Indiana Pacers guard TJ McConnell recorded the first triple-double with steals since Mookie Blaylock accomplished the same feat in 1998.
His game was impressive but it was actually not particularly out of character for McConnell. He has recorded 62 steals so far this season, which leads all NBA players. The Indiana guard is averaging 2.9 steals per 36 minutes, also the most in the league. His steal percentage (3.8 percent) is a full point higher than what Jimmy Butler, second-best in 2020-21, has recorded.
Not every turnover is created the same, though, as there is a difference between capitalizing on a bad pass and picking up loose balls. While bad passes are more common among the live-ball turnovers, we were curious how McConnell stacked up historically compared to other defenders.
We used PBP Stats, which scraps play-by-play data from NBA.com, to look at the 500 players who have recorded the most steals from bad passes since 2000-01.
Per 36 minutes, McConnell has averaged 1.50 steals from bad passes. That ranks No. 1 overall.
Behind the former undrafted free agent was six-time NBA All-Defensive guard Tony Allen (1.48) and then four-time NBA All-Defensive wing Doug Christie (1.40). To put those numbers in perspective, take a look at the rates from contemporary elite defenders such as Marcus Smart (1.26) and Kawhi Leonard (1.22).
Counting stats, like steals, are not the only way to define a good defender. But when someone’s productivity is elite, that certainly says something about them as a player. In this case, it says that the passing lane is simply not safe anywhere near McConnell.
But even dating back to his time in college at the University of Arizona, as you can see in the photo above, McConnell has been particularly adept when guarding the simplest play of the game.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently described McConnell as someone who has a “supernatural instinct” when it comes to stealing inbound passes. He is an irritant who will defend all 94 feet and pick his defender up for a full-court press, which is unusual to see in the NBA as it opens up a potential 5-on-4 opportunity for the offense.
McConnell explained what this does to his opponents and why it has been such a priority for him during his career (via Indy Star):
“I hope they don’t catch on. One of those things where you get a quick bucket, team falls to sleep, lobs the ball in there. It’s just one of those things I can’t really explain. I sniff out the play before it happens.”
Due to his defensive playmaking, opponents cannot relax with the ball during the 25 minutes per game that McConnell plays for Indiana.
You have to believe every NBA team's scouting report warns players to watch out for TJ McConnell stealing inbound passes, but players always forget.
— Mark Montieth (@MarkMontieth) January 15, 2021
Indiana is allowing 1.10 points per possession so far this season, according to InPredictable. But following a made shot or dead ball turnover, essentially a possession that includes an inbounding process, that drops to just 1.03 PPP. That mark currently ranks third-best in the NBA and the best in the Eastern Conference.
There is obviously a ton of noise in that data considering there are far more players on the Pacers than just McConnell. But there is no doubt that he has played a crucial role in this defensive style.
You can watch how he does it because last month, TalkingPacers.com cataloged the 54 inbound passes that McConnell had stolen during his professional career. It’s an amazing collection of highlights for the Indiana guard.