Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the Philadelphia 76ers see from Matisse Thybulle?
By counting stats, it was a modest rookie season for Matisse Thybulle — 4.7 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game in just under 20 minutes. However, he is a player whose primary value comes at the defensive end and won’t easily be captured by the box score.
He clearly matted to the 76ers, who traded up to grab him with the No. 20 pick. They used him as an intermittent starter right from the beginning of the season and played him double-digit minutes in every game after he returned to the lineup from a minor knee sprain in mid-January.
With so little in the box score to go on, was Thybulle merely a rookie placeholder in the 76ers rotation? Or did he deliver on that defensive value and establish himself as an important piece for Philadelphia’s future?
What did we expect?
Thybulle’s appeal as a draft prospect was almost all on the defensive end. He posted absurd block and steal rates as a senior and won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. Despite those impressive credentials, there were questions about whether his defensive impact would translate in man-to-man settings and whether he could contribute enough on offense to even stay on the floor.
After a strong summer league performance, Jackson Frank explored some of those issues and what kind of player he looked like just before the season began.
Thybulle isn’t just aiming to eradicate the non-shooter narrative or develop his dribble-drive game. Despite looting and swatting his way to historic steal and block numbers last year, questions persist around the legitimacy of those totals as well. They came in Washington’s 2-3 zone, which enabled Thybulle to roam as a playmaker, largely unburdened by on-ball responsibilities.
A successful rookie season for Thybulle would be making a defensive impact right away, especially since his four-year college career made him an older rookie, as well as showing at least some positive signs on offense.
What did we get?
Rookies are, generally, negative contributors on defense as they work to get caught up to the speed and complexity of NBA offenses. That was not the case at all for Thybulle.
He became just the seventh player in NBA history, and the first rookie, to play at least 1000 minutes in a season and post steal and block percentages of 3.0 or higher. He is the only player on that list classified as a guard and his block percentage was also the second-highest in NBA history for a player 6-foot-5 or smaller who played at least 1000 minutes. Thybylle was also tied for the league-lead, having blocked 16 opposing 3-point attempts.
It was a historically disruptive defensive season and it’s indisputable now that Thybulle’s defensive value exists independent of the zone scheme he played in at Washington. The unique defensive package that Thybulle’s defensive skills come in also makes him an incredibly interesting piece going forward. He spent about two-thirds of his defensive possessions matched up with backcourt players, and just under 30 percent on point guards. Keeping him in the lineup with Ben Simmons, who operates as a point guard on offense, lets Simmons leverage his own defensive versatility further up the positional scale.
Thybulle isn’t a finished product at that end of the floor either. A look at his deterrence chart from Andrew Patton shows both his value and places where he can grow. The chart maps how the shot selection for opposing offenses changed with Thybulle on the floor. Blue areas meaning they were less likely to shoot from those zones, compared to league-average rates, red means they were more likely.
Thybulle’s presence appeared to be an effective deterrent for high-value outside shots on the wings and in the corners. He was part of a 76ers’ scheme that funneled penetration to the middle of the floor and encouraged mid-range pull-up jumpers (which were theoretically well-contested). However, opponents did get slightly more shots at the rim with Thybulle on the floor, some penetration that eventually be cleaned up.
On offense, Thybulle showed many of his limitations but also that he could contribute in the complimentary ways he’ll need to as a key piece on a future contender. There were questions about his outside shooting in college but he knocked down a respectable 37.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts with the Sixers. He’s far from a reliable playmaker but he at least flashed the potential to attack a closeout and find soft spots in the defense. In addition, the 76ers often utilized him running off screens for dribble hand-offs with a trailing defender, creating obvious seams as the defense scrambled to catch-up.
This may be something close to Thybulle’s offensive ceiling. His 3-point percentage could tick up a few points but in terms of off-the-dribble creation, he’s probably always going to be limited to a version of what Danny Green has done for the Lakers, Raptors and Spurs over the years. However, that’s more than enough to make a special player when paired with his defensive value and there’s every reason to think he will be an integral part of the 76ers’ championship aspiration for the next few seasons.