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Matisse Thybulle, 76ers rookie and defensive wrecking ball, is the cult hero Philly deserves

The Sixers rookie sensation is a walking defensive highlight reel.

Matisse Thybulle celebrates for the Sixers.
Matisse Thybulle is living up to his college reputation during the start of his 76ers tenure.

Elton Brand kept repeating himself at the Philadelphia 76ers’ introductory press conference after the 2019 NBA Draft. “We had to have him,” Brand said again and again, subtly acknowledging the rumors that he had promised Washington Huskies wing Matisse Thybulle during the draft combine and was willing to do whatever it took to get him. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge saw Brand’s desperation and took advantage, trading back four spots and picking up the No. 33 selection from Philadelphia in return.

Brand may have telegraphed his infatuation with Thybulle, but the cost of an early second rounder won’t matter if the Sixers’ rookie continues the riveting progression he’s shown in the early part of the season. When Thybulle is on the floor, it’s hard to notice anyone else. The Denver Nuggets got a first hand look at that experience on Wednesday night.

Thybulle was everywhere and everything against the Nuggets, flying around the court on defense, finishing above the rim in transition, and continuing his hot shooting from deep. He ended the night with 13 points, five rebounds, and one steal, with multiple jaw-dropping sequences underscoring his second straight brilliant performance. He finished +20 in a game where no other Sixer was better than +9.

Thybulle is just now working his way into a regular spot in Brett Brown’s rotation, but when he does play, he’s making a major impact. The Sixers are 16-2 in games where he plays at least 12 minutes. He’s one of the league’s most accurate three-point shooters on low volume. According to 538’s RAPTOR metric, he’s the most impactful defensive player in the league, with a slight lead over Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard.

This feels like the rare rookie who is ready to contribute right away while still just scratching the surface of what he could one day become. The rest of the world is just now seeing what Brand always believed.

Thybulle has been a historic defensive playmaker

All Thybulle did during his four years at Washington was rewrite the defensive record books. As a senior, Thybulle became the first player in the modern era ever to have 100 steals and 80 blocks in a season. He was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and national defensive player of the year as a senior.

Thybulle did his damage his last two years playing in the 2-3 zone that head coach Mike Hopkins brought with him from Syracuse. It led some to wonder if his immense production would translate to pro-style defenses, a question Thybulle answered definitively as soon as he put on Sixers colors.

Thybulle immediately impressed in summer league, and took his legend to another level in the preseason, where he averaged 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks in just 19.1 minutes per night. Just ask Luke Kennard if Thybulle’s defensive numbers in college were a mirage.

Thybulle’s defensive playmaking has been just as excellent in the regular season. He’s averaging 3.1 steals and 1.5 blocks per-36. He’s second in the NBA in steal rate. He’s near the top of the leaderboard in deflections per-36. The Sixers defense, which is No. 4 in the league, is 3.7 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor.

His anticipation instincts are real. His reaction time is real. Seemingly every time he takes the court, Thybulle is making two or three defensive plays at minimum that make you rewind and watch again.

At 22 years old, Thybulle already looks like a seasoned vet on the defensive end if you accept that every player will have a missed rotation once in a while. Those that saw him at Washington knew his steal and block rates would translate, zone be damned. It’s what he’s showing so far on the other end that is actually surprising.

Thybulle is a developing shooter

Thybulle’s jumper had potential coming out of Washington, but it was also no sure thing. He hit a respectable 35.8 percent of his threes on four attempts per game over his four-year career, but his percentage was down to just 30.5 percent as a senior. More troubling, Thybulle looked reluctant to shoot in his final year, passing up open threes to swing the ball or attack half-hearted closeouts.

Thybulle hit 39 percent of his 28 attempts from three in summer league, giving Philly hope his range could extend to the pro line. He’s continued that in a big way during the regular season. Right now, Thybulle is hitting 46.3 percent of the 54 three-pointers he’s attempted. That puts him No. 6 in the league in three-point percentage.

Thybulle’s shooting is going to regress, but his touch looks legitimate and his low arcing shot appears soft coming out of his hands.

The Sixers don’t need Thybulle to be one of the league’s best shooters like he’s been so far. They just need him to be respectable. Anything else he gives them beyond that on offense is going to make the imagination run wild of what he could one day become.

The 76ers finally found a usable rookie

From Joel Embiid to Ben Simmons to Markelle Fultz to Zhaire Smith, the Sixers have had comically bad luck with rookie injuries. We’re not trying to jinx Thybulle, simply noting that even making it 24 games into his rookie year is a cause for celebration.

Thybulle is also simply easy to root for. Every time he speaks to the media, you can tell he’s living his dream.

Sixers fans are turning Thybulle into the cult hero he was always destined to be. This has been the perfect union of a hyper-passionate fanbase and a player whose impressive skill set and beaming personality demand appreciation beyond his per-game numbers.

Thybulle has outlier athletic ability with outlier defensive instincts. He’s entered the league with his own signature celebration. He has a ways to go on offense and will need to learn the nuances of defensive coverages, but it’s clear he has some special talents that he’s already been able to successfully deploy against pros.

The Sixers are still figuring out who they are with mismatched pieces that think outside the box the rest of the NBA is living in. Whatever the Sixers eventually develop into, Thybulle will be a big piece.