Washington basketball’s Thybulle carving out a niche in Philadelphia

The former Washington basketball star is making a name for himself in the NBA

While the NBA (and all other sports) are on lockdown right now, it’ll be fun to look at one of the more intriguing Washington basketball alumni in the NBA currently — rookie Matisse Thybulle, who was the 20th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers. His unique skill set and team fit has made him vital for the Sixers, but his performance has been significantly overlooked because his scoring hasn’t been all that notable.

In Thybulle’s time at UW, the transition from Lorenzo Romar’s defense to Mike Hopkins’ 2-3 zone elevated his ability to make plays with his seven-foot wingspan. By his senior year, Thybulle was one of the nation’s most fearsome defenders, winning the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award while averaging 9.1 points, 2.3 blocks and 3.5 steals as the anchor for a Husky D that was ranked No. 18 in the country per KenPom.

He was drafted by the Sixers specifically for this reason, and that same success has reflected so far in the 57 games he has played before the extended league hiatus. Thybulle has started 13 games while averaging just under 20 minutes per game, and he’s shown he can provide airtight defense in man as well as in a zone, and the energy and IQ he brings on both sides of the court are a natural fit for Brett Brown’s team. The Sixers, on the other hand, are 39-26, currently slotted as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

His rookie stats in of themselves don’t really stand out that much (4.7 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 blocks), but they show that a specific role has worked Thybulle into a vital rotation piece. One of the reasons he’s played more than practically any other Sixers rookie is because of his lockdown perimeter defense. It would appear that in the adjustment from the college game, he hasn’t missed a step in that regard, which can be difficult for many rookies.

The assignments haven’t been easy, but Thybulle has shown a keen capability to go step-for-step with the league’s best guards. In his NBA debut, Thybulle held Kemba Walker to 22% shooting when guarding him.

He’s continued the trend of gusty defensive performances against All-Star quality players since, holding Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Walker and Kyle Lowry to an average of 11.7% from beyond the three-point line as of last month. No one is safe.

His ability to step up to his competition will be a massive asset for the Sixers in the playoffs this year, as perimeter defense was their Achilles heel against the Raptors last season.

Thybulle’s dexterity and finesse when hunting for the ball is what sets him apart —a combination of physical capability, motor, and a great understanding of space and timing. He can close out on threats and neutralize them exceptionally fast, and can fight around screens to minimize pick-and-roll options and shooters considerably quickly as well.

Even when beaten off the dribble, which is rare, or he has to rub off a screen, Thybulle is still voracious. He can often catch up and neutralize the threat quicker than almost, but he has also shown an ability to challenge and modify shots from behind without fouling if he can’t.

Deflections and blocks are Thybulle’s game, and he’s able to gamble for them — and get them — when he loses his positioning. If you are going to shoot or drive off a screen, you need to watch your back and make sure he isn’t about to pounce on you, ready to set a fast break in motion. All he needs is to get at least a couple of fingers on the ball.

That seven-foot-long wingspan takes plenty by surprise, and Thybulle’s court vision often propels a pass that leads to a relatively easy fast-break bucket on the other end.

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Along with the tremendous size and athleticism of Simmons, the Sixers’ backcourt defense is formidable for teams that can’t match them limb-for-limb. And those deflections often end up in the hands of Simmons by some route, who can generally outrun or outmuscle defenders in unsettled situations in the full court. Simmons is leading the NBA in steals and defensive efficiency currently, but Thybulle is No. 16 in raw defensive box plus-minus. Only three players in front of him have played more minutes, and they are Kris Dunn, Giannis Antetonkounmpo and Nerlens Noel, all players who are widely recognized for their stellar defensive ability.

Thybulle’s shooting from beyond the arc has also come as a positive surprise — it wasn’t showcased much with the Huskies largely for the sake of fostering better guard play, but he has shown a willingness to let it fly and convert consistently. He has the makings of being one of the league’s best 3-and-D guys with lots of athletic upside and playmaking in transition.

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“Someone on the Pistons said, ‘Hey, bro, they told me you couldn’t shoot, and I’m like, ‘That’s what everyone’s been saying. I don’t know where they got this idea from that I can’t shoot,’’” Thybulle said after his first matchup in Detroit in January.  “But I hope that I’ve proved a little bit now that I’m a decent shooter.”

He certainly has, posting 35.2% shooting on 2.5 3-point attempts per game, compared to 1.6 2-point field goals per night.

But his shot taking is situational, and he understands that for the most part. He has yet to shoot an unassisted 3 this year, and he likely won’t save, for a heave or shot to avoid a clock violation. On a team that is dysfunctional offensively at times, that’s just part of his role, especially in a backcourt alongside an abysmal shooter in Simmons.

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As for the rest of Thybulle’s offensive game, there is still plenty of room for development. The Sixers are a less efficient offensive unit with him on the floor, scoring 4.4 points fewer per 100 possessions. His defensive abilities obviously outweigh that, but it’s still something to note.

Thybulle also hasn’t asserted himself through attacking the rim very often, instead, making defenders respect his outside shot and clear out the paint that’s often occupied by Joel Embiid, Al Horford, or Simmons.

Right now, he’s playing team ball, and a leap in offensive production seems more likely in year two. With such a solid defensive foundation, a lack of scoring hardly compromises his efficiency in scale with what he’s expected to do as of right now. With the ball in his hands, Thybulle largely makes the least risky play — his underrated passing ability combined with the threat of shooting is what is needed from him. However, through the years it’ll become a lot more important if he wishes to build on that role.

Either way, now you know how good Matisse Thybulle is. Let’s hope the NBA season comes back sooner than later so Thybulle has better things to do than sitting in his apartment making TikToks.

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