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Arguing With Myself: expectations for Matisse Thybulle

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What can we expect from Matisse Thybulle?

NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Randy Cohen: Matisse Thybulle is going to be a solid role player this year and, if we’re lucky, could even be starter-quality at his peak. Pretty sweet for the 24th pick in the draft!

Blind Loyalty: You’re crazy.

RC: What, you don’t think he can be that good? He’s been impressive in preseason!

BL: Of course he can be that good! My point is that he is going to be much, much more than you’re saying. I say he’ll be among the NBA’s best defensive wings in his prime, and might well do so this year. I say he’s likely to set records, or come close to doing so, in his prime if he stays healthy. I’m saying that Matisse Thybulle is a truly, truly special player.

RC: Here are some basic per-36 stats:

REB/AST/STL/BLK/PTS

Preseason: 4.9/2.6/4.9/2.6/13.6

College Senior: 3.6/2.5/4.1/2.6/10.5

College Junior: 3.2/2.9/3.3/1.6/12.4

Let’s start with his calling card, defense.

BL: Those steal and block numbers really pop!

RC: Sure, but he was a 22-year-old beating up on 18-year-old prospects as well as non-prospects of various ages; you have to massively haircut those numbers to convert to the pros.

BL: I remember us making that same point in a previous debate.

RC: Yeah, about Mikal Bridges, another old, defensive-minded player. He’s been OK, but he’s not exactly setting the league on fire.

BL: He had a fine rookie season; we’ll see how high he peaks. But for now we’re focusing on steals and blocks. In college he put up: 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks (taking 10% off the per-40 minutes on College Basketball Reference; everything in this article, college or pro, will be per-36 unless noted).

As a rookie: 1.9 steals and 0.6 blocks

Total stocks -- steals plus blocks, credit Bill Simmons for that convenient neologism I believe -- fell only from 2.9 to 2.5, around 15%.

RC: What were Matisse’s per-36 numbers in college? Even better than Mikal, I guess....

BL: So, so, so much better.

RC: Really? But Mikal was a stocks stud at Nova.

BL: Matisse in his final year, which is what we used for Mikal, averaged 4.4 steals and 2.3 blocks, 6.7 stocks per 36. Like 2 Mikals plus another player!

RC: Wow! Fine, I see that if we only take 15% off that, we’re going to get huge NBA numbers for Matisse. But when you have an outlier like that, you need to haircut it extra; what the statisticians, working before that famous Seinfeld episode, called “shrinkage.”

BL: Yeah, everyone interested in statistical inference, but not so interested that you already know about Bayesian shrinkage, go look it up and read about it when you’re done with this piece!

RC: So who put up stocks at the Matisse level?

BL: As best I can tell only one player has matched Matisse’s college stock production since the data begins.

RC: And that is?

BL: Anthony Davis, 1.5 steals and 5.2 blocks, approximately matching Matisse at 6.7 stocks per 36, maybe a hair higher if we’re careful about rounding.

RC: How’d he turn out? Kidding! He’s a monster. But that’s not really comparable, he was the #1 pick, a guaranteed HOFer on draft day.

BL: Yeah, nobody’s saying Matisse will be good like AD is good. And of course they are not at all similar in physique or play type. Still, ratios are ratios.

RC: First year in the NBA AD delivered 1.5 steals and 2.2 blocks per 36, stocks down 42% per minute compared to college.

BL: So there’s a case that up at that extreme level, a 42% drop off is more reasonable than 15%, greater shrinkage. On the other hand, if you look you’ll see that for AD and Mikal both, it’s the blocks that plummet when you get to the Show, steals are not that affected. It might be more realistic to guess that Matisse will have, say, 90% of his college steals but only 40% of his college blocks.

RC: So if we take 42% off each, we get 2.6 + 1.3, total 3.9 stocks. And if we dun the steals by only 10% but the blocks by 60%, we get 3.6 steals and 0.9 blocks, 4.5 total stocks.

BL: Those are very, very serious numbers.

RC: Aren’t they a little hard to believe? I haven’t checked the history yet, but that sounds like an awful lot of blocks for a guard in the first case, and an awful lot of steals for anyone in the second case. Isn’t using AD unfair? Davis was just a freshman.

BL: Clearly Mikal is a better comp in many ways, but we wanted to see how someone super-elite in college fares in the NBA. I admit I’m worried that I may be biased here since I so much want to believe Matisse will be special. So I asked some smart hoops fans who don’t root for the Sixers. They suggested a reasonable guess might be that Matisse would put up 1/3 to 1/2 his college stocks numbers. The midpoint of that range is around 42%, or 2.8 stocks as a rookie.

RC: It’s hard to be unbiased, we traded two picks to the Celtics for him, and one became Carson Edwards, who even if he isn’t actually good is going to do impressive things. After the Fultz/Tatum fiasco, if Matisse isn’t good, it’s going to be brutal. And if he is as good as you seem to think, it’s going to be truly sweet.

BL: Exactly. The best thing when trying to get to accurate answers is to be unbiased. Distant second, but nevertheless second, is to be aware of your biases and try to account for them.

RC: So now we have three estimates: 2.8, 3.9, and 4.5. A lot of white space between those!

BL: Trivia question: who among guards -- that is, players basketball Reference lists as G, G-F, or F-G -- had the most stocks/36 of any player last year, with a 1500-minute minimum?

RC: I told you I don’t know, it’s a pain to do that stuff as BBref doesn’t let you search on sums of variables like that. I’ll say Ben Simmons, he gets lots of steals but is big enough to block shots too.

BL: Good theory, it would be just like me to ask a trivia question where the answer is Ben. But, no, he’s merely very good, not great, in stocks/minute. The leader last year was Kent Bazemore. Here’s the interesting thing: he had 2.9 stocks /36.

RC: So wait, that Sixer-skeptic estimate that Matisse’s stats would fall almost 60% from college leaves him...

BL: At 2.8, down 58% from his senior year, Matisse would have been tied for second in the entire NBA, with Marcus Smart and James Harden.

RC: Just like you to slip MVP-type James Harden in there -- it’s not like Harden is famous primarily because of his blocks and steals!

BL: Fine. Just saying, the conservative take on Matisse is that, as a rookie, he’ll put up numbers that would tie him for second in the league in a key defensive metric. That’s unbelievable.

RC: Well, you’re calling it “conservative,” but we really don’t know that, do we? Maybe it’s more reasonable to expect he’ll drop 65 or 75 percent, not 58. Remember, he played that zone defense in college, maybe that helped him put up those huge numbers.

BL: Of course that’s possible. But I found it a lot more likely before the preseason.

RC: You’re kidding, right? Only 5 games? One against a team from China that’s probably worse than some U.S. high school teams?! And the rest against benchwarmers, G-Leaguers, and the occasional starter? That’s you’re compelling evidence for Thybulle?

BL: The top three scorers in the preseason, as of Friday, were Steph Curry, Giannis, and James Harden. See a pattern?

RC: They were all top-5 scorers last year.

BL: And remember that argument I wrote at the end of the preseason two years ago? About Ben Simmons?

RC: Some would say I wrote that article!

BL: It’s a metaphysical conundrum. Anyway, you remember it, right? Ben put up like 9 rebounds and 8 assists per 36 in the preseason, similar to what he’d done in college. And we said, hey, this is no longer a fluke. It’s actually exceptionally unlikely that a guy who’s true level of ability is 5 assists and 6 rebounds is going to put up 8 and 9 over 5 games just by accident. Preseason isn’t actually all that different.

RC: We called him “the new Magic Johnson.”

BL: Nothing like a little pressure on a young guy! We’ll see if he can live up to that someday. But in terms of the assists and rebounds, we were right on the money.

RC: SO what are Matisse’s steal and block numbers for the preseason?

BL: He played 95 minutes, had 13 steals and 7 blocks. Total 4.9 steals, 2.6 blocks, 7.5 stocks per 36.

RC: You’re telling me he had even more stocks per 36 in the preseason than in college!?!? That’s remarkable. Let’s list some reasons we’d expect a drop off from college to the pros:

  1. Higher level of competition, especially fewer short guys whose shots are easily blocked, but also better ball handlers, greater ability of pros to take advantage if you try something risky, etc.
  2. Won’t have the steal/block advantage that comes from playing zone defense
  3. If Matisse succeeds in getting lots of steals and blocks early on, players and coaches will adapt to him; in the NBA they’ll see him over and over, unlike in college where a typical player might only face him once or twice in a career.

BL: Preseason makes me pretty confident 2), the zone, isn’t a big factor after all. 1( will definitely be important, and no doubt his regular season numbers will be well below the preseason, with all the Guangzhou and G-League guys gone. But how much less?

RC: Can we run a test?

BL: Here’s what our friend Andy was kind enough to think up and execute:

First, he ranked every NBA player by stocks in the preseason. Here’s the top group, showing Matisse for comparison but leaving out other rookies and others who didn’t play substantial minutes last year we can use for comparison.

PLAYER, TEAM: MIN/STL/BLK/Stocks/2018-19 STK

Myles Turner, IND: 95/1.9/5.7/7.6/4.4

Matisse Thybulle, PHI: 95/4.9/2.6/7.5

JaVale McGee, LAL: 84/1.7/4.7/6.4/4.2

Mitchell Robinson, NYK: 78/1.4/4.6/6/5.7

Michael Carter-Williams, ORL: 109/4/1.6/5.6/3.4

Jonathan Isaac, ORL: 145/3/2.2/5.2/2.9

Kyle O’Quinn, PHI: 59/1.8/3.1/4.9/3.3

Caris LeVert, BKN: 69/4.2/0.5/4.7/1.9

Kent Bazemore, POR: 95/4.6/0/4.6/2.9

Mo Bamba, ORL: 105/0.7/3.8/4.5/3.6

Bruno Caboclo, MEM: 88/1.6/2.9/4.5/2.1

Jayson Tatum, BOS: 63/3.4/1.1/4.5/2.0

Willy Hernangomez, CHA: 56/1.9/2.6/4.5/1.6

Robert Covington, MIN: 92/2/2.4/4.4/3.6

Jarrett Allen, BKN: 82/1.3/3.1/4.4/2.8

Nikola Jokic, DEN: 57/3.1/1.3/4.4/2.4

Paul Millsap, DEN: 57/3.8/0.6/4.4/2.6

Kris Dunn, CHI: 116/4.3/0/4.3/2.3

Damion Lee, GSW: 83/4.3/0/4.3/1.2

Anthony Davis, LAL: 83/1.7/2.6/4.3/4.3

Karl-Anthony Towns, MIN: 106/1.7/2.4/4.1/2.7

DeAndre’ Bembry, ATL: 120/3/0.9/3.9/2.8

Notice that, as with scoring, the list is heavily slanted toward people who are always good at getting stocks, people like Bazemore, AD, Cov, MCW, Javail McGee. Hell, MCW would have led the league’s guards last year if he could have kept up the pace for enough minutes to make the cutoff we used (1500). There’s a ton of chance in who makes this list, but Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Here we see that chance favors people with long limbs, cat-quick reflexes, extraordinary instincts, and a sincere desire to swipe the ball!

So, how lucky were the guys on this list? On average their stocks this preseason were around 1.6x their true level of ability, as measured by their 2018-19 stocks/minute. I.e. if you have the preseason number for someone on the list, your best estimate of their real level, what they’ll do this year, is:

(Preseasons stocks/36)/1.6 or around 61% of their preseason level.

Now, a lot of these players are big men, so it’s worth asking whether the figures are similar for guards and G-F or F-G types like Matisse. If you pick only the 8 players above who fit that description, you get a 55% multiplier instead of the 61% we obtained for all players. Let’s be conservative and use the lower figure.

That leads to an estimate of 7.5*.55 = 4.1 stocks/36 for Matisse, consistent with the results from our other approaches; we now have 2.8, 3.9, 4.1, and 4.5 as the findings from our various mini-studies (if we may thus dignify them!).

RC: 4.1 would have led the league last year, among guards, by a mile! Is it too high to believe?

BL: Perhaps! Assuming we didn’t miss anyone -- which is possible, this is a little tricky to study as previously mentioned! -- using the Basketball Reference numbers that go back to the 1960s, it appears the record is 4.5 from The Logo himself, Jerry West. Jeez, is there anything he can’t do?!

RC: So you’re telling me that based on preseason, we’d estimate Matisse would be within spitting distance of the guard stocks record... as a rookie?

BL: Well, you and I are the only people in the world who talk about per-36 numbers as “records”! Everyone else demands per-game, and Matisse won’t play enough minutes, I’d guess, to set any per-game records.

RC: OK, but ignoring that....

BL: Clearly we can’t expect that to happen. The preseason, in addition to being a small sample, addresses concerns 1) and 2) but not 3), adaptation. If Matisse breaks 3 stocks/36 this year, placing him at or near the league lead, that will be sufficiently incredible even for me.

RC: Let’s talk about that adaptation for a sec -- if that happens, won’t it kill his value? The stocks are his calling card!

BL: I don’t think so. Adaptation basically means that everybody on the other team is thinking, every second of every possession, “where’s Matisse? I have to keep my eye out so he doesn’t humiliate me!” And that sort of attitude on the part of the opposition is, itself, devastatingly effective for the defense. There will be no telling how many open men aren’t seen because the ball handler was looking for Matisse instead, how many passes don’t get made out of fear of a Thybulle deflection, etc.

RC: Just like Covington.

BL: People sometimes questioned whether all those Cov steals and deflections really added up to great D -- after all, he got blown by sometimes. But the on-off numbers certainly suggested Covington’s defense was, and is, exceptionally disruptive and effective.

RC: and Matisse may have fewer blow-bys as well! Still, aren’t you putting too much weight on a tiny number of games? Against questionable competition?

BL: It’s possible. But all I’m saying is:

  1. There are hundreds of NBA players who are not great at getting stocks; if it were easy for such guys to put up lots of preseason stocks by small-sample luck, we’d see those folks dominating the top group, but we don’t. So my guess is Matisse really is tremendous in this realm.
  2. The college stats are not such a small sample, and if they are nonsense, it’s for different reasons than the preseason numbers. It’s starting to be a lot of coincidences to explain.
  3. The reports from Sixers players were and are consistent with the idea that his steal-block ability is real; Ben saying he hates being defended by Matisse, that sort of thing.
  4. The Blue-White scrimmage, only maybe 15 minutes or so but against the very best competition, and a group that had played him over and over for a week plus, showed him stealing the ball seemingly at will.
  5. He seems to pass everyone’s eye test, I haven’t heard anyone claim this all looks like a fluke to them..

None of that means he’ll break the record as a rookie or anything, but I believe he’s the real deal.

RC: Back to the defensive question: does this mean he’ll actually be a good defender? Don’t some guys just put up numbers without being all that effective? Hell, I don’t see Kent Bazemore or James Harden on many All-Defense teams!

BL: For sure that was a concern -- maybe he gets all those turnovers by taking risks. In that case he’d pick up steals and blocks but also give up lots of easy buckets. But, again, the preseason sure didn’t make it look that way. He was guarding Bradley Beal the other night and Tom McGinnis was describing it like it was Irresistable Force vs. Immovable Object, not like it was All-Star vs. Exploitable Rook. But I admit his actual defensive ability is something I’m not comfortable predicting too strongly until we start to see some plus-minus numbers a month or so into the season. Still, the signs are good; I think even Celtics-lover Bill Simmons was talking “Young Kawhi” in terms of MT’s defense!

RC: Actually, you started this article with a strong prediction about him being among the NBA’s best defensive wings....

BL: Hey, you gotta come provocative!

RC: The Sixers were already strong defensively. More is always better, but the big question mark for us is at the other end. Can he deliver there? Hell, can he shoot?

BL: The jury is out. He shot less than 31% from 3 his senior year, though his career numbers are OK, and people say the shot looks smooth and repeatable. During the preseason he didn’t shoot great, but his overall scoring was better than expected, and he pitched in with some assists and rebounds. My sense comes from listening on the radio, so it’s kind of embarrassing for me to even state an opinion like this, but from the call it sounded to me like he was consistently involved in the offense. He wasn’t just waiting in the corner to be thrown the ball one possession in 10; it felt like he was catching and making passes, dribble-driving when appropriate, hoisting one when that made sense. It felt like he was a player. But, seriously, I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.

RC: I’m blind, too!

BL: I suppose I meant that for our readers.

RC: If any are left, this piece is getting pretty long!

BL: By normal standards, but not by my standards!

RC: Still, let’s wrap it up. If you had to guess who Matisse will play the most like, in terms of quality and style of play, at 26, that would be...

BL: Marcus Smart. Which is high praise coming from me; I think he’s the Celtics’ best player right now, and they have a bunch of good ones.

RC: Not Covington? For the Thybulle comp, I mean, not for the C’s best player!

BL: If Covington ever becomes a Celtic, you’ll see a grown man cry, and I don’t mean him, I mean me! There are obvious similarities to Cov, with the deflections and all. But Lord Covington is a lot taller, is a better three-point shooter and a worse dribbler... it’s not that close a comparison. Smart is a bit off too, as Smart can play point guard. While Matisse has a good handle compared to Cov, he’s not on the Smart level. Really, there’s no great comp, no one in college basketball history had stats at all similar to Matisse, and it won’t surprise me if he’s unique in the NBA as well.

BL: And the upside, stretch case, if everything goes right?

RC: I’d love to say Kawhi, but my impression from what I read is that he probably can’t ever be an offensive dominator like Leonard. So I’ll go just slightly less crazy and say if all my dreams come true he’ll be just one level down from there; Scottie Pippen. Of course in reality he won’t be all that much like Pippen either; he’s just a special case. And, really, the probability he’ll be the offensive player Pippen was is infinitesimal.

RC: Any good nickname ideas for Matisse?

BL: I’m thinking about a stand-alone short piece on that! But in case I don’t get around to it, let’s put out there a few thoughts. Matisse is such a great name he doesn’t really need a nickname; he’ll probably just be called Matisse most of the time. But assuming he’s good enough to deserve a top-notch moniker, I have some ideas.

  1. The Artist
  2. Artiste (references art and artists, also references “Matisse” by sound and final “e,” and also also alludes to Artest, the birth name of Metta World Peace!)
  3. Young Bull, or Young Bulle, or The Bull, or similar
  4. Thy-Master (pronounce Thigh-Master, a reference to the endlessly-run infomercial back in the day... OK, forget this one...
  5. Matty-Ice (I know another guy has this, but it’s a different sport, and since he went to Penn Charter I assume he’s a Sixer fan so wouldn’t mind...)

RC: Um, OK, great. Are we done now? What have we learned?

BL: We can stop, because I’ll have another piece out soon, on my new statistic, similar to the Kidd Score Eric and I wrote about when Ben was a rookie. We’ll look at the all-time greats in delivering both blocks and steals from a single player. There’s some work to be done, but the data will, I think, separate into dominant defensive centers like the Dream and the Admiral, who had tremendous numbers in both categories, and then smaller players who deliver the best numbers for their position. It should be really interesting, and we’ll have another opportunity to make fools of ourselves projecting how Matisse will fit into the historical picture.

RC: Sounds good.

BL: But for now, I’ll just say this. To me, it would be a shock if Matisse is not very good at delivering steals + blocks. I would not be at all surprised if he is among the league leaders in steals/36, stocks/36, or both, even though he’s just a rookie. I also expect him to be at least a very good wing defender this year, and “elite” is very much in play, at least for the later part of the season after he learns a few tricks and starts getting a bit of referee respect. And it could be more than that, he could do something historic, like set the rookie record for stocks/36 or put up a season that’s top 30 of all time in stocks/36. Obviously I can’t predict anything that extreme, but if someone wants to offer me major odds on something along those lines, let’s talk!

RC: You make a strong case he’ll be good. But I think you are seriously underestimating the yawning gap between “could be all-time great” at something and turning out to be all-time great. Andrew Wiggins could have been an all-time great scorer, teams, including ours, tanked their season to get him. But it didn’t happen. For every Kawhi Leonard who realizes his full potential, there are a dozen, several dozen, almost-Kawhis, guys who were just as good as Kawhi in college but who weren’t special in the NBA.

BL: Fair point, and absolutely correct as far as comparisons to Kawhi and Pippen go, those are ridiculous long shots, made for amusement only. But I think the question of Matisse getting around 3 stocks per 36 and being in the All-Defensive team conversation in the next few years is less like “is this rookie centerfielder the next Willie Mays” and more like “will Ben Simmons get consistent near-triple-doubles.” I.e. a reasonable projection from what we’ve seen, rather than a hopeful flight of fancy.

RC: We shall see, hope you’re right!