September 2, 2023 

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes is chasing 100 steals — and WNBA history

Sykes, the two-time reigning steals champion, has been even more dangerous defensively this season

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes, also known as Slim, led the WNBA in steals and steals per game in both 2021 and 2022. As she aims for a third straight triumph, she is also chasing a seemingly audacious goal she set for herself: 100 steals.

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Only one WNBA player has ever reached 100 steals in the regular season: New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon in 1998. Four other players have done it across the regular season and playoffs, most recently Atlanta Dream forward/guard Angel McCoughtry in 2013.

“It’s looking slim. No pun intended,” Sykes told reporters on Aug. 26 about achieving the milestone in the regular season. At the time, she had 73 steals with seven games left. “But … I’m still going after 100 because if I fall below it, I’ll be okay with it. If I say, ‘Oh, okay … I’m trying to get 80,’ I end up getting like 74. I don’t want to shortchange myself. I want to keep pushing myself.”

Sykes has used that goal to help her reach a new level of thievery this season. She is on pace to set career highs in total steals (with 77 and counting) and steals per game (2.1). She leads the league in total steals and ranks second, barely behind Los Angeles Sparks guard Jordin Canada, in steals per game and steal rate (3.5%). Only Weatherspoon and McCoughtry have ever led the WNBA in total steals in three straight seasons, and Indiana Fever legend Tamika Catchings is the only player to do so in steals per game.

Sykes, a 5’9 guard in her seventh WNBA season, has always been a gifted defender, long-armed and ultra-athletic. At University High School in Newark, New Jersey, her coach told her she had the potential to defend like Catchings, a five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. But Sykes didn’t fully commit to being a great defender until she joined the Sparks in 2020 and started working with then-assistant coach Latricia Trammell.

That season, all WNBA teams played in Bradenton, Florida, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sykes took advantage of that setup to talk with Catchings, who was then the Fever’s general manager. She asked Catchings how she had pushed herself so hard on every defensive possession.

“I was still trying to figure out what my why was when it came to defense,” Sykes said. “So just to hear hers, it helped me figure out what avenue I wanted to take.”

Since then, Sykes has become a similarly relentless presence on defense. She pressures ball-handlers into steals and intercepts passes thrown anywhere near her. Teammate Shatori Walker-Kimbrough calls her a “one-man press.”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes extends her right arm and reaches for a ball as Seattle Storm guard Jade Melbourne also looks to gather it.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) reaches for a ball during a game against the Seattle Storm at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Sykes had 31 steals in 21 games in 2020, the first time in four professional seasons that she had averaged more than one per game, and earned the first of three WNBA All-Defensive Team nods. She went up another notch in 2021 and 2022, reaching two steals per game for the first time last season, and has improved again in 2023. This season, 54 of her steals have come away from the ball and 23 have come on it, according to WNBA play-by-play data. Only seven other players have even reached 54 total steals this season.

“She’s probably one of the best I’ve seen at being able to bait people into bad passes,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on July 19. “She’s long and she’s got that great closing speed. So she can make it look like a passing lane’s open and then anticipate and shoot a gap.”

“She’s playing the wrong sport, honestly,” Mystics center Shakira Austin said on Aug. 29. “When you watch her on the floor, she literally just looks like a receiver. She’s just coming out of nowhere, timing things perfectly. … She sees stuff before it even happens.”

A graph showing that Brittney Sykes' game-over-game steals have been higher all season in 2023 than they were in 2021. She also surpassed her 2022 pace about halfway through the 2023 season.
A graph showing Brittney Sykes’ steals game-over-game in the 2021, 2022 and 2023 regular seasons. (Graph by Jenn Hatfield using data from Basketball-Reference)

All season long, Sykes has matched or exceeded the pace she set when she first led the league in steals in 2021. But she mostly trailed her 2022 pace until late July, when she swiped 19 steals in four games. That helped her reach 50 steals in five fewer games than she did in 2021 and two fewer games than in 2022.

In that midseason surge, Sykes was fueled not only by her goal of 100 steals, but also by something she considered a failure. She didn’t record a steal in a July 19 loss to Indiana, snapping a streak of 28 straight games with at least one steal dating back to 2022.

“I’m just still upset about the Indiana game because I didn’t get a steal in that game and that cut the streak,” she said on Aug. 4. “… So that’s kind of been my vendetta.”

Sykes’ streak ranks in the top 12 in WNBA history and is the longest since Minnesota Lynx guard Maya Moore’s 31-game run ended in May 2018. All told, Sykes has gotten at least one steal in 32 of 36 games this season and 85 of 100 over the past three seasons.

“With [Sykes], if you’re loose with your handle, if you make too long of a pass and you’re not looking before you pass, you’re looking at a pick-six,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve told reporters on Aug. 29.

Sykes is doing this despite playing in an era when fewer players are accumulating gaudy steals numbers. In each of the WNBA’s first four seasons from 1997 to 2000, six or more players averaged at least 2.0 steals per game, and that happened again in 2009 and 2012. But since 2014, no more than two players per year have averaged that many steals. (This pattern holds even when controlling for the number of teams in the league.)

A graph showing the number of WNBA players each season who have averaged at least 2.0 steals per game (minimum 10 games played). That number has generally decreased since 1997.
A graph showing the number of WNBA players each season who have averaged at least 2.0 steals per game (minimum 10 games played). (Graph by Jenn Hatfield using data from Her Hoop Stats)

Part of what has helped Sykes thrive this season is playing alongside other elite individual defenders, including WNBA All-Defensive Team guards Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud and a center who has that potential in Austin. It’s been a positive cycle: More ball pressure can force opponents into passes that are easier to steal, and players can pressure the ball more aggressively because they are confident in their teammates behind them.

“She pursues the ball on the help-side defense [and] on the ball,” Walker-Kimbrough told reporters on Aug. 29. “Just knowing that I have her behind me … it just gives me a lot of confidence when I’m on the ball, knowing I have a counterpart like that.”

“Watching how tenacious … she is on the ball, it just gives me that energy on the wing,” Atkins, who herself is known for bringing energy defensively, said on Aug. 26. “… If Slim’s going for it, I know I can rotate. I know I can be up on my player. So I love it.”

That synergy was evident right away: In the season opener, Sykes had five steals, and the team as a whole had 13. The Mystics have had at least 10 steals in seven other games since then, and their average of 7.9 per game is tied for their highest since 2012.

However, steals are far from the only thing that make a team or player great defensively. Over the years, Sykes said, she’s learned how going for steals and missing them can put her teammates in tough positions, and she’s started to gamble more judiciously. She’s made clear that her pursuit of 100 steals needs to help her team defensively, not leave it vulnerable.

As a result, Sykes is also excelling in broader measures of defensive value, ranking fifth in the league in defensive win shares and 10th in defensive rating. One example of her all-around impact came against the Las Vegas Aces on Aug. 26, when Sykes recorded just one steal but harassed five-time All-Star Chelsea Gray into 3-for-13 shooting, including 1-for-5 from 3-point range.

“Slim loves to bait a pass and gamble,” Thibault said postgame, “and I thought she picked her spots really well — when to do that and when to just stay disciplined [and] follow the scouting report.”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes defends Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler as Wheeler looks for an angle near the baseline.Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes defends Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler as Wheeler makes a move inside the arc.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (15) defends Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler (17) during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

That balance has made Sykes even more of a menace for opposing players and coaches. Walker-Kimbrough, who played against Sykes 14 times before they became teammates this season, chuckled as she revealed what her coaches had said in the past when preparing to play Sykes:

“Just kind of get her away from the ball. Take her out of the play and then we’ll be fine. [Use] a lot of ball fakes, pump fakes — a lot of them.”

Aces head coach Becky Hammon had something similar, but perhaps a little more drastic, in mind on Aug. 26. “I would like her out of the gym, as far away from the ball as she possibly can go,” Hammon said pregame, “because she is a monster. They’re a two-headed monster because then you go to the other side [and] you got Natasha Cloud sitting there. So they bring a ton of pressure … it just seems like their gas tank’s always full and the gas [pedal] is always down.”

In mid-August, Sykes set a micro-goal en route to 100 steals. She’d done the math and decided she needed five or more steals in at least two more regular-season games — and she promptly got five against the Dallas Wings on Aug. 20. She still needs another big haul in her team’s last four games, but she is undaunted. The big goal she set has done exactly what it was intended to do: push her — and her team — to a new level of doggedness.

“It seems impossible, but impossible takes a week,” she said, quoting a Jay-Z song.

Starting with the Mystics’ next game on Sept. 3, Sykes has eight days.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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