December 02, 2019
Matisse Thybulle was on Brett Brown's mind before anyone stepped on the court for Monday night's win over the Utah Jazz. The challenge with any rookie is trying to take advantage of their exuberance without letting that energy get them into trouble. That's doubly true for Thybulle, an adventurous defensive player, and the head coach admitted he has to afford his rookie more room to grow and fail than perhaps he has so far.
"I should have a higher tolerance level to endure his wild decisions defensively because they are punishing. This league is so unforgiving," Brown said before the game. "There is a tolerance level that I have to be better with, and at times that's hard because you're trying to win. I think he has shown progressive growth in a mature way, in a way that I can delineate, I can see it, I can feel it."
"I'm always reminding myself, if we woke up tomorrow and it's April 15th, would I feel comfortable that I've grown him the way that I should?"
One way to make the coach feel better about living with those wild decisions is to cut down on them or eliminate them entirely. Through experience, Thybulle is learning where to draw the line and when to take advantage of his gifts, with his effort against Utah one of his better performances so far this season.
For long stretches throughout the game, Thybulle was asked to take the No. 1 perimeter assignment guarding Donovan Mitchell. It's an assignment that requires discipline — Mitchell can score from all three levels, and he knows you know that, so he's happy to turn aggression against you and force his way to the free-throw line if you overplay your hand.
Thybulle has taken the bait when guarding similar players this season. Against Mitchell, there were a lot of possessions where he was the second guy off of the floor, and while he may not have come up with the turnover himself, he forced Mitchell into difficult positions he couldn't work his way out of.
"I think it's experience," Thybulle said. "Just being out there and seeing it live I think it's huge. Most of these games it's my first time [against an opponent], we played against them twice now so I had a better feel for their guys. And just with each game, I get a better feel for the pace and what I can get away with with the refs, or with help side and those types of gambles and things like that."
His head coach used the word "tame" to describe the performance, which feels apt. It wasn't just Mitchell who Thybulle had to check, and against one of the league's heaviest pick-and-roll teams, Thybulle was doing a lot of navigating, either against Mitchell or the likes of Mike Conley and Joe Ingles.
When you're guarding guys like that, it is easier than you might think to get your hand caught in the cookie jar. Players are better than they have ever been at punishing opponents for reaching in, so much so that assistant coach Ime Udoka said during the preseason that it was a point of emphasis for the Sixers to show their hands on defense, looking to create as much benefit of the doubt as they can on drives.
Though Thybulle hasn't quit his gambling ways — he's still the man Brown calls a "reckless thief" — he has taken to this instruction. Thybulle's patience has improved, and it allowed him to draw multiple offensive fouls against Utah by sitting back and making the calls easy for the officials.
Putting Thybulle in the rotation is a godsend for someone like Ben Simmons. There's a lot of responsibility on Simmons' shoulders as is, and allowing him to play a roving role throughout the game saves his energy to check the No. 1 option in crunch time, allowing him to focus on everything else he has to do to get Philly humming. And Simmons credits Thybulle as one of the guys who has helped him learn and grow on defense this season.
"Having these guys as part of this team they've helped me grow defensively," Simmons said. "Just watching Matisse, the way he's able to [use] his hands and get deflections, [Josh Richardson] the energy he brings, those two guys we've brought in have been great."
It's on offense where his development is a bit more surprising. Dating back to their game against Cleveland on November 17, Thybulle has gone 10/14 from deep, finding a comfort zone as a shooter over the last few weeks.
No one expects him to shoot 71 percent from three for the rest of his career. The Sixers have guided him toward shots they believe are in his wheelhouse, backed up with data they've given to Thybulle to help him understand when and where to let it fly.
It's not always the data that gets the point across. There are good, old-fashioned reminders from his superiors that he is a rookie, which means understanding there's a time and a place for him to let loose.
"He's coming into a team that's pretty good and taking some shots like he'd been in the league for 10 years. He's rising up behind dribble handoffs and going away from stuff like JJ [Redick] type shots," Brown said. "I love him for his boldness, but you have to remind him you're on a good team and you're getting minutes, and that in itself is rare for a rookie."
"When he gets his waist over his feet and his shoulders follow and everything's aligned, his balance makes him a really good shooter...he's smart, he understands that."
Just don't ask him to throw a lot of lobs. He completed one of the highlights of the season in the first half, ripping off the Jazz in transition and then finding a trailing Simmons for a big-time slam.
So why throw the lob instead of going for it himself?
"I've probably completed like two alley-oops in my basketball career, so I was like, really hoping to add another one to it. I think that might be three now," Thybulle said. "And I've learned you pass the ball to the vets when you're out there with them, too. They like that."
He's a sharp one.
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