In basketball, a steal occurs when a defensive player legally causes a turnover by his positive, aggressive action(s). This can be done by deflecting and controlling, or by catching the opponent's pass or dribble of an offensive player. The defender must not touch the offensive player's hands or otherwise a foul is called.
Steals are credited to the defensive player who first causes the turnover, even if he does not end up with possession of the live ball. To earn a steal, the defensive player must be the initiator of the action causing the turnover, not just the benefactor. Whenever a steal is recorded by a defensive player, an offensive player must be credited as committing a turnover.
Stealing the ball requires good anticipation, speed and fast reflexes, all common traits of good defenders. However, like blocked shots, steals are not always a perfect gauge of a player's defensive abilities. An unsuccessful steal can result in the defender being out of position and unable to recover in time, allowing the offense to score. Therefore, attempting to steal is a gamble. Steals, though risky, can pay off greatly, because they often trigger a fastbreak for the defensive team.
There is no prototypical position from which a player may get many steals. While smaller, quicker guards tend to accumulate the most steals, there are many exceptions. For example, forward Rick Barry led the NBA in steals in 1974-75, and for many years center Hakeem Olajuwon led his team in the category, consistently ranking among the league's leaders, and is the only center ranked in the top 10 all-time in steals. Karl Malone, a power forward, is currently number ten.
NBA steals records
Steals were first recorded in the NBA in the 1973-74 season, while the rival ABA league first recorded steals during the same season.
Kendall Gill and Larry Kenon are tied for most steals in a regular season NBA game with eleven. Kenon's was recorded on December 26, 1976 while Gill recorded his on April 3, 1999.
The most steals by a player in an NBA season is 301 by Alvin Robertson in 1985-86.
The NBA's all-time leader for steals is John Stockton with 3,265 in his career.
The NBA leader in steals per game (SPG) is Alvin Robertson with an average of 2.71 (career, 1250 steals minimum) and 3.67 (season, 125 minimum).
Mookie Blaylock has a record 11 seasons averaging at least 2.0 SPG. 
Alvin Robertson has a record 7 seasons averaging at least 2.5 SPG.
Alvin Robertson has a record 4 seasons averaging at least 3.0 SPG. Five other players have done this in one season apiece. 
Baron Davis is the all-time playoff leader in steals per game for a career with 2.28 SPG.
Maurice Cheeks in the 1979 Playoffs averaged a playoff record 4.11 SPG.
Michael Jordan has a record 10 NBA Playoff runs averaging at least 2.0 SPG.
Teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are tied for a record 7 playoff runs averaging at least 2.0 SPG for more than 1 round.
Maurice Cheeks, Baron Davis, and Clyde Drexler are tied for a record 3 Playoff runs averaging at least 2.5 SPG for more than 1 round.
Notable players in the NBA
Some of the greatest defensive specialists in the steals category in the NBA include:
- Hakeem Olajuwon - ranking in the top 10 All-Time in both steals and blocks.
- Walt Frazier - renowned for his masterful defense, which culminated around his ability to deflect dribbling and passes using his incredibly quick hands. Steals were not recorded during the early part of his career. Frazier once made 8 consecutive steals during a third quarter against Atlanta in 1971.
- Allen Iverson - led the league in steals three times (consecutively); most steals in a playoff game.
- Michael Jordan - led the league in steals and steals per game three times, #3 all-time in career steals and #3 all-time in steals per game. #2 all-time in career steals in the playoffs behind Scottie Pippen.
- Chris Paul - holds the NBA record for most consecutive games with a steal, led the league in steals and steals per game six times.
- Michael Ray Richardson - led the league in steals three times; #2 all-time in steals per game.
- Alvin Robertson - led the league in steals and steals per game three times, #9 all-time in career steals and #1 all-time in steals per game.
- John Stockton - led the league in steals twice, #1 all-time in career steals and #6 in steals per game.
- Jerry West - is widely known for his ability to execute steals, but the statistic was not recorded until his final season. West was the first player to officially record 10 steals in a game.
- Clyde Drexler - Drexler had 2,207 steals in his 15-year career with the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets. He is #7 all-time in career steals.