Thybulle is still a gambler, and that's part of why he's a special defender


Brett Brown last season called Matisse Thybulle a “kamikaze” defender and characterized his decision-making as “reckless” at times.

The former Sixers head coach also grew to appreciate that he had a unique rookie whose gambles shouldn’t be graded on the same scale as a normal player’s. 

Brown recognized he should have a higher “tolerance level” with Thybulle, whom he referred to once as a “wild stallion.” 

In Year 2 of Thybulle's professional career, his new coach has taken a similar perspective, just with different descriptors. Doc Rivers compared the 24-year-old to a famous ball hawk.

“His length, No. 1, and his ability to close reminds me a lot of Deion Sanders,” Rivers said last Thursday. “Deion always gave guys cushions and quarterbacks never threw it because they knew if they did, somehow he would get there. I feel that way on jump shooters. They think they have the shot. (Devin) Booker had two or three of them that he thought he was open and he wasn’t. Matisse has the ability to do that. He also gets his hands on a lot of balls off the ball. 

“I think he gambles a little too much defensively but you have to allow him a little bit of that, just because he’s so great at what he does.”

The video above highlights a few of Thybulle’s gambles from last week, ranging from sensible, low-risk plays to a sequence or two that Rivers might not love. We looked exclusively at Thybulle’s blocks and steals, and there were a lot to choose from — nine steals and five blocks, to be exact.

Following a three-steal night Monday in the Sixers’ victory over the Thunder, Thybulle has 2.8 steals per 36 minutes, which ranks first in the NBA. His 2.6 block percentage is easily best among wings, per Cleaning the Glass.

Thybulle doesn’t appear to operate by the same rules as everyone else defensively, and he shouldn’t. He’s terrific at cleaning up mistakes, including his own, and never seems to be fully out of a play. 

On the ball, Thybulle has clearly improved from his rookie year. When Ben Simmons exits the game, the Sixers typically stick him on the opponent’s top perimeter threat. That pattern has worked well. 

“I think it’s just knowing players a little bit better,” Thybulle said on April 19. “Last year I kind of got thrown into the fire. If somebody started to get hot, it was like, ‘Sick em.’ They’d just send me at him. I was just trying to do the best I could. This year I have a better idea of who I’m going to be guarding. I’ve seen them play before once or twice and I think that might help, if it has helped at all.”

Opponents are shooting 37.7 percent from the floor this season when guarded by Thybulle. That’s the lowest defensive field goal percentage of any player who’s defended at least 250 shots. 

In terms of matchup minutes, the six players Thybulle has guarded most are Zach LaVine, De’Aaron Fox, Alec Burks, Booker, Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal. He’s been effective, to put it mildly.

  • LaVine: 3 for 15 
  • Fox: 4 for 11
  • Burks: 4 for 14
  • Booker: 3 for 11
  • Walker: 3 for 11
  • Beal: 3 for 10 

Offensively, we’d have no trouble rattling off a few paragraphs on where Thybulle can get better. But, outside of fine-tuning his gambling and eliminating the occasional bad foul, are there ways he can improve defensively?

“Of course,” Danny Green said last week. “There’s areas to improve on both sides of the ball for every player. As good as he is, it has nothing to do with him improving on it, but him figuring out certain guys’ rhythms, certain guys’ tendencies, and how to guard certain guys.

“I think that’s where not just myself but George (Hill), everybody else that’s been in this league for a long time can say, ‘You know what? We’ve been guarding (Chris Paul) for this long. Here’s how you do it. With (Booker), make sure you make him go this way or do that. Make him uncomfortable.’ And he’s capable of doing it. It’s not necessarily just helping him improve on it, but just helping him know his personnel and how to guard his personnel.”

Even when Thybulle is Green’s age, one imagines gambling will still be a core aspect of who he is as a player. If he’s slightly more selective about his risk-taking and develops something comparable to Green’s base of knowledge, it’s incredible to think about how great of a defender he’ll be. 

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