Matisse Thybulle looked like a defensive phenom to open his rookie season for the Philadelphia 76ers. He averaged 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks (4.9 and 2.4 per 36 minutes) over his first five games while playing 20.7 minutes a night. He was leading the league in steals. Even for a small handful of games, such eye-popping numbers instantly gained Thybulle plenty of attention.
After 17 games, his average of 3.7 steals per 36 minutes leads the NBA (among players with at least 75 minutes played). He’s adding 1.9 blocks in the same time frame for good measure.
The fact that you can make what looks like half a season’s worth of highlights from Thybulle’s first handful of games is a testament to how special his defensive playmaking is.
He doesn’t need a zone defense to utilize his terrific instincts and speed. His level of anticipation is seriously rare for a rookie. He can predict passes before they happen, and time his pounces into passing lanes perfectly when he’s on his game to cause disruption all over the floor. Along with the odd block from behind on unsuspecting opponents, he creates stops and fast break chances out of nowhere:
His length (6’5” without shoes and a 7-foot wingspan), speed and constant energy have allowed him to be a menace on the ball at times, too. He can close out on shooters and contest well in a flash, nimbly navigate his way around screens, and apply strong pressure on the ball with incredibly quick, aggressive hands.
The first play in particular in the video below stands out. Thybulle’s first elite assignment of the season was Kemba Walker. The rookie forces Walker out of an initial three-point attempt, prompts a pass, then proceeds to chase him down and emphatically swat away a floater:
However, until what was easily the best game of Thybulle's young career on Wednesday against Sacramento (which I'll get to soon), his impact fell off significantly since his initial outburst. As is the case for most rookies, there have been plenty of learning curve moments.
Over the Sixers’ last 12 games before their 97-91 win against the Kings, Thybulle averaged only 11.7 minutes, received one DNP, and put up numbers tame by his standards. Head coach Brett Brown has been quick to pull Thybulle from games when he’s made glaring mistakes. Even though Brown has said he doesn’t want to restrict Thybulle from being his roaming, disruptive self, there are only so many errors you can look past. Erratic mistakes at both ends of the floor have hindered his impact.
On defense, an incredibly high foul rate has been one of two main problems. His average of six per 36 minutes ranks eighth-highest out of 357 players with at least 75 minutes played.
When Thybulle tries to go for steals or blocks almost all the time, he fouls when it’s far too ambitious to actually make something happen. Smart opponents can bait him into fouling on the ball, or he'll fall out of position away from it.
Thybulle needs to learn to rely on his size and quickness more to bother opponents on the ball, rather than reaching needlessly like in the plays below. Take the first foul, for example. Thybulle loses track of Michael Carter-Williams which creates the opening for a cut. Instead of recovering to get under the basket and raise his arms to contest a layup, Thybulle immediately runs down the lane and goes for a steal. At that point, fouling on an even more desperate recovery is almost inevitable:
The next lesson is knowing when to gamble. While Thybulle’s aggressiveness can reap plenty of rewards, some gambles have served as a reminder why it was an area of improvement for Thybulle entering the draft.
The following play against San Antonio is a good example, and an error that caused Brett Brown to pull him from the game immediately. Mike Scott had Rudy Gay well covered at the elbow — at best, Gay would be able to take a contested mid-range jumper or drive into the paint with Joel Embiid waiting nearby. Thybulle makes the mistake of doubling and reaching for the ball from behind when Gay has it firmly secured, which leaves a good shooter, Marco Belinelli, totally unguarded in the corner for an open three:
Similarly on this play, there’s absolutely no need for Thybulle to double Andrew Wiggins, an underwhelming three-point shooter, so far away from the basket and leave his own man open one pass away:
Of course, Thybulle is talented enough to pull off crazy gambles sometimes. He just needs to consistently pick spots with higher success rates, rather than creating too many easy looks for opponents. Experience and firm coaching from Brett Brown is all Thybulle needs to cut down on these mistakes.
Offensively, life has mostly been tough for Thybulle. It's clear he has quite a long way to go to polish his game. This was always going to be the main obstacle for him when entering the NBA. Before getting into his struggles, though, it’s worth noting that he’s flashed some promising signs.
For one, he’s been willing to shoot. He’s taking 1.8 three-pointers per game (4.6 per 36 minutes) and making 38.7 percent. He’s generally been running out to the corners in transition to stretch defenses and serve as a kick-out option, and he’s even taken a few threes out of dribble hand-offs.
When he’s remained under control, Thybulle has shown a few flashes of the kind of straight-line drives to the rim and simple playmaking reads — such as kicking out to a shooter or feeding teammates in the paint with pocket passes or dump-offs — that the Sixers need from him:
The negatives have easily outweighed the positives, though. Reckless decision-making is at the root of most of his problems. Far too often Thybulle has played about three gears higher than he needs to be, whether he’s forcing passes or rushing drives.
Ball security has been a big issue. He’s averaging 2.9 turnovers per 36 minutes, which is awfully high for someone who is required to handle the ball so little. In fact, prior to his game against Sacramento, Thybulle’s 23.9 turnover percentage was eighth-highest out of 100 players with a usage percentage of 15 or less (and a minimum of 25 minutes played).
The possessions in the clip demonstrate how hectic his decision-making has been at times:
In the first play, he flies past a closeout into the lane with only four seconds left on the shot clock. He doesn’t seem to have much of a plan, and there’s not enough time even if he was a more talented passer to penetrate and kick the ball to a shooter through traffic. The second play illustrates his predetermined thinking. Thybulle slowly forces a pass to Al Horford, Nerlens Noel anticipates it, helps off Tobias Harris, and gets an easy steal, while Harris is left wide open. The spacing is poor here, too. But throwing away passes that easily makes matter worse.
The same uncontrolled play can apply to Thybulle’s finishing — his 44 percent shooting (8-of-18) at the rim has shown some of his limitations. He’s blown multiple layup opportunities by flying at the rim and either rushing his attempts or forcing unnecessary reverses. Sometimes, it’s best to just keep things simple and go up strong, rather than trying layups like the following:
With all that said, we aren’t even a quarter of the way through Thybulle’s first season. Rookies make mistakes. And when you’re as aggressive as Thybulle, you can make a lot.
It may be easier said than done, but before any leaps in terms of skill happen, changes to his mindset alone would still be huge for Thybulle. A more safe, selective approach to gambling on defense is essential. Slowing down and playing with more patience would help him control his drives and passing on offense.
After a few difficult weeks, everything seemed to come together for Thybulle on Wednesday against Sacramento. He had what was easily his best NBA game yet, finishing with 15 points (five-of-five shooting, including making all three of his triples), three rebounds, four steals and two blocks in just 21 minutes. The all-around spark he provided helped propel the Sixers to a win.
Thybulle was as disruptive as ever on defense, did an excellent job of containing Buddy Hield's attempts to drive and contesting threes (including a block of a Hield step-back three, which isn't easy at all), played with energy and more patience offensively to cut down his mistakes, and provided some confident shooting:
Essentially, he displayed pretty much everything the Sixers want from him.
Experience is all Thybulle needs. Experience to develop in some of the areas discussed, and find the assertive, composed version of himself that showed up against Sacramento more often.
If he can start making these improvements consistently, he can become a reliable, valuable rotation player as the Sixers push for the No. 1 seed and a trip to the Finals.