The year was 2016-17. De’Anthony Melton was having a strong freshman season at USC, making his mark on the defensive end of the floor. Even in college, Melton was a disruptor, averaging 1.9 steals a game in his lone season with the Trojans. Most years, that number is good enough to lead the conference.
But there was this sophomore named Matisse Thybulle at the University of Washington that deprived Melton of leading the Pac-12 in steals per game.
“I think that’s still a sensitive subject,” Melton said on media day Monday. “I’ve had several conversations with him about that and I’m going to keep bringing it up until they figure it out or change something.”
Thybulle is confident his mark will remain intact.
“I stand by the fact that I deserved it,” Thybulle said.
After a draft night trade that sent Danny Green and the 23rd overall pick to the Grizzlies, Melton and Thybulle are now teammates. Melton’s acquisition began Daryl Morey’s process of adding more defense and toughness to a team that lacked both during a disappointing postseason exit.
Melton, as well as the rugged P.J. Tucker, are already making strong impressions during the team’s training camp in Charleston, South Carolina.
Doc Rivers: “Other than PJ, the best defensive player by a long shot was De’Anthony Melton today. He actually in some ways screwed practice up because we were having our guys pick up full court. But we couldn’t run our offense, because he was as disrupting the guards a lot today”— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) September 27, 2022
Melton’s ability to wreak havoc on the defensive end has translated to the NBA. He averaged 2.3 steals and 4.5 deflections per 36 minutes last season.
At the time of the deal, Melton felt like a version of Thybulle that brought much more offensively. Melton has hit on 38.8 percent of his threes on nearly five attempts a game the last two seasons. While he’s not a player you necessarily want running your offense, he does have ability on ball as a secondary creator.
That begged the question: will Melton replace Thybulle, who’s had his struggles offensively, on the second unit?
There’s no question the Sixers’ bench is much deeper with the additions of Tucker (who will likely start), Melton and Danuel House Jr. Thybulle has been in the team’s rotation since his rookie season and has started 72 games over his three NBA seasons, including 50 last year. This year, Thybulle will surely get opportunities to play, but Melton’s presence could muddy his role a tad.
But if you ask Melton, he sees an opportunity for both players to share the floor, creating a nightmarish defensive duo for opponents to contend with.
“I think given his ability and what he can do,” Melton said, “especially at his size, can defend pretty much one through five, I think it’s special, because I think I can go out there and do very similar things. And we can definitely just raise havoc out there and give offenses trouble, not only just stopping them … but tiring them down so when the fourth quarter comes around, they’re a little bit more gassed because me and Matisse are out there running around, getting steals, staying out of foul trouble, hopefully. (Laughs.) I think us two out there is definitely going to be havoc.”
Thybulle did enjoy offensive success following the acquisition of James Harden. After Harden’s debut, Thybulle sported 52/38.5/90 shooting splits over the final 23 games of the regular season. He showed improvement as a cutter and used his speed to create transition opportunities, a point of emphasis from Rivers ahead of last season. He also found a niche as an undersized screener and roller for Harden. Perhaps Melton, who shot below 30 percent from three his first two NBA seasons, could be an example Thybulle looks to emulate when it comes to shooting.
There are lineups that would look mighty intriguing with both Melton and Thybulle on the floor. Having the pair play with Tyrese Maxey and Montrezl Harrell could create an athletic and uptempo lineup the likes of which the Sixers have not featured in some time. Having them play with Harden and Joel Embiid could create a very balanced lineup, allowing Melton and Thybulle to take even more chances on the perimeter knowing they have Embiid on the back end, while Harden’s presence could open up more open looks.
It’s Melton’s ability on both ends of the floor that could make it all possible. Other than the aforementioned toughness and defense Morey was looking for, he also wanted to add more two-way players. Melton fits that bill, and is conceivably still an ascending offensive player at just 24. Another sneaky way Melton can help the Sixers: rebounding. The 6-foot-2 guard does quite well for his position. He averaged 9.5 rebounds per 100 possessions last season.
Melton does a little bit of everything. The Sixers could definitely use more players that fit that mold.
“I think given my play style and what the team brought me here to do, it’s just to impact the game in every which way possible,” Melton said. “So that’s offensively, defensively. It could be getting a loose ball, rebounding, guarding somebody. So I think I’ll be able to fill in perfectly with them, because I think everybody understands what we’re trying to do. And we’ve got to do it as a team.”
While Melton and Thybulle aren’t likely to squash their college beef any time soon, their potential as a menacing defensive pair should excite Sixers fans.
“We’ve been playing against each other for a while now, so I’ve been able to see his evolution,” Thybulle said, “but then also just see his ability — and his ability to do some of the things that I thought were just unique to me at some of the highest levels. I think being able to have this type of tag-tagging effect where we can throw different looks … because it is one thing to have guys who can get steals and blocks, but it’s another thing to have guys who do it in different ways. So being able to throw two players who are really effective in that area at some of the best players in the league, I think it’ll be a really exciting tool for us — and then for me and him, just something to really get into.”