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June 21, 2019

The Sixers are getting a quality kid in Washington's Matisse Thybulle

When picks are moving and transactions are happening on the night of the NBA Draft, it is easy to get lost in the discussions about value and who won each trade that leaks to the media. With the Sixers involved in a flurry of transactions on Thursday night, that's what ended up dominating discussion of Elton Brand's first draft night as a GM.

In the middle of all that chaos, it is easy to forget there are human beings on lifelong journeys who are having one of the most important nights of their life. For Matisse Thybulle, joining the Sixers is the culmination of years and years of hard work, and his beaming smile on Friday morning said everything you needed to know about how happy he is to be in Philly.

It will come as no surprise that the Sixers had scouts watching Thybulle dating back years. He shared the floor with Markelle Fultz at Washington during the year that convinced the Sixers to trade up to No. 1 to get him, and as fate would have it, Philadelphia had to make another trade with the Boston Celtics to land their latest man from Washington.

Thybulle, as Elton Brand explained repeatedly in the first 24 hours following the trade, is a guy the Sixers have had on their radar for longer than just the pre-draft process. And despite that hurting them in trade discussions with the Boston Celtics, you can see why they'd place a premium on him.

Over four years at Washington, Thybulle went from a defensive role player to one of the most disruptive defenders in college basketball history. During his senior season at Washington, he broke Jason Kidd's single-season steals record for the Pac-12 and eclipsed Gary Payton's all-time conference record of 320 steals. Thybulle did that, by the way, while blocking more shots during his senior season than Payton did across four years at Oregon State.

Payton, who is a notoriously outspoken trash talker and protective of his legacy as one of the great defenders of the last few decades, was supportive of Thybulle as he challenged and eventually broke his record, and the two developed a shared bond over defense. 

"When I was creeping up on his record I could tell he was getting nervous," Thybulle joked about passing Payton. "Going into the season people were asking me obviously if I was gonna try to break his record, and I looked at those numbers and I'm like 'honestly, I don't want to think about it because I don't think it's possible' think that I'm in the conversation with guys like him, Jason Kidd for the single-season steals record, that's pretty special. I mean, I'm not sure if I belong, but I'm starting to feel like it a little bit now."

On the surface, the Sixers are getting the exact sort of kid they've been craving for this program. Thybulle says he made the conscious decision to return for the fourth year of college in order to arrive closer to a finished product, which must have been music to the ears of a front office who clamored after experienced rookies all through the pre-draft process. 

Thybulle is not a player who is going to come in demanding touches, and he was willing to take a step back on offense as a senior (Thybulle took almost two fewer shots per game) in order to help Washington win games. On the day of his introductory presser, he took pride in calling himself a "glue guy" for a Washington team that won more games in a season than any iteration of the program since 2005. That mentality will serve him well in Philly.

He does not arrive in the NBA without question marks. After shooting at an above-average clip for the first three years of his career, he dipped to 30.5 percent as a senior, which would obviously not cut it on a team in dire need of shooting. The explanation he offered was that he turned his focus on other things to help Washington win.

"I felt personally with my role on the team that I had to make certain sacrifices to try and help us win. I think with those sacrifices, we had a pretty good result," Thybulle said. "I just felt like for me my role wasn’t going to be to take over offensively. It was going to be, just be a team player, be a glue guy, and just be able to do what I was able to do on the defensive end to just make it hard for other teams.”

Exerting extra energy on the defensive end doesn't necessarily mean your percentages should drop through the floor, obviously. There's also the question of whether his defense has been overstated because he has spent the last two years playing in a zone. We have seen plenty of college players leave zone-playing schools like Syracuse and look helpless once they reach the pro level. 

But even if we conceded that the steal and block numbers are inflated, it would be hard to make the case against him on defense. He has tremendous hands that he uses to rip guys in one-on-one situations, and his instincts away from the play are excellent. 

Thybulle noted on Friday morning that most principles away from the ball are the same in either zone or man defense. The zone, he says, simply allowed him to be more of an attacker.

"I got to chase the ball around a little bit, I wasn’t stuck on a man," Thybulle said Friday. "You could be guarding someone [in man] that’s just standing in the corner all game, and you don’t get to impact the game defensively as much. But in the zone, I was able to kind of make more plays on the ball because I wasn’t restricted to one person."

Attention to detail is sort of his thing, on or off of the court. He caught the photography bug from two friends who shoot professionally in the Seattle area, inspiring him to get his own Canon and hit the pavement in his spare time. Thybulle shoots cityscapes and landscapes that he shares on a small Instagram page, explaining the process as an extension of his natural curiosity.

On a Philadelphia team that will feature guys like Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, Thybulle won't be asked to take on an opponent's toughest perimeter assignment right away. That should be a blessing for him — rather than being asked to stop guys like Kawhi Leonard right away, he can focus his energy on being that off-ball disruptor the Sixers lacked last season, creating the turnovers they need to get out and run. As he builds strength and spends time studying tendencies of the game's elite offensive players, he will only get more dangerous, and his focus on the dirty work will allow the stars to focus on heavy lifting in other areas.

Talent matters, and Thybulle has plenty of it, but building a successful program is about stocking it with the right sort of people at every level of the organization. The Washington product is a clean fit as a player and a person, and while there are gripes to make about Philadelphia's draft process, they are more than likely going to be better with him in the fold.

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