October 10, 2019
If not for Ben Simmons breaking the internet with a three-point shot on Tuesday evening, Matisse Thybulle would be the No. 1 story of the preseason for Philadelphia. Plucked out of a zone defense in Washington, Thybulle has taken all of two games to prove his defensive instincts are going to create mayhem in any scheme on any court.
At every opportunity, this has inspired the people around him to shower him in praise. Ben Simmons has remarked that he hates playing against him, a badge of honor for a kid fresh out of college. Joel Embiid noted at practice this week he's surprised we aren't talking about the rookie's performances more, comparing his ball-hawking instincts to those of departed forward Robert Covington.
With Thybulle helping to lead the charge, the Sixers are even toying with the idea of unleashing the second unit to play ultra-aggressive defense that breaks from the team's style with the starters on the floor. Against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions, the Sixers sent a wave of full-court pressure and traps at their opponent, and Brett Brown says we should expect to see more of it, especially from the second unit.
"I like our second team [pressing and trapping], like to try to create a bomb squad mentality and give them an identity, I'm interested in that," Brown said following the team's win over Guangzhou. "I think our second team can establish that type of identity...I want to play aggressive defense, I want our defense to be the launching pad for our offense, not the other way around."
(This is where I would throw some clips of the Sixers pressing if I had them, so shout out to NBC Sports for getting gratuitous shots of the Sixers' sideline rather than filming the actual game on Tuesday.)
It would be hard to have a better first few weeks than Thybulle has. But with Thybulle emerging as a no-doubt member of the rotation, questions emerge about where that leaves Zhaire Smith, the teammate he has been lumped together with in offseason conversations.
Discussing the pair together makes a lot of sense on the surface, with the pair expected to bring athleticism and defensive chops off of the bench, and the key for both of them to prove they can shoot well enough to carve out a role on offense. But while Smith is still being described mostly through athletic terms — calling him a "pogo stick" is a Brown favorite — Thybulle is out there making you feel his presence every moment he has been on the floor.
When another young player jumps into the fold and flies past the incumbent, it's natural to worry a bit. For Brown, Smith getting off to a slower smart than Thybulle isn't all that concerning when you put it within the context of the last year he has had.
"He effectively didn't really have a year last year, one," Brown said at practice Wednesday. "Two, you're taking a college three/four man and trying to make him a two. Three, just the environment of NBA basketball and words and all that, is drowning, it really is drowning. And so you add in all that into a melting pot, and he's still young, I think it shouldn't be out of the ordinary where he comes in and he still plays like he has a lot more to learn and grow, because he does. I think that's fair."
Smith's first year was unique even for a team that has absorbed an assortment of strange medical issues with their young players. He wasn't just going through rehab for a broken bone or torn ligament, he was tasked with trying to eat and lift his way back to a normal weight after his body betrayed him. Most players making the transition from playing inside-out to outside-in are not fighting to get back to a livable number on the scale.
When Ben Simmons was competing for Rookie of the Year honors with Donovan Mitchell two seasons ago, part of the argument on the Jazz side of the equation was about the unseen benefits Simmons received during his, uh, transition year while embedded in an NBA program. What that argument always glossed over was the loss of a year of competitive basketball, which is really difficult to overcome for an average player, let alone one going through a role switch while juggling major health hurdles.
To use a football comparison, teams often sit young quarterbacks at the start of their careers so they can, "learn the playbook," but knowing team terminology is not the same as being able to apply it to game situations. Just as young quarterbacks have to learn to diagnose coverages pre-snap and balance aggression with protecting the football, young basketball players have to learn when to gamble on defense, where to rotate and when, and how to avoid getting baited into cheap fouls by veterans. Outside of some G-League appearances and a cameo at the end of the season in meaningless minutes, Smith has had precious little time to apply anything he has learned.
Thybulle, it must be noted, is also over two years older than Smith, and had the benefit of figuring out who he is over four full seasons in college. He has had to go through the process of memorizing the "76tionary," Brown's recently revealed name for the book that encapsulates all their must-know terms and concepts, but his responsibilities as a three-and-D wing are familiar.
For Brown, Thybulle's early separation from Smith is about knowing who he is, which makes it easy for Brown to just throw him on the floor in a defined role.
"You're always hearing me say, what do you do? What is your identifiable NBA skill? And it's clear [Thybulle] is elite with his hands, his hands on balls are off the charts," Brown said. "And by the way, he's old, he's a four-year guy and this and that. So there he is, and I think that's just what he's been and now what we're seeing."
Before the calendar turns to 2020, Brown's mission is to "keep guys alive," making sure he's not burying anyone they might need later depending on the matchup. Smith's potential as a point-of-attack defender could be hugely important for the Sixers down the line, and the head coach has promised to roll with an expanded rotation to start the year. Thybulle is in position to get the first crack, but 82 games will provide plenty of opportunities to get Smith in the rotation, to say nothing of other competitors for minutes like Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton.
Would it be better if Smith had matched Thybulle's excellent start to the preseason? Certainly. But the Sixers have time on their side here, and unlike in years past, they have what looks to be a solid rotation behind their starters, removing the pressure to rush young players. For now, they're content.
"I think Zhaire is just a byproduct of the environment, his route to this year," Brown said. "Quite possibly, things could have been expedited if he had already had a full year without the injury. But going too fast too soon, he's still young and he's still ours, [that's] where my head is at."
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