Story by KL Chouinard
Thabo Sefolosha has spent more than a decade stopping the NBA’s best scorers as well as anyone could. This season, Sefolosha’s 11th in the NBA, he added some clever pickpocketing skills to his repertoire.
The 6-foot-7 wingman led the Hawks with 96 steals despite being limited to just 62 games due to injury. In fact, among NBA players who played 1,500 or more minutes this season (the standard single-season qualification for rate-based NBA leaderboards), Sefolosha finished fifth in steal percentage (3.0 percent) behind only Tony Allen, Chris Paul, T.J. McConnell and Draymond Green.
Of course, Sefolosha’s steals were more like a dessert and less like a main course. His ability to limit an opponent’s best perimeter scorer remained his best asset, and he won those battles on the strength of his positional defense. The quick hands and long reach that poked away a career-best 1.5 steals per game were just the cherry on top.
In his third season with the Hawks, Sefolosha stood out in other ways too. His points per game (7.2), assists per game (1.7), and three-point percentage (34.2 percent) were higher this season than in either of his other two in Atlanta.
His toolbox of skills kept growing, even at age 33. For instance, he spent more time as a primary ballhandler in the offense, in part because the Hawks only had two point guards on the roster, and in part because it showcased one of his strengths: finishing at the rim. He also spent more time playing power forward in small-ball lineups, something that the Hawks did more this season than they had in prior ones. And Sefolosha shared his tools too. The Hawks drafted two young wings, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry, whose NBA futures hinge on their ability to defend. Sefolosha served as a standard-bearer and mentor to both.
When Sefolosha dropped 20 points on the Bulls in Atlanta in November, it marked one of the most efficient scoring games in recent Hawks history. He made 8 of his 9 field goal attempts that night, while adding 5 rebounds and 3 steals. It also set a new Hawks career-high point total for Sefolosha.
Because of an injury, Sefolosha’s season didn’t end on a high note. A right groin injury sidelined him for 8 of the final 10 regular-season games, and when the playoffs started, the Hawks didn’t re-shuffle the playing rotation to incorporate him. He played a total of just 9 minutes in the series against Washington.
Even though that playoff series didn’t work out for the Hawks or Sefolosha, the Swiss stopper’s future is bright. Now more than ever, the NBA has shifted to perimeter offense and three-point shooting — the league has set a new record for made threes in every recent season — so Sefolosha’s ability to smother such scoring should make him an impactful player in the years to come.