Matisse Thybulle is a special defender. He proved it on the first night of the season when he helped hold Kemba Walker to 4-18 shooting and racked up four stocks, prompting Brett Brown to call him a “reckless thief.”
“He’s arguably the best I’ve ever coached at such a young-age. He’s a reckless thief. He’s incredibly unique & going to get better.” - Brett Brown on Matisse Thybulle’s defensive ability— 975TheFanatic (@975TheFanatic) October 29, 2019
Thybulle risks getting burned or embarrassed in his incessant hunt for steals and deflections, trusting that his approach will pay off in the long run. The long run has not happened yet, but we can appreciate his finest reckless thefts thus far.
Thybulle’s favorite on-ball move is to stay in rear view pursuit of the ball handler and then sneak behind for a steal or block. This play is a perfect microcosm for his all-or-nothing approach. He forgoes trying to catch up to Kemba Walker, and instead focuses on going for the steal.
We have seen other guards execute this move, but few do it as often as Thybulle, who aims to engineer such situations when he could just guard his man straight up. So far, the gambit has paid off with enough frequency to make it a worthwhile strategy. Obviously, it takes him out of plays sometimes, and can lead to last gasp efforts where he literally dives onto the floor.
Outside of the occasional belly flop, Thybulle has been pretty good on-ball, despite concerns how he would adjust to playing man-to-man defense (University of Washington played mostly zone). He’s exceptional at slipping through screens, gets good contests on shots without fouling, and generally makes the ball handler uncomfortable.
However, to only highlight Thybulle’s work on-ball sells him short, as his off-ball defense has been just as noteworthy. This is harder to track. It is much easier to evaluate on-ball defense, but every valued defensive metric tends to favor players who impact the game even when not guarding the ball handler. Robert Covington, Kyle Anderson, Joe Ingles...these are not guys you’d necessarily stick on the best opposing perimeter scorer but metrics love them. Meanwhile, on-ball specialists such as Avery Bradley and Torrey Craig, and Dorian Finney-Smith have graded out as neutral or negative in most on/off metrics.
There are exceptions to this trend, and certain advanced models can err. However, these stats are likely picking up something we’re missing, because they consider the totality of the individual’s defensive impact on the opposing team, not just the moments engaged in tight on-ball defense.
The Post Bait
I cannot recall a player doing this move consistently, and Thybulle has done this twice in six games. He debuted this move against Washington during the preseason.
Thybulle realizes that he is over-matched. While most guards would try to push Bryant back, he takes a different approach. As soon as Bryant bumps him, Thybulle wanders away from the big man, and baits Ish Smith into thinking that post entry pass is available.
All he has to do now is cleanly rip the ball from Bryant’s hands. This risk seems, to borrow a term from the beloved Brown, reckless, but it has worked and will probably continue to work on unsuspecting post players.
He executed the same move against Karl-Anthony Towns in the fracas of a game last week.
Most players would panic and possibly foul if they were the only one back to guard Towns in transition, but Thybulle turns this predicament into a positive play.
The Big Man Bully
Another great Thybulle-ism is his tendency to sneak up behind passing deficient big men to swat their shot. Here he does it against Thon Maker.
Thybulle knows Maker is unlikely to exploit the double team and pass to the open shooter, and he is fine leaving Bruce Brown open to punish the big man. This defensive freelancing has led to steals and blocks, but also to wide open threes; Thybulle is still testing out how much he can cheat off his man.
Every single NBA player will burn him for helping off a shooter one pass away to this degree, as this type of defense works best in a zone. While most of his instincts have translated over from the Washington 2-3 zone to NBA man defense immediately, this one will need to be adjusted. Thybulle will realize what he can and cannot get away with, and only become better.