Almost everything Matisse Thybulle does on the basketball court is unique.
While shot attempts remain scarce and box score stats hardly jump off the page, Thybulle flies in the face of mainstream thinking, continuing his sharp rise as one of the most important pieces on the Philadelphia 76ers roster.
Just in his third year as a pro, Thybulle is a certified stud on the defensive end, but it’s on offence where he gets the sense he is beginning to find his identity.
For many NBA players, scoring is where they earn their paycheque, but Thybulle remains enthusiastically at ease with his role in Philadelphia, thanks in large part to a conversation with Australian Boomers head coach Brian Goorjian.
“One of the first conversations we had was during halftime of one of the first games in Vegas (leading up to the Tokyo Olympics). He told me I wasn’t going to get any plays called for me and it was going to be hard for me to find opportunities, but he needed me to want to go and find those opportunities because without that, it was going to be hard for us to succeed,” Thybulle recalled to ESPN.
“Most coaches, it would be very hard for them to tell a player that because they would be scared of the reaction. He owned it.”
Thybulle accepted the challenge to become a key cog on the Boomers breakthrough bronze medal-winning performance, finding ways to impact the offence by spacing the floor, running in transition and cutting to the basket to open up avenues for himself or others to put the ball in the bucket.
“It’s been a learning process. Most players’ value comes from their production offensively. For most guys to produce offensively they need a play called for them. To have it laid out for me so black-and-white was great because I have struggled with it in the NBA,” he said.
“Ever since ‘Goorj’ laid it out so simply for me and then I could commit to it. To have my success celebrated keeps that motivation and keeps the fire burning to want to continue to do it.”
Starting in a career-high 14 games and counting so far in 2021-22, Thybulle notes his ability to work off the ball in the half court has been praised by the coaching staff in Philadelphia. In a world where outside opinion is unjustly focused on individual stats, Thybulle is at peace with his development in a system where his impact is cherished within the locker room.
“It’s been fun, this is like a new world that has opened up to me and most of it doesn’t show up in the box score but I’m no stranger to that because my game defensively half the time doesn’t either,” he told ESPN.
“As a kid you look up to these players and everyone wants to be in the league, and everyone wants to be a star, but little do they know that there’s only a handful of those guys who ever exist. Teams aren’t built to have multiple of them at the same time. How do you compliment the best players? How do you make everyone else better? Through this newfound world of cutting off the ball I’ve created a cool little niche for myself and found ways to have different levels of success in that area.”
Defensively, the 24-year-old is producing his usual all-world creation of chaos, despite the Sixers’ efficiency as a team plummeting on that end of the floor.
“We lost the runner up for defensive player of the year. Any other team that loses a player of that calibre falls apart,” Thybulle says with a shrug while referencing Ben Simmons, who is yet to play a single game this season in an attempt to force a trade away from the franchise.
“Defensively, Ben can guard one through five and we put him on the other team’s best player. When you have to replace him with another player who is just physically smaller…most human beings can’t do what Ben has done, physically because he’s such a freak. Tyrese (Maxey) has done an amazing job of stepping up and running a pretty hard offence. The job that [Maxey] has done this season has been a world class effort.”
A lockdown defender in isolation, Thybulle’s ability to guard space and make split-second decisions to force turnovers through deflections, steals, and blocks is incredibly unique, with the creative leash from Doc Rivers and the coaching staff a constant topic of conversation.
“I’ve had a lot of talks with the coaches. It feels like I’m going to the principal’s office half the time, but really, it’s finding that balance,” Thybulle laughs.
“For whatever reason I have this unique skillset that allows me to make interesting plays on defence. Trying to find the balance of letting me explore that area while at the same time being a solid consistent defender is really hard.
“I have a lot of appreciation for our coaching staff because they’ve given me enough of a leash to be able to be myself. That’s not easy because I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve messed up. I’ve taken the wrong risk or taken too much risk a lot of the time, but through letting me play through it I have learned when I can and can’t do it but even still, I mess up. It’s a game of numbers but as long as I come out on top, we’re going to be ok.”
For Australian basketball fans, there is an overwhelming sense of pride for the Boomers, with the brotherhood and mateship so clearly becoming a part of Thybulle’s makeup through the Olympic campaign. While the introduction to ‘Boomers culture’ was important, the experience meant so much more than pride for the green and gold, with the Goorjian’s advice just one of many career-changing nuggets he pocketed from Tokyo.
“It’s cool to see the reaction of the (Philadelphia) coaching staff. The biggest thing they said when I got back is that I’ve gotten so much better. It’s funny because most people equate getting better to having an offseason of training and working on your game and I didn’t have any time to do that. That was the most growth I’ve made in my career even though it doesn’t necessarily show up but my value that I bring to the team has definitely grown and the coaches see that,” Thybulle told ESPN.
“Everyone is kind of scared, and this is not the case with the Boomers. Guys are scared of playing in the offseason and doing too much, [but] you’ve seen Patty, Joe, Delly and Baynes do this forever. Just putting together massive years of playing basketball. I think that’s a testament to why their careers have been so long-lived and why they’ve been able to be so consistent in the NBA and I’m definitely trying to take a page out of their book in that sense.”
Catch the full conversation with Matisse Thybulle on the Ball and the Real World podcast – available wherever you find your podcasts.