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In the absence of Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle’s development carries even greater weight for the Sixers

The third-year wing’s offensive progress could help determine how much the Sixers miss Ben Simmons defensively.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On a summer day in San Diego, Matisse Thybulle wanted to go surfing, so he dialed his Philadelphia 76ers teammate, Tobias Harris, and asked if they could push back the work out they had scheduled. But this was a business trip. Tobias Harris would not allow for that. There will be no surfing, was the retort. They were in the midst of a basketball-centered rendezvous to Southern California, aimed at accomplishing a few goals.

Sharpening their craft sat squarely atop that list. And for Thybulle specifically, studying how a tenured professional approaches the off-season would help inform and influence his own training habits. There is no fluff in Harris’ routine, one that head coach Doc Rivers calls “maniacal.” Some of the workouts were entirely composed of Harris focusing on two moves. Thybulle was unaccustomed to such a regimented style.

“All I know is what I’ve done. He’s been doing this and he’s refined his off-seasons over the last, whatever, 9, 10 years to what it is today. I was able to get a really good feel for what it looks like to develop,” Thybulle said. “Like, you don’t need to go into the gym. There’s no point in me coming in here and working on, like, step-back threes off pick-and-rolls, the stuff that’s fun but doesn’t actually make sense.”

Those around the Sixers recognize the benefits of Thybulle’s off-season. Whether it’s his time playing with the Australian national team in the Olympics or hands-on tutoring sessions from Harris, both Danny Green and head coach Doc Rivers said the third-year wing is entering a new stage of the mental game. He’s more confident and comfortable with himself and his role.

“He’s come with a whole different mindset,” Rivers said. “You can feel it, so I’m really happy for him. It’s good to see.”

On Tuesday, Green spoke about the idea that the responsibility to replace what Ben Simmons brought to the team falls collectively upon everyone in the rotation. And to some degree, that’s absolutely correct. But there also does feel like a heightened sense of urgency upon Thybulle’s shoulders because of his defensive exploits, and the lack of size in the presumptive starting backcourt between Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey.

Among the starting five, Green would seem to be the guy to supplement Simmons’ defensive tasks. Due to diminished lateral quickness, though, he’s much better served as a helper and last season provided sufficient evidence of that.

Despite these perceived troubles, the Sixers remain in the rare position of rostering two All-NBA perimeter defenders. Without Simmons, someone else will have to assume those star-laden matchups nightly. Thybulle is most qualified for that job. Yet given his offensive limitations, it’s a complicated endeavor to play him 32 minutes like they did Simmons — who wields his own well-documented offensive shortcomings — a year ago.

If Thybulle is truly prepared to build upon his summer of opportunities and mature offensively, his path to starting (or closing) minutes takes on a much rosier disposition, as does the Sixers’ ability to continue pairing Joel Embiid with an elite perimeter defender. Achieving that begins with the long ball, where he’s hit 33% of his career threes on low volume and typically failed to demand concern from the defense. He’s acutely aware of the pressing need to patch up this hole.

“It’s definitely an area of growth for me, like a focal point in my game that I’m looking to improve,” Thybulle said. “The Olympics were a good opportunity for me to get out in a different setting and grow my confidence, I guess, because that’s such a big part of shooting is believing in yourself to take the shot and make the shot. All players have ups and downs with it. But for me, it’s just trying to have more ups than downs and then, using that belief and turning it into confidence and then, turning it into results.”

Rivers knows the importance of Thybulle’s jumper, but is quick and adamant to acknowledge the varying scoring avenues for the 24-year-old. He said his “straight-line drives are better” and wants transition opportunities to be a frequent source of scoring.

“I asked him, ‘You get one breakaway every 30 games, like, how is that possible with your speed? You should get two a game,’ ” Rivers said. “I really believe, we get a rebound, he should be releasing with his speed, and he can catch and finish. He’s starting to see that and do that.”

For long stretches of last season, Simmons resided in the dunker spot rather than beyond the arc during Embiid’s post touches. While the notion may be that his absence will deprioritize the dunker spot’s involvement moving forward, Rivers makes clear his belief in its utility. He does not just want four shooters stationed around the perimeter. He additionally wants cutters and movement alongside Embiid.

Over the course of his career, Thybulle has become more keen in identifiying chances to cut. Last year, he also found himself in the dunker spot on a semi-regular basis. Expect the former to be an imperative part of his half-court scoring offense separate from threes and the latter to be a prominent portion of his deployment because of his flexibility and year-to-year growth as a finisher.

In 2019-20, he shot 60% at the rim. Last season, he shot 66%. The sample for each is fewer than 100 attempts, but progress was discernible. He displayed better contortion and discretion on his pursuits. If he’s a viable finisher again this year, that eases the assimilation to potentially increased duties in the dunker spot.

Thybulle said the Olympics offered him a platform to explore the limits of his skill-set in a game setting, which he deems a rarity for NBA players. Maintaining the growth, lessons and aggression gleaned from that experimental environmental is rooted in self-belief and security.

“The FIBA game is very different compared to the NBA game, so I was able to find my spots in that,” Thybulle said. “Now, it’s just a matter of getting out here again and playing with much different players in a much different system and just finding that again for myself. But also, just the whole time, knowing that I’m capable of it.”