a tip on the basketball, she may get a rebound, she may stand in there and take a charge or she might be in the right position defensively to make somebody else do something different. So she does all the things we need her to do without it necessarily being seen all the time."

So although it might seem fitting that the player who does all the important things that don't show up on the stat sheet would rank 21st in early All-Star returns, it would be a major snub if she isn't included -- her entire stat line is solid. Her PER is fourth in the league right now and she has almost doubled her Model Estimated Value per game number, placing her in the top 10. The whole package of what Little offers the Storm makes her a clear early season candidate for Most Improved Player and undoubtedly an All-Star. And it's the combination of doing multiple little things well to help the team win that has earned that position relative to her peers.

"Her attitude is great because it's low-maintenance and it's not about me," said Agler after the Sparks game. "From Camille's standpoint, it's not about Camille -- it's about our team and our success and that's special to have."

One can only hope that the reason she is so low in All-Star rankings is because teams have yet to finish turning in ballots. If not, it's time for folks to wake up.

Related Links:

Bird's aggression, Little's energy lead a balanced Storm attack against Sparks

Camille Little & the anatomy of a momentum swing: How the Storm beat the Mystics

Transition Points:

  • For the full All-Star voting breakdown, see Katie Carrera's post on the Mystics Insider.
  • Other blatant early snubs: Monique Currie, Sancho Lyttle.
  • People whom should get more #wnbalove: Crystal Langhorne, Taj McWilliams-Fraklin, DeWanna Bonner (not on ballot)
  • How the All-Star Voting works (from the WNBA release):

The Stars at the Sun balloting program gives fans the opportunity to vote for the top 10 players in the WNBA, regardless of conference or position.  The 60 players included on the 2010 ballot represent all 12 WNBA teams.  A write-in option is also available, allowing fans to choose players not listed on the ballot.  The 10 players who receive the most votes will be guaranteed a position on the team rosters.  Unlike previous years, the players selected by fans will not necessarily be starters.  Any player voted in who is already in the USA National Team Pool will play on the USA Basketball team, led by head coach Geno Auriemma, while the remaining players who have been voted in by the fans will play on the WNBA team.

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