Matisse Thybulle is still searching for his niche in Philadelphia
Let's not get too defensive.
As the saying goes, life comes at you fast.
When Huskies defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle entered the 2019 NBA draft pool, the Philadelphia 76ers practically earmarked him right from the start, promising him that they would select him in the first round in exchange for him declining further workouts with other teams.
Here was a readymade product, capable of clamping down on ball handlers and bringing the Sixers another step closer in their bid for the Larry O’Brien trophy. His exploits in four years at Washington were downright stifling, particularly in his last two seasons. We’re talking two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (2018 and 2019), two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive Team (2018 and 2019), led the NCAA in steals (2019), Naismith Defensive Player of the Year (2019), Lefty Driesell Award winner (2019) and First-Team All-Pac-12 (2019).
He set the single-season Huskies record for steals with 101 (2018), then surpassed that with 126 the next year to break the Pac-12 single-season record. He became the conference leader in career steals with 331, and tied the school’s career blocks record of 186.
So when we say defensive specialist, we mean it.
He would see the court plenty in his rookie NBA campaign, starting 14 of his 65 games and playing 19.8 minutes per night. None of his stats were eye-popping — 94 steals (1.4), 107 rebounds (1.6), 79 assists (1.2) and 305 points (4.7), but he was definitely a net positive on the defensive side of the ball.
As he put it when he spoke with our Kane Pitman last September (make sure to listen to the full podcast for all the details), “I couldn’t say that I expected any of it. A lot of it was just kind of rolling with the punches, just trying to play catch up, because I don’t think anyone really expected me to succeed as much as I did that early. I kind of had to be thrown into the fire, and figure it out while I was in there.”
That allegorical fire would become scorching in time, if you’ll pardon the catastrophisation. After his rookie campaign ended in an inglorious fashion courtesy of a first round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, his sophomore season commenced with an unexpected slump.
A crowded backcourt has seen his role diminished, with rookie first rounder Tyrese Maxey proving a more attractive offensive option, while travelling mercenary Danny Green functions as a versatile 3 and D stopgap.
Now, Thybulle’s name is heard less in the Sixers’ rotation than it is as a potential trading piece — allegedly a part of an abandoned James Harden package earlier this month, and floated in every speculative trading machine deal since.
For Matisse Thybulle, life did indeed come fast.
But enough of the embellished narratives. There are some actual facts to be found here.
The most pressing issue for Thybulle remains his offensive game, which has not yet developed as once envisaged. His shooting averages weren’t too terrible in 2019 (112-265, 42.3%), but his inconsistent form on the deep ball (56-157, 35.7%) and occasional carelessness (51 turnovers) nullified his presence on that side of the ball.
Dave Early of Liberty Ballers broke down his offensive tendencies back in July, and watching the tape practically reveals two different players: a confident, smothering force on defence, mixed with a somewhat tenuous shooter still trying to find his feet.
Unfortunately, fewer opportunities in year two have resulted in some diminishing returns, with his numbers dipping across the board. In 14 games, he’s averaging 3.3 points (16-45, 35.6%), 1.5 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 assists. His deep ball has rarely connected (8-30, 26.7%) and defenders have taken notice. Though he wasn’t exactly an offensive threat in college (9.2 points per game, peaking at 11.2 in his junior season), he was still capable of sinking a basket when his number was called.
This isn’t to say Thybulle is unsalvageable in any way. In the area he excels, he plays at an elite level. Not many players offer the skillset he does — especially at so young an age — however a roster built specifically around the interior presence of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is obligated to space the floor and allow the stars to thrive.
With a logjam of wings who better fit that description, Thybulle finds himself the odd man out; on paper, locking LeBron down sounds appealing, but without a scoring acumen to match, you’re just playing four-on-four.
He’s got the basketball IQ and athletic ability to find his spots, and nothing about his fundamentals are broken in any way, shape or form. The predicament here is that his mismatched offensive presence is augmented by an urgency in Philadelphia to get over the hump, desperately chasing the elusive NBA championship while their core holds together.
The new regime under Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers doesn’t have the time to tinker with Thybulle’s development, especially now that they’ve got solid depth that plays to the system’s strengths.
Pardon me for recycling a narrative, but it rings true of Aron Baynes’ present position with the Raptors: a talented albeit situational player who could thrive in a new jersey.
This is all assuming the worst, of course, and a more measured take would stress the importance of patience. All because Thybulle is bereft of heavy usage doesn’t mean he’s spiralling out of contention.
His overall minutes may be down, sitting at 14.7 for the season, however the latter part of January proved much kinder. He’s averaged 19.2 minutes in the last five games, with score lines of 8, 8, 0, 9 and 0. He has been deployed to do Matisse Thybulle things, and those things revolve almost exclusively around what he brings on defence.
It’s not ideal, but it’s workable for now. Whether his longterm future lies in the city of brotherly love or somewhere else, there’s a place for him in the NBA, and anyone who attests otherwise doth protest too much, methinks.