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NBA Daily: 76ers’ Thybulle Showing Defensive Prowess

So far, rookie Matisse Thybulle has caused absolute havoc in his few preseason opportunities. And although there are some minor concerns about his overall game, Thybulle should be a fixture in Philadelphia’s rotation moving forward, writes Quinn Davis.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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The NBA preseason is in full swing and teams around the league are shaking off the rust in exhibition games that may or may not be televised. Trying to make a meaningful assessment based on preseason play is a fool’s errand, but the games can be useful to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses that may factor into a role that’ll unfold over the coming year.

It can be particularly useful when trying to set expectations for a rookie, as these games are the first that they are playing against NBA talent. While the effort and focus of their opponents may not be at the level it will be in a couple of weeks, there can be some important information gathered from seeing how they fit into a team’s rotation and what their role may be.

For the Philadelphia 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle, that role will be as a defensive homing missile.

Once hailed as a defensive specialist in college, Thybulle began turning heads when the Sixers held their intrasquad scrimmage in Delaware on Oct. 5. While stats were not officially recorded for this game, Thybulle had a plethora of steals and blocks, while his total number of deflections was theorized to reach in the double digits.

Ben Simmons, who had first-hand experience of being guarded by Thybulle in the scrimmage, was asked about the rookie’s defense.

“I hate him on defense, I hate him,” said Simmons, jokingly. “So far, he’s been amazing. His length, just the way he plays the game. He plays the right way.”

Al Horford also went out of his way to comment on the show the rookie put on in that game.

“I was very impressed with several of our guys, especially Matisse,” said Horford. “I think his poise, his feel on defense, it’s one thing to do that in college, and I know it’s just a scrimmage, but I was very encouraged by a lot of the things I saw from him.”

After the scrimmage, the focus now turned to how this defensive presence would translate to a game against an actual opponent. In a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions of the CBA, the answer was immediately clear.

Thybulle played 17 minutes and racked up three steals and two blocks. He sought out errant passes and read the offense like a veteran. Even cooler, the former Husky also used some lightning-quick hands to swat down unsuspecting drivers, occasionally causing the ball to ricochet off a knee and out for a turnover.

After the strong performance, the bar was once again raised for Thybulle. Naturally, the next step would be to prove it against actual NBA competition. 

Thybulle, as if he was cruising through levels of a video game wondering when it would get difficult, immediately flashed his defensive impact and passed the test. The Washington product picked up four steals and a block in a scintillating 18 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets.

While these early returns are encouraging for Philadelphia, there are still more questions to answer and more tests to pass.

Thybulle does have a propensity for fouls that can plague high-energy rookies in the NBA. Already, the rookie is averaging just over six fouls per 36 minutes in the preseason.  

Currently, the high number of turnovers forced by Thybulle is outweighing the downside of his fouling. Of note, Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown commented on this in a recent press conference:

“I’m gonna turn my head to a lot of that initially. I like his energy. I really don’t want to water him down,” Brown said about Thybulle’s fouling. “From time to time, he’s gonna have a reckless-like attempted steal, or he’s gonna come up with a foul, but in general I’m happy to live like that for a while with him. When he can do what he’s been doing, it’s really who he is.”

It’s clear that Brown is fine with Thybulle’s risk-taking as it adds an element of chaos to the Sixers’ defense that was missing last season. If those wagers start to go bust more often, however, the team may have to consider reeling him back in.

Thybulle will also need to stay steady and mistake-free on the offensive end to remain a fixture in the rotation. Right now, he is shooting a semi-passable 30 percent from deep and 46.7 percent overall. He also has flashed an ability to attack closeouts and get to the rim, where he can either go up for the layup or kick it back out.

A knock on Thybulle coming out of college was his lack of ball-handling ability. Of course, this weakness has been on display in the first few preseason games.

While he displays a poise and anticipation beyond his years on defense, Thybulle often looks like a rookie on the other end. His eagerness to move the ball is positive, to an extent, but there are times in which he seems to whip it out of his hands as soon as he catches it — sometimes without checking for a defender in the vicinity of his intended target.

Thybulle’s turnover numbers have not been that high despite his hasty passing, so he has not been hurting the 76ers too much on that end. His offensive pitfalls may be more pronounced in the regular season, however, as a more keyed-in defense could force him to make better decisions or handle the ball.

To say these concerns won’t bother Philadelphia if Thybulle continues to wreak havoc on defense like he has would be an understatement. Thybulle’s current defensive impact is nearly unheard of for a rookie and, if it continues, could make him one of the biggest steals of the draft.

At the 76ers’ annual media day, Basketball Insiders asked Thybulle how he’ll transition from the zone to the man defense he will play in the NBA. For those slightly worried about changing things up, he nearly scoffed at the idea that he wouldn’t be able to make the jump.

“I played zone for two years, but my whole life I played man,” Thybulle said.  “I was known as a defender before the zone. I’m not too worried about being able to have an impact playing man.”

So far, so good, to his credit: With Matisse Thybulle, there’s nothing to worry about — well, unless you’re an opposing player, that is.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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