We all know there’s only so much weight you can put into NBA preseason. But there are indicators of what’s to come when the games really count, whether it’s a team’s stylistic approach or a young player’s development. As the Philadelphia 76ers approach the season, the backup wing rotation is one of Brett Brown’s main positional battles of concern. However, there is no doubt Matisse Thybulle made the most of his opportunity in preseason.
Thybulle’s defense consistently stood out in preseason. In five games, playing 19.1 minutes a night, he averaged 7.2 points (shooting 48 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from three with a total of four made triples), 2.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and an eye-popping 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks. Per 36 minutes, that equates to 4.9 steals and 2.6 blocks. Even if you cut his production in half — and again, take it with a pinch of salt as it’s preseason — it’s impressive.
The games may be meaningless with preseason-level effort and rotations, but Thybulle has still been finding success in his first run against NBA players. It shouldn’t take long for him to erase doubts that he needed Washington’s 2-3 zone to make a big impact defensively. Through his historically impactful college career and now in Summer League and preseason with the Sixers, he’s displayed basically every trait that you want in a defender. Especially one who can wreak havoc off the ball.
Thybulle’s instincts may be his best skill. He reads the floor exceptionally fast, finding opportunities to break up plays before they happen that many other players — especially his age — would miss.
Once James Ennis and Kyle O’Quinn blitz this dribble hand-off and trap Dwayne Bacon, Thybulle knows the easiest read is to Bismack Biyombo and jumps the lane to snatch away the ball as soon as Bacon raises his arms to start making the pass:
Thybulle can break up pick-and-rolls in a flash. He uses his anticipation to break up passes to rolling big men or size to smother ball handlers, stalling plays before opponents see him coming.
In the first play in the clip below, you can see how fast his hands are with the steal from behind as Luke Kennard dribbles around the screen. Meanwhile, the second play demonstrates how Thybulle can navigate screens, as he beats two before getting back in the play to break up the pass to Thon Maker:
His knack for beating screens helps off the ball, as well. Thybulle is alert, agile and active, and won’t let shooters get away from him when they’re running off screens. He has terrific reach to contest around picks:
Even when Thybulle isn’t coming away with steals, his hands and reactions are so fast that he can rack up deflections in a hurry. Simple passes around the arc aren’t quite as easy if he’s lurking nearby. And at 6’5” (without shoes) with a 7-foot wingspan and constant activity, Thybulle’s presence can force opponents to make errant passes or deter them from making passes altogether.
Thybulle hasn’t just impressed on defense because of inflated numbers from lucky or uncharacteristic steals. He’s displayed the exact same instincts and disruptive talent around the floor that he did through college. For reference, while the five-game sample size of preseason is small, his production was close to his output at Washington last season. Per 100 possessions, he averaged, 6.7 steals and 4.4 blocks in his final year of college, and 6.2 steals and and 3.3 blocks in preseason.
Brett Brown has praised Thybulle’s intelligence. “When you talk to him, you don’t feel like you’re talking to a young kid,” Brown said after Thybulle’s first start for the team when they faced Detroit, per NBA.com’s Lauren Rosen. “He’s sophisticated, at times, maybe beyond his years. He’s smart. He takes pride in trying to be smart. It means something to him to be studied, and not make mistakes.”
Gambling will always lead to some mistakes, though. Thybulle still needs to learn how to avoid giving up open looks unnecessarily. Take this play, for instance. As Kennard comes down the lane, Josh Richardson is trailing him closely and Joel Embiid is ready in the paint. There’s no need for Thybulle to help so far off his man in an attempt to pressure Kennard at the elbow, but he does and leaves Tony Snell wide open for a three:
But Brown doesn’t want to limit Thybulle’s aggressiveness. “He’s never told me to hold back on the defensive end,” Thybulle said when discussing how Brown has coached him so far, per The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann. “I’ve made some reckless decisions on whether or not I should chase the ball … and have been out of position or not. He just lets me to continue to explore that and find that fine line for myself.”
While it’s not his main strength, there’s no doubt Thybulle is still solid defending on the ball, in addition to his off ball chops. He’s quick and has excellent size, with long arms and precise timing to frequently contest or block shots from behind if his man gets a step ahead.
Again, controlling his aggressiveness is something for him to develop. But his speed, reach and shot-blocking ability can help him recover if he gets a little too aggressive going for a steal or over-eager closeout.
One of the intriguing elements of Thybulle’s fit with the Sixers is that they have the personnel to let him play to his roaming strengths. Even though he won’t be able to embrace a full free safety role at the top of a zone, he’ll often be required to cover weaker assignments. Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons will be able to take on the toughest perimeter opponents (Richardson’s ability against point guards will allow Simmons to spend more time on forwards, where he’s best suited), giving Thybulle more opportunities to roam and pounce off the ball by helping off a lesser threat. A lineup of Simmons, Richardson, Thybulle, Al Horford and Embiid should easily be elite defensively. Creating more steals and fast break opportunities with Thybulle in the mix will be a welcome change (Philly only ranked 23rd in steals per game last season).
Obviously, there’s a learning curve for any rookie, including defensive masterminds. We have to wait and see exactly how well Thybulle will perform in meaningful NBA games. It’s also essential to note that his shooting will be key in determining how many minutes he can earn. Fortunately for the Sixers, he’s looked confident with his shot in Summer League (attempting 5.6 per game) and preseason, and was somewhat underrated in college as he shot 35.8 percent from three (four attempts per game) and 78.2 percent from the free throw line over his four seasons.
I’m confident that concerns over his shooting have been overblown by some. Nevertheless, he’s still a limited offensive player. How well he can use a few dribbles to execute occasional dribble hand-offs and attack closeouts will be key to raising his value and playing time as well.
He has a long way to go, but this is something else he flashed in preseason. For example, these simple passes against Charlotte were right on target after he used composed drives to beat his man and find open shooters:
It’s clear that Thybulle is well ahead of Zhaire Smith, more so than before they played in preseason. Smith simply hasn’t looked as game-ready, and has been far lower in Brett Brown’s experimental rotation. Smith averaged just 10.2 minutes per game, picking up most of his run in garbage time. Unsurprisingly, after just one year of college as a raw offensive player and an essentially missed rookie season in the NBA, Smith needs more time. Meanwhile, Brown has indicated pretty clearly that Thybulle will be in his rotation.
Thybulle’s main competition for the top reserve wing spot will now be James Ennis. Ennis already proved he can help last season, particularly with his play against Toronto in the playoffs. Brown has expressed how much he wants to the No. 1 seed in the East and Ennis has five years of NBA experience on his side. That said, Ennis has obvious flaws. He lacks much lateral quickness to guard smaller players and isn’t a great shooter, either — with his rather slow release and moderate volume, he’s only shot 35.7 percent from three through his career.
If Smith is going to have minimal minutes right away, that opens up more playing time for Thybulle. And given the latter’s far superior defensive talent and versatility when compared to Ennis, all Thybulle needs is solid three-point shooting and competent ball handling against closeouts to take the top wing spot off the bench.
It shouldn’t be surprising if that’s the case fairly soon.