Chatting With Philadelphia 76ers Rookie Defensive Stalwart Matisse Thybulle: Call Him “Mathief”

Chatting With Philadelphia 76ers Rookie Defensive Stalwart Matisse Thybulle: Call Him “Mathief” article feature image
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Matteo Marchi/Getty Images. Pictured: Matisse Thybulle.

Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle sat down with The Action Network’s Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) to discuss his standout rookie season and how he’s already become one of the league’s most feared defenders.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rob Perez (The Action Network): How? It’s the only word I wrote down for my first question. How are you, of all people, able to influence the game on the defensive side like you do?

Matisse Thybulle (Philadelphia 76ers): That’s a good question. How? 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.

RP: Well, your timing is a huge part of it, right? Some players get lucky, they find themselves in the right place at the right time. It’s happening once a quarter for you. So there has to be something that goes into this and I’m determined to figure out the secret. Are you spending time in the lab, like you’re Peyton Manning watching film? Or is it just feel out there?

MT: It’s feel. I wish I could say I’m like one of those guys who studies the film and knows their matchups, but there’s been so much just because this is my first year in the NBA. 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.

RP: So when you show up here at the beginning of the season, you’re running out there with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford, and Tobias Harris. These are big names. At some point what you’re doing on the court now against other teams probably happened on the practice court first at some point, too. Have you ever pissed them off [with your suffocating defense]? Have they ever been like, “Get this dude away from me?”

Read more and watch the interview below.

MT: 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, and then 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.

RP: Ben is going to be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year and First-Team All Defense; have you learned anything playing alongside him?

MT: Yeah. I’ve learned a lot and then he’s also pushed me a lot. We have a cool thing going 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 he’s like, “I got two” to put pressure on me and support what we’re trying to do in our defensive system.

It’s one thing to have defensive stoppers — you have your Gary Paytons — but I think more so now because guys are so talented. You just can’t stop James Harden. He’s going to score, he’s going to get 30 points. But can you make plays? Can you tip a pass that leads to a steal for another guy and gives you another offense opportunity? I think that we have three guys including myself who can go out there and make those types of plays.

RP: Do you ever worry at times that you gamble too much out there? That if I miss it, I leave somebody exposed? Do you ever hear about it?

MT: Oh, yeah.

RP: That face looks like a yes.

MT: I think we’ve played almost 40 games now? It’s really just been understanding what I can and can’t do. What I can get away with and finding that balance of gambling too much and also just being too passive. It’s been a learning process.

RP: Not to put pressure on you, but one of my two bold preseason predictions was I thought Matisse Thybulle was going to end up on the podium (bronze, silver, gold) for Defensive Player of the Year. People thought I was nuts because they hadn’t seen you play yet. So I looked it up: There’s only been one rookie in NBA history [Bobby Jones] to make First Team All-Defense, and he’s not even a true rookie because he merged into the NBA from the ABA. Would it feel like validation if you got it? Is it a personal goal? Or would you just wake up and be like, that’s cool, and then go back to work?

MT:  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, “I 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. In college, I broke Gary Payton’s record in the Pac-12 for career steals, and at no point did I ever think it was possible or did I think this was a goal that I’d need to achieve.

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.

RP: What’s it like having a hive? Do you feel pressure as a rookie to perform for these fans?

MT: Not really because they’ve been [through it]; it’s been such a cool experience where 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.

RP: What was your “holy shit, I’m in the NBA” moment?

MT: That’s a good question. I didn’t really think I could be a professional basketball player even through college. I thought maybe, there’s a chance, but I think when we started playing open gym [at practice]. Because Summer League is one thing, you’re playing against a lot of either rookies or G League guys or guys who are in another rotation. It was cool to see success in that setting.

But for me, I wanted to see how do I stack it up against an NBA player?And so when we started playing open gym and the names you said earlier, we had the Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiids, and I was able to have success …  I was like, “OK, maybe there might be something here.” I think that was my moment where I was like, “OK, I can be an NBA player.”

RP: And then what?

MT: The biggest thing was the coaching staff — winning them over comes from a trust and there’s just a whole process. You’re a rookie so you don’t get things handed to you. So for me coming in, I was like, “I want these guys to want to play with me.” I want them to want me on the court with them, and earning their respect was huge. And I think I was able to get a lot of that done in open gym. And then for me that was the greatest validation because they’re the ones out there in the trenches, in the war, winning games. For them, if they want me out there with them, that means a lot. And then the coaches will follow suit. Just earning that trust has been a cool process.

RP: Your defense needs a nickname. I will now propose a few for your approval:

  1. Horns
  2. Matador
  3. Artist (Ar-TEEST)
  4. Mathief

MT: I like Mathief. I just think it’s funny because, my name’s Matisse and there’s like the S’s at the end. So for me 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.

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