Matisse Thybulle best young NBA defender
Matisse Thybulle is giving opponents headaches (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
By Louis Keene / November 8, 2019 9:56 am

The sun never sets on the length of the Philadelphia 76ers, who entered Friday tied for first place in the Eastern Conference. The shortest wingspan in the Sixers’ starting lineup belongs to Josh Richardson, at six feet, ten inches. That’s their shooting guard! A point guard dribbling at a set Philadelphia defense faces an angry thicket of limbs eager to swarm and swipe. 

Defense had already been the calling card for this team dating back to last season, when the Sixers pushed the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Led by 6’10” point guard (seriously) Ben Simmons, 7’0” Joel Embiid and since-departed stalwart Jimmy Butler, they could turn basketball games into rugby matches, and wielding a physical edge over their opponents, they often did. 

All of which is to say that the Philadelphia 76ers did not need help guarding people. But with the 20th pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, they drafted the Gentleman’s Ron Artest, one Matisse Thybulle, and seven games into his career, twenty-two-year-old Thybulle has already asserted himself as one of the scariest wing defenders to hit the league this decade. The league barely knows his name now, but word spreads quickly when robberies hit a neighborhood. Come playoff time, the forward head coach Brett Brown called “a reckless thief” might be the reason the Sixers snatch their first NBA title since 1983. 

Brown is already siccing the six-foot-five Thybulle on the league’s offensive virtuosos, and has seen his early trust in the rookie pay astonishing dividends. Thybulle became the first player in twenty years to record multiple steals in his first five games, and led the league in swipes and deflections through the season’s first fortnight — despite barely averaging 20 minutes. He’s still one of only four players averaging two steals and a block this season. The other three you’ve heard of: Butler, Towns, Leonard.

Plenty of solid defenders are floating around the league, but few are capable of changing the game just by entering it. Even rarer is the player whose signature tactic becomes a lasting contribution to the craft — think Andre Iguodala’s strip move, LeBron James’ chasedown block, Marcus Smart’s flop. At the University of Washington, where he won both the Lefty Driesell and Naismith defensive player of the year awards as a senior, Thybulle perfected a type of larceny characteristic of lazy hoopers at a pickup game: letting an offensive player by him only to poke out the ball or swat his shot from behind. The agility, quickness, and coordination required to execute this without fouling — and his seven-foot wingspan, of course — have translated famously at the pro level.

Just look at how he neutralizes the Celtics’ Kemba Walker here, censoring his first shot mid-attempt and flinging away the second even when he knows it’s coming. The myriad strategic adjustments that descend from Thybulle’s length and closing speed — Kanter has to hold his screen longer, making the roll less effective; Embiid can sit deeper, keeping both offensive players in front of him — make every Celtic’s job a little bit harder, and every Sixer’s that much easier. 

One of the wonderful things about watching Sixers games is the dramatic irony that ensues when Thybulle enters a game. It’s the feeling of watching a character wander away from the group in a horror movie and anticipating their fate with a hysterical mix of glee and dread. Quickly, Thybulle isolates his man, chasing him out to midcourt and blowing up any dribble handoffs. Then, if the player does get the ball, Thybulle will funnel him toward the basket, seemingly yielding an open lane. As soon as he’s on the player’s back, he pounces.

One of the wonderful things about watching Sixers games is the dramatic irony that ensues when Thybulle enters a game. It’s the feeling of watching a character wander away from the group in a horror movie and anticipating their fate with a hysterical mix of glee and dread. Quickly, Thybulle isolates his man, chasing him out to midcourt and blowing up any dribble handoffs. Then, if the player does get the ball, Thybulle will funnel him toward the basket, seemingly yielding an open lane. As soon as he’s on the player’s back, he pounces.

Enes Kanter is one of the league’s better screen-setters and pick-and-roll bigs. Thybulle slaloms around him easily to get within striking range of Walker:

Here’s a freeze frame of that. Just look at how Thybulle’s arm goes all Space Jam to poke the ball loose. This is the kind of wingspan that makes people black out on draft night:

It’s a gimmick, but an effective one that launches fast breaks and sows paranoia in ball handlers. It also seems tailor-made for the modern NBA, where pick-and-roll savants snake around screens deliberately to get a defender on their hip so they can play 2-on-1 with the opposing big. That 2-on-1 is an illusion when it’s Thybulle behind the ball handler. With today’s stars better than ever at drawing fouls by hooking or swinging their arms, the best way for a defender to avoid getting caught might be hiding not just their arms, but their whole body. Remember Utah’s bizarre scheme against James Harden during last year’s playoffs, intentionally guarding him from behind? It could actually work with Thybulle at its head (or would that be the rear?). 

In Simmons (who usurped his teammate’s NBA lead in steals), the Sixers already had someone who could make a juggernaut like LeBron sweat for his points and give nightmares to a little monster like Fred Van Vleet. But if they see the Kawhi/Paul George Clippers in the Finals, or the Giannis/Khris Middleton Bucks in the conference semis, or — looking ahead to next year — the Kyrie/KD Nets or OG/Siakam Raptors, Thybulle gives them two of those lockdown guys. (Josh Richardson is no slouch, either.)

Did I mention that he only averages 3.9 points per game? I should mention that. This is the knock on our hero: he’s making one in every four shots right now, from two- and/or three-point territory. His inability to stretch the floor hurts more in Philly, which already has a deficit in that area, and makes it hard for him to pair with Simmons for more than a possession or two at a time. The good news is that his jumper doesn’t look all that broken — it’s not like he’s Anthony Roberson out there — and he wouldn’t have to be all that much more accurate to make himself much more useful (not to mention extremely wealthy). 

Going into Friday’s games, the Sixers are first in the NBA in steals and seventh in blocks. It’s a long season, and Thybulle is still raw on one end of the court. But even if his only role this season is making the opponent’s top scorer look like, well, Matisse Thybulle, it will be enough to make the Sixers a matchup nightmare for any postseason opponent.