How the Sixers can develop Matisse Thybulle into a defensive superstar


Overlooking his first NBA Draft as an NBA general manager this past summer, Sixers GM Elton Brand wasn’t too keen on allowing the board to dictate what his team would come away with. Instead, the Sixers lead man pulled off a trade with the division rival Boston Celtics to move up four spots from 24 to 20 to select G/F Matisse Thybulle out of Washington.

The swap cost the Sixers quite a bit, as they had to depart with the 33rd overall pick in the process, but landed them what they believe was one of the premier defensive talents in the class and a core piece of their team nucleus.

“Matisse was the best defensive wing in the draft and his tenacious and gritty play fit our culture perfectly,” Sixers general manager Elton Brand said in a statement released by the team. “A talented shooter and a great person off the court, we’re very excited to welcome Matisse to the 76ers family.”

Brand’s high praise of Thybulle’s defensive efforts isn’t unfounded, either, as the 22-year-old was donned the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year twice (2018, 2019) in four years at the University of Washington. The Arizona native was also bestowed the 2018-19 Lefty Driesell award winner- an award founded in 2010 to honor the top defensive collegiate athlete in the country.

Standing at 6’6 with a 7-foot wingspan, Thybulle is an absolute menace on the defensive end and possesses the ability to defend and win against the one, two, or three. His unique blend of athleticism, anticipation, and defensive awareness makes him incredibly tough to score against and lead to him becoming one of only two players since 1992 to average at least three steals and two blocks in a season(!). Additionally, Thybulle used his defensive instincts and ability to rack up 331 steals across four seasons with the Washington Huskies, leading the entire NCAA in swipes with 126 in 2019.

Through his first five NBA games with Philly, Thybulle is up to his usual habits. The rookie sensation is currently leading the NBA in total steals (14) and is second behind only Jimmy Butler in steals per game (2.8). Despite being a first-year player, Thybulle seems extremely comfortable and fluid defensively- proving to be a tough assignment for even the most elite NBA stars.

We’ve already seen Thybulle get the better of high-volume scorers Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, and Damian Lillard so far this season and it begs the question of just how high his ceiling truly is. Under the tutelage of his head coach Brett Brown, who oversaw the rise of 2x DPOY and superstar Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, Thybulle could experience a similar ascension in the pros.

While I’m certainly not claiming that Thybulle is a surefire bet to emulate the success Leonard has experienced at the NBA level, it’s important to note their similarities coming out of college and at least keep our minds open to the fact that the Sixers rookie ​could ​beat a path to stardom akin to the reigning Finals MVP.

To paint a clearer picture, let’s first take a look back at what scouts had to say about Kawhi Leonard’s weaknesses coming out of college:

“Connecting on just 32% of his catch and shoot jumpers and 28% of his pull-ups last season, the sophomore struggled with his consistency from range. As with all players noted for their hand size, there are questions about Leonard’s ability to develop a reliable jump shot. While there is some merit to that stereotype, it will be necessary for Leonard to continue honing that part of his game to the greatest extent possible.” – Matt Kaminsky, DraftExpress

“The most immediate area for improvement is the sophomore’s shooting, which is only average in general at this point, but is quite rough around the edges when extending beyond the area immediately around the rim. Leonard has a long, slow release meaning in general he needs quite a bit of space to get his shot off. This reflects in his generally sub-par marks in catch and shoot scenarios (32%) and when shooting off the dribble (28%). Still, he has shown enough flashes of potential here that with enough time and effort, it is easy to see how these could become consistent facets of his game – especially when considering the significant improvements he has already made from just his first college season.” Joey Whelan, SB Nation

“The one thing [Leonard] doesn’t do is shoot it. He’s not a guy that can make shots from the perimeter, but he does put the ball on the floor and he’s working on his handle to play the three position.” Jay Bilas, ESPN

Sound familiar? Though just about every scout in the country raved about Leonard’s defensive prowess and potential coming out of San Diego State, they also pointed to his shooting stroke as a major deficiency. Similarly to Matisse Thybulle eight years later, shooting woes weren’t enough to cause Leonard to fall out of the first round and he was ultimately paired with Brett Brown.

Working closely with Brown and Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, Leonard was able to refine his jumper and quickly shed the label of being a poor shooter. As Engelland noted in a story a few years back, Leonard didn’t have to completely reinvent his shot. Instead, a few minor tweaks would do the trick and soon saw him become one of the deadliest marksmen in the NBA.

Although Engelland didn’t follow Brett Brown on his journey from San Antonio to Philly, Brown is still well-versed with his teachings and is working with a far more polished shooting prospect in Thybulle than Leonard was in his rookie campaign.

Kawhi made a total of 41 3-pointers in his two seasons at San Diego State, doing so at a 25.0 percent clip. Conversely, despite a down year from beyond the arc in his senior year, Thybulle drained 191 triples on 35.8% shooting across 135 collegiate games. Though not quite in the company of Steph Curry or Devin Booker as a shooter coming out of college, Thybulle was much more effective than Leonard, thus conceivably making his developmental process in that area shorter.

Already exuding the defensive prowess and tenacity that made him such a hot commodity in the draft amongst the Sixers brass, Thybulle could become one of the biggest draft bargains in franchise history should his offensive ability begin to parallel his defense.

It’ll likely take countless hours in the gym and a few sleepless nights amongst the coaching staff but don’t be surprised to see Thybulle develop into more than just a defensive specialist under Brett Brown in Philly. Additionally, with no shortage of talented scorers to learn from surrounding him, Thybulle is in a perfect situation to see his max potential come to fruition.

Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports