Philadelphia 76ers Standout Rookie Matisse Thybulle Is Already One of the NBA’s Toughest Defenders
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images. Pictured: Matisse Thybulle
It’s the question I posed to Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle as soon as he sat down.
While vague on paper, he quickly figured out what I was inquiring about. You see, the first time I met Thybulle, we were complete strangers at a party in New York City. We went through the basic introductions before shooting the shit pivoted to previewing the upcoming season. While I must admit the consumption of adult beverages prevent me from transcribing his answer with full accuracy, there was one theme that reverberated throughout the conversation: defense.
This shouldn’t surprise anybody: Thybulle is the reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year from the University of Washington and is the second player in PAC-12 history to repeat as the conference’s top defender.
If college basketball isn’t your thing, all you had to do was tune in to one of his performances during the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas to see him wreaking havoc on poor, innocent ball-handlers completely unaware of the mess they had gotten themselves into by putting the ball on the floor within the reach of his seven-foot wingspan.
Many had heard the legend of this defensive prowess, but only few were listening.
Now almost halfway into the 2019-20 NBA campaign, the secret is out. Thybulle has not only become a household name throughout the city of Philadelphia, but is already receiving national recognition for his performances in victory and/or defeat.
With this context provided, we still haven’t gotten any answers. How? How does a 6’ 5” rookie drafted 20th overall impact games this significantly, so quickly, in such different, unique ways?
“I asked myself that a lot actually. I think my approach is just a little bit different, maybe unorthodox. I have really long arms, and I think it’s deceptive because I remember in college and even high school, coaches always coached like, “Have your hands up, show your length.”
But for me I was like why? Then it just shows how much ground I can cover. If I keep my arms down then they don’t know. It keeps them guessing. And then my thing is — and it’s dumb and it sounds so simple — it’s just I play hard. I think it gets taken for granted. There’s times where I’ll get hit on a screen and in a lot of cases other guys just might quit on the play, but I just don’t, and I just play through it, and then where guys think they have an open shot or an easy dump down, I’m able to recover.”
That all sounds great, but every professional basketball player is physically gifted and exerts a level of athleticism that mortal humans can’t replicate. Unless we’re talking about LeBron James and his unprecedented durability, the playing field at the NBA level appears to be even enough so that one player cannot dominate the game with solely physical attributes.
That means Thybulle has to be in the lab studying game film, X’s and O’s like he’s Peyton Manning, right?
“So, my approach, maybe not the best, is to just kind of be as prepared as possible by reading the scouting report, understanding what we’re trying to do as a team, and then just going out and letting my instincts take over.
And a lot of that just comes off feel, and I mean, for me it’s simple because you have to have the ball to score. To do anything in the game effectively, the ball has to be involved in the play. So that gives you a certain level of advantage on defense.
It’s like, you know that whatever they’re trying to do involves this one thing. So trying to bait them into sometimes making the play that they want to make, even though you know they want to, and making it seem like it’s there and it’s all appealing and like, ‘Yeah, we can make this pass.’ And then at the last second taking it away. That’s one thing that helps me.”
Forgive me for being skeptical, but even after a thorough explanation, it’s still unbelievable. Thybulle is a rookie already haunting his opposition.
When asked to recall a time he can remember delivering this “haunting” experience, Thybulle revealed a moment from the preseason which would serve as the epitome of his existence moving forward:
“We had a scrimmage. A blue and white scrimmage over in Delaware at the G League facility. And I think, I don’t know if they kept stats, but I think I had like 10 steals and I was on the team opposite of Ben [Simmons]. In a postgame interview thing, Ben was like, ‘I hate him. I hate him. I hate playing against him.’ For me, that was one of the greatest compliments.”
It’s this type of energy that has fueled a competitive relationship in forming one of the league’s best team defenses.
“I’ve learned a lot and Ben’s also pushed me a lot. Between him, myself and J-Rich [Josh Richardson], we have a cool little dynamic of just trying to push each other to be the best defender out there. If Ben’s got two steals in the first quarter, he’s looking at me in a timeout and is like, ‘I got two’ to put pressure on me and then just within the game and within what we’re trying to do in our defensive systems. I think that’s something that’s not very common.”
As of his January 8 return to the lineup after a two-week absence, Thybulle ranks in the 89th percentile of individual player defense, per Synergy’s Sports Technology, with a 15.7% forced turnover rate. When opponents attempt a jumpshot with Thybulle guarding them, they shoot an average of 28.3% — ranking him in the 91st percentile of defenders. He not only leads the team in deflections per 36 minutes (5), he ranks fourth in the entire NBA of all players who have played at least 200 minutes.
Whether you analyze basketball with solely your eyes, solely advanced analytics, or somewhere in between, Thybulle leaves a mark on every game he plays in.
You figure that would be enough. While he’s certainly over-delivering in regards to his team duties, it doesn’t stop there. There’s something about him that’s just different — a contagiously positive attitude he attributes to his father, “the happiest person I’ve ever met.”
Nobody would have blamed him for a second if he decided to change his demeanor or perspective of the world before the season started; he is playing in a city that carries a notorious reputation as the most harsh fans towards not only opponents, but their own teams.
But that hasn’t been the case — Philadelphia has fallen in love with Thybulle, and the affair doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
When Matisse Thybulle plays 20+ minutes, the #Sixers are 13-1.
When Matisse Thybulle plays less than 20 minutes (including DNPs), Philadelphia is 10-13.
He is important…
— Brian Michael Jacobs (@BrianMikeJacobs) January 4, 2020
“They’ve been great. It’s been such a cool experience to go somewhere they’re like ‘the fans are hard.’ If you have a bad game, they’ll let you have it, which is very true. But for me, it’s been so much support in the sense that they understand the growth that needs to take place for a rookie. I came out and would make a lot of mistakes or have scoreless games or have steal-less games or block-less games and they weren’t like, ‘Oh, what are you doing? You’re not doing your thing, blah, blah, blah.’
They’re like, it’s the whole ‘trust the process’ thing. And I think because this team has come so far to where they are now, and trusted that process of what it took to get here, they’ve given me the grace to have that growing process and see where I can end up. So, I think it’s a lot more excitement than it is pressure.”
If you’re a fan of the 76ers, there has been no shortage of excitement this season. While the team continues its roller coaster season both on and off the court, it hasn’t changed the mainstream perception that this is a championship-contending roster.
Thybulle has the chance to become the first rookie named to the NBA’s First Team All-Defense squad since Bobby Jones did it in 1977, when the Denver Nuggets officially merged to the NBA from the ABA.
Thybulle would be the first ‘true’ rookie, depending on your interpretation of the title — an unprecedented accomplishment which would be talked about in the basketball community for the rest of our lives. And yet despite the lure of such accolades, it would just be “coming up for air”:
“I think I would lean on the side of ‘that’s cool and get back to work.’ For me it’s never about going out there like, ‘got to get four steals. I got to get three steals today, or I got to get my average, whatever it is.’
The game is so unpredictable and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Going out there with a clear mind and within my heart to just play hard. It opens up so many doors to take advantage of a bad pass or a mishandled dribble, and those plays…they just come. For me it’s just continuing to keep my head down and just stay the course of just playing hard and having guys and coaches who trust me to make plays.
Someone gave me an analogy: it’s like when you’re swimming, you got your head under water, you don’t really know where you’re at, and then you pop your head up for a second to breathe, and then you get to see where you’re at… and then you go back down and go to work. So that’s really what I’m doing. And we have these moments now where I get to pop my head up and be like, ‘Wow, the future looks pretty cool.’ And then go back down in the water.”
After learning all of this about the man, you know I wasn’t letting him leave without a sanctioned nickname. The rabid fanbase has been crowdsourcing one for months; however, it hasn’t been able to obtain 66% of the vote for senate approval. Following an extensive scouring of several social media networks, the most aggregated suggestions all revolved around “Mat,” “Bull,” and the pronunciation of his first name. “Horns,” “Matador,” “Artist” (Ar-TEEST), and “Mathief” were all presented for his consideration.
“I like Mathief. I just think it’s funny because, my name’s Matisse and there’s like the S’s at the end. It feels like someone’s saying my name with a really hard lisp. I think it’s cool because the idea of a thief stealing and all that stuff in my name. Yeah, let’s go with that.”
So there you have it: A rookie who is not only beloved by his fans, teammates, and coaches, but has a chance to make history with his performance — all by staying in his own lane, sticking to what he does best.
The next time you’re wondering why your favorite team can’t get up any clean looks against the 76ers, it may have once had something to do with a 6’11” point guard patrolling 94’ x 50’ of hardwood … or because the closest thing we’ve seen to Shaquille O’Neal since Shaq himself was anchoring the paint … but now there’s a new explanation: look no further than this humble, hungry, yet honorable Mathief.