A few common refrains are prevalent in Joel Embiid’s campaigning this season. He is the MVP. Ben Simmons is Defensive Player of the Year. Tobias Harris deserves an All-NBA spot. Matisse Thybulle is the best perimeter defender in the NBA — well, him or Simmons.
That final sentiment is lofty, partisan praise for the 6-foot-5 wing. While it sounds ambitious, if Thybulle and Simmons are Embiid’s primary sources of perimeter defense across the league, his claim is certainly understandable. And if they are not, it still might be warranted, given Thybulle’s defensive artistry and second-year advancement.
During his rookie season, he quelled pervasive pre-draft narratives by establishing himself as more than just a zone specialist. He neutralized screens to vex ball-handlers and teleported through space for interceptions or rear-view blocks. Plays were authored that did not seem possible for the majority of defenders.
Year two has featured many similar highlights, while ushering in greater discretion — “We have been all over him about it,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers says — and transforming him from very good defender to legitimate All-Defensive Team candidate. Perhaps not quite worthy of the praise Embiid regularly bestows upon him, but within the realm of viability, so that Embiid’s subjective viewpoint is enough to justify the advocacy.
Averaging 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks in only 20.1 minutes per game, Thybulle is among the rare class of perimeter defenders who actually sway the tide of games. He ranks second behind Rudy Gobert in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus, is fifth in Defensive RAPTOR and ninth in Defensive LEBRON. He leads the NBA in steal percentage (3.7) and ranks 14th in block percentage (4.5), trailing 13 centers in the latter category. Any avenue one looks, whether statistically or optically, will yield a similar conclusion.
“He’s just a hell of a defender,” Rivers says.
Through 57 games, Thybulle has spent at least 10 possessions defending 41 different players. Those players have scored 226 points on 77-of-220 shooting (35 percent) and coughed up 44 turnovers. Factoring in free throws, their 226 points have come on 46 percent true shooting. The NBA average for true shooting this season is 57.1 percent.
Airspace ceases to exist around Thybulle. Any perceived crease created or available will not align with reality because of his recovery tools. His agility, contortion in narrow alleyways and 7-foot wingspan envelop opponents. Screening him is a burden. He’ll spin around picks, dart over the top or prevent ball-handlers from utilizing them altogether.
“His reflexes are one of a kind,” Danny Green says. “He’s got cat-like reflexes, very good length and knows how to get angles... He reminds me of a better me. He’s more athletic covering ground.”
He imposes himself and crowds assignments without breaking any rules. Separation, genuine separation to the point of comfort, is a figment. His game should instill a sense of paranoia for others, cognizant of his seemingly omnipresent defensive havoc.
Whereas last season Thybulle’s on-ball defense may have been treated like a change-of-pace option, Rivers entrusts him with assuming those assignments from the outset more often this year. Along with simply having an NBA season to bank on for enhanced knowledge, that deployment has helped breed a level of continuity and familiarity fueling Thybulle’s maturation as an on-ball wizard.
“It’s just knowing players a little bit better,” Thybulle says. “Last year, I kinda got thrown into the fire of, if somebody started to get hot, it was just like, ‘Just sic ‘em!’ Like they would just send me at them and I was just trying to do the best I could. This year, I kinda have a better idea of who I’m gonna be guarding. I’ve seen them play before once or twice and I think that might help, if it has helped at all.”
“I look at him sometimes and say, ‘It’s time. It’s time to lock up,’” Simmons says.
Thybulle’s development and the coaching staff’s tweak in application of his talents are compounded by his sustained proclivity for playmaking chaos. The ball-hawking nature that announced itself from day one last season is a critical part of his ethos, amplified by progress borne through NBA experience. His steal rate is up from 3.5 to 3.7 percent and his block rate is up from 3.1 to 4.5 percent.
That league-leading steal rate is the product of his defensive manipulation and instincts. The real estate he covers belies his status as a wing. Mental acuity is the only way to proceed when Thybulle is in the neighborhood. He will pounce on any floating pass, undisciplined hand-off or unspirited decision.
Bending the offense to his will, shifting his responsibilities from reactive to proactive, is a common occurrence. Most perimeter defenders cannot reorient the hierarchy of possessions like that. Most defenders are not Matisse Thybulle.
“There’s not 10 better defenders in this league, I can tell you that,” Rivers says. “There may not be five.”
There is almost a brazenness to his approach, as if he wants opponents to balance trying to process decisions and dribble around him. Dare to attempt that pass. Direct the action his way. Operate under the guise a typical defender is involved.
“He gets his hands on everything,” Embiid says. “I think he has the potential to be the best defender in the league, just the way he moves and the way he reads on defense. He’s got great hands.”
“Everything” is, of course, hyperbole from Embiid — although, opponents may disagree — but Thybulle’s penchant for event creation is not contained to takeaways. This season, he is on pace to become the 10th player 6-foot-6 or shorter (14th time in all) since 1973-74 to average at least two blocks per 100 possessions (minimum 1,000 minutes played), per StatHead. His mark of 2.4 blocks per 100 possessions is the fifth-highest of the group.
According to PBPStats, he paces the NBA in long mid-range jumpers blocked (classified as between 14 feet to the arc) with 24 and ranks second in the NBA in 3-pointers blocked this season (18). A season ago, he led the NBA in the latter mark (21) and finished tied for 10th in the former (five).
“His ability to close reminds me a lot of Deion Sanders,” Rivers says. “I’m saying that like I played with Deion Sanders, but Deion always gave guys cushions and quarterbacks never threw it. They knew if they did, somehow he would get there. I feel that way on jump-shooters. They think they have the shot.”
42 of Thybulle’s 58 rejections are jump-shots this year. Slow releases are a death knell against him. The traditional time afforded to cleanly fire does not apply. It is yet another example of the connective tissue in his versatile defensive impact: blanketing the floor to depths opposing offenses are unaccustomed.
“It puts something else on their mind ‘cause a lot of guys are used to getting that shot off or just getting them over a late contest,” Thybulle says. “If I’m able to impact the shot, block the shot, even better. It just makes them second-guess and think twice. If we can get guys to not take shots that they’re used to taking and they shoot a high percentage, then that’s a win in my book.”
Despite his defensive triumphs, both on film and by the numbers, the scope of his thumbprint is confined to 20.1 minutes per game because of offensive deficiencies. He is knocking down 29.8 percent of his triples, which compose 59 percent of his shot profile, and he has a true shooting percentage of 50.
His All-Defensive Team candidacy is undoubtedly valid, but his playing time is a hindrance. Solidifying some sort of reliable offensive equity is the path toward starter-level minutes and impact. Although the three-ball has declined from 35.7 percent as a rookie, he’s hinted at an improved capacity for straight-line drives, cutting and off-ball screening. The jumper likely remains the crux of his offensive development. These other skills can be security blankets, particularly the latter two, exploiting the disregard with which defenses tend to treat him.
“This year, it’s just been trying to get a feel for when I can do that to open up things for other guys and sometimes, those cuts or those drives don’t result in me getting a layup, but it results in somebody else getting a good shot,” Thybulle says. “Anyone who watches, if you watch the way I cut, it opens up a lot, whether it’s corner threes or driving lanes. It’s something that I kind of pride myself in.”
“Honestly, for me, if I’m a part of an action that results us in scoring, it feels like it was my bucket and like I get just as excited about one of my teammates scoring as if I do it, so if me setting a screen ends up in us getting a point, I’m gonna be pretty excited.”
Rivers says straight-line drives are what the coaching staff works on with him most. He also wants Thybulle to tap into his “sprinter speed” and score on a transition leak-out every game before the defense is set. Dwight Howard says Thybulle is one of the last guys in the gym, constantly striving to refine his outside shot.
Thybulle is starkly aware of the importance of his jumper. It’s been a talking point surrounding him for years now. The objective is he must ascend to a shooting threshold where defenses cannot glaringly sag off of him or, if they do, he can capitalize upon that scheme.
On many teams, its magnitude would not be as significant. But as a wing alongside Embiid and Simmons, proper floor-spacing is a job requirement for ancillary players designed to maximize those stars. The remedy to fulfill that duty is not complex.
Trust in his work, stay in the gym, be consistent, he says. Adhere to those pillars and the results will manifest. That is the process, even if it is a mundane one. Platitudes lined with truth because suggesting anything else would be a misrepresentation of his philosophy.
The offensive holes are warts to work around, not derail him, though. At a baseline, he is already a rotation player and elite perimeter defender on a Finals contender. Yet, “elite”, given the distinct manner in which he inks his signature, does not necessarily feel like an apt summation of his talents — as if anything really would.
“There’s really not a lot of words,” Howard says, “to describe how amazing his defense is.”