Philadelphia 76ers: Matisse Thybulle shaping up to be NBA’s top defender

The Philadelphia 76ers’ rookie could have a Defensive Player of the Year award on the horizon.

If you are reading this article in public, check your pockets and make sure your belongings are safe. We have a new thief in the league: Matisse Thybulle. In an age where the NBA facilitates the game for the offensive player, Thybulle is showing the league that defense is just as important. We don’t see many players play defense at such an elite level, with the exception of Kawhi Leonard.

Sure, his offensive game is a work in progress, and the Philadelphia 76ers are a worse offensive team with him on the court — 4.4 points fewer per 100 possessions. But, he’s still good at doing what the Sixers are asking of him, which is shoot threes. He’s shooting 39.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and also shooting 51 percent percent on corner threes, per NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass, respectively.

Thybulle is also a decisive passer. His numbers may not show it  — averaging 1.3 assists per game — but he always makes the right pass. Whether in transition or in the halfcourt, his passing is accurate and quick, and he’s not afraid to hold the ball and look for the open man.

Obviously, he wasn’t drafted for his offensive ability, but it’s nice to see he can keep up on offense in today’s league, especially after hearing analysts say he wasn’t playable because of his limited skill set.

The reason he was drafted, however, was his defense, and that’s where he leaves his biggest impact on the Sixers. The Sixers are statistically a better team when Thybulle plays. They are 24-5 when Thybulle plays at least 14 minutes a game. When Thybulle doesn’t play or plays under 14 minutes a game, the Sixers are a combined 7-10.

Thybulle is currently averaging 1.5 steals in only 20 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, this becomes a grand total of 2.7 steals per game. That is more than Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen — two of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history — who had 2.6 and 2.0 steals per 36 minutes respectively in their rookie season. They have a combined 19 All-defensive teams, one Defensive Player of the Year, and led the league in steals once each. It’s worth noting that these guys also joined the league at the age of 22, the same age as Thybulle.

If you’d like a modern comparison in a less physical game, Kawhi Leonard averaged 1.3 steals in 24 minutes per game in his rookie season, which is 2.0 steals per 36 minutes. So Thybulle is averaging more steals than Kawhi did in his rookie season, and even Kawhi’s Defensive Player of the Year season (2.6 steals per 36 minutes). You can only imagine how many steals Thybulle can be getting a few years down the line as a starter.

Here is an idea, since being inserted in the starting lineup  (prior to Embiid’s return), Thybulle has been averaging 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game in 31 minutes per game. He has a defensive rating of 94.6 and has kept players he has defended at 35.5 percent shooting — for the year it’s 38.6 percent.

So what makes Thybulle such a menace and threat on defense? First off, let’s begin discussing Thybulle’s willingness to take risks. He will cut passing lanes, double a player if he looks vulnerable, and reach in when necessary. Despite showing too much aggression earlier in the season, which resulted in him getting benched, he has been more patient and smarter since. The following play is a good example of Thybulle making a smart and calculated risk.

Thybulle’s ability to stick on people is another one of his amazing abilities. Thybulle does not get crossed over — very rarely, at least. Not even screens can stop Thybulle from latching onto the player he’s guarding. Here is a perfect instance of Thybulle defending the best ball handler in the league while fighting through two screens.

Kyrie isn’t the only player he has given a hard time. Below are the shooting numbers of players when they are guarded by Matisse Thybulle this season.

  • Kemba Walker:  4/12 FG , 33.3 FG % (usually shoots 44 %)
  • Joe Harris: 3/8 FG , 27.5 FG % (usually shoots 46 %)
  • Zach Lavine: 2/7 FG, 28.6 FG% (usually shoots 44.3 %)
  • Kyle Lowry: 0/6 FG , 0 FG% (usually shoots 41 %)
  • Trae Young: 2/7 FG, 28.6 FG % (usually shoots 44.7 %)

(All stats are from NBA.com/Stats)

Players shoot well below their usual numbers when guarded by Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle isn’t the only one who is doing this in Philadelphia. Ben Simmons, who has been a revelation on defense this season, forms a scary duo with Matisse Thybulle. In the last seven games together, they have combined for an impressive 97.3 Defensive Rating.

Rookies have the tendency to struggle on defense, but not Thybulle. He has been exactly as advertised. Thybulle will only get better from here on out; his offensive game still has plenty of room to grow and his defense can only get even better from here.

Matisse Thybulle is an All-Defense player and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the making. There aren’t many players who can defend like Thybulle does and he really is a generational talent on that end.

Next: 3 potential trade targets at shooting guard

His reaction time, basketball I.Q., athleticism, speed and overall feel for the game are qualities that will make him a great NBA player for a long time. For now, let’s enjoy Thybulle’s steals and abnormal blocks from behind.  Also, don’t forget to check your pockets after reading this.

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