The evolution of 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle has begun

PHILADELPHIA -- Matisse Thybulle sat and watched.

It was an early-November night in Denver, and the Philadelphia 76ers rookie guard was on the bench as the Nuggets scored 35 points in the fourth quarter of a matchup of NBA championship contenders. He remained glued to the bench, picking up his first DNP-CD eight games into his young career, as Philadelphia suffered its third consecutive loss.

Thybulle arrived in the NBA as a premier defensive prospect. But mistakes at that end, coupled with poor shooting -- he was a ghastly 24.2% from the field and 23.8% from 3-point range -- had seen him lose the trust of Sixers coach Brett Brown.

A month later, those same Nuggets came into Philadelphia, again threatening to erase a Sixers fourth-quarter lead, cutting the margin to two points. This time, though, Thybulle wasn't watching from the bench. And when he knocked down a 25-footer to stem Denver's rally, the Nuggets never got any closer.

After a bumpy start to his NBA career, Thybulle is in a groove. And in finding his place, he is starting to show why the 76ers moved up to draft him in June.

"Matisse Thybulle is moving forward," Brown said. "I like the way that he is trending."

Thybulle's ability to move forward has been evident from opening night.

The rookie was summoned to make his NBA debut during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics. He was immediately given the assignment of slowing down point guard Kemba Walker. The All-Star goaded Thybulle into a pair of fouls in the span of 11 seconds. After just three minutes, his first stint of NBA action was over.

As the game went along, though, Thybulle began to hold his own. He eventually got a clean steal on Walker on one play and blocked his shot on another. It was an early glimpse of the defensive instincts and abilities that have scouts and fellow players raving.

"I've not seen a rookie come in with his defensive skills, and that's impressive," Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris said. "The only guy I would say is Kawhi [Leonard]."

The comparison is a lofty one, but Thybulle built his reputation on spectacular defense. He was a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year at Washington, where he played like a football safety, constantly looking for an opportunity to pounce into a passing lane. He produced highlight-reel moments of the type he had earlier this month against Utah, when Mike Conley lofted a backcourt pass to Donovan Mitchell, only to see Thybulle dart in, nab the ball and hit Ben Simmons for an alley-oop slam.

But Thybulle's gambles can lead to wide-open shots for the opponent when they come up empty. And in those early-season moments when his playing time waned, those failed gambles were a primary reason.

"I've had to figure out time and place," Thybulle said recently with a smile. "It's been a huge feel thing. A lot of these guys, it's my first time playing against them. So I didn't know what to expect. I came in with my college mentality, like, try to steal every pass.

"I learned very quickly that was not going to work."

He learned very quickly because Brown forced him to sit and watch as a result.

"At times I should have a higher tolerance level to endure his wild decisions defensively," Brown admitted.

Then, however, he explained why he doesn't.

"This league is so unforgiving that you [can't] just forget, oh, say, Joe Ingles," he said. "I forget he can shoot, and I'm just going to go [try to] make whatever play I want and go, 'Oh, my bad.'"

It's a lesson Thybulle has learned the hard way. After he played more than 20 minutes in each of the Sixers' first four games, his minutes quickly dwindled.

Through the first half of November, Thybulle averaged 9.4 minutes per game, with that zero-minute night in Denver coming right in the middle of that stretch. It was a clear signal that he needed to start figuring out the "time and place."

During the draft process, Philadelphia quickly zeroed in on Thybulle, an older prospect at age 22. Coming off an epic seven-game loss to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the second round, the 76ers wanted someone who could come in and contribute immediately toward their own championship aspirations. The team made an agreement with his camp to shut down his workouts, promising to take him with the No. 24 pick in the first round. On draft night, they didn't even wait that long, instead moving up four spots -- giving up the No. 33 overall pick in the process -- in a trade with the Celtics to snag him with the 20th overall selection.

They believed Thybulle would bolster their defense. So far this season, the Sixers are up to sixth in defensive rating after finishing 14th last season. According to FiveThirtyEight's player metrics, Thybulle has rated as the NBA's seventh-best defender. Two of the players ahead of him -- Leonard and Rudy Gobert -- have combined to win four of the past five Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Only three players have more than five games this season with at least two steals and two blocks -- Andre Drummond (10), Anthony Davis (nine) and Thybulle (six).

But the Sixers also needed Thybulle to shoot, especially from 3-point range, having effectively swapped out Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick for more reluctant shooters Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

"I've not seen a rookie come in with his defensive skills and that's impressive. The only guy I would say is Kawhi [Leonard]."
Tobias Harris on Matisse Thybulle

Thybulle had demonstrated shooting ability at Washington, with above-average percentages from beyond the arc (35.8% on 534 attempts) and from the free throw line (78.2%). The question that scouts and executives had was whether he would be willing to let it fly often enough to draw out defenses, providing the kind of gravity and spacing NBA teams need.

In the two games leading up to his DNP-CD in Denver, Thybulle attempted just two 3-pointers, missing them both. In the nine games that followed, he combined for just seven 3-point attempts, though he made four of them.

When Richardson exited with a hamstring injury during a win over the Sacramento Kings, Thybulle was pressed into a larger offensive role, and he stepped up. In the game against the Kings, Thybulle was 5-for-5 from the field and 3-for-3 from deep. During Richardson's absence, the rookie averaged more than three 3-point attempts per night while shooting 59% from beyond the arc.

And he kept it going when Richardson returned to the lineup. Against the Nuggets squad he'd sat and watched a month earlier, Thybulle was 5-for-8 overall and 3-for-4 from 3-point range to reach double figures in scoring for the third time in his brief NBA career, setting a career-high with 20 points. Entering Wednesday night's showdown with the Miami Heat (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App), Thybulle is shooting 46.7% from distance this season, fifth best in the NBA.

"It's been a growing process," Thybulle said. "I think it'd be very easy for someone to look at how I've played the last few games and think that it came naturally and it was just like, 'He's been like this the whole time.'

"But as everyone has seen, there's been a lot of ups and downs and growing pains. I think, for me, it was just learning from those and taking those lessons and being disciplined enough not to fall back on the things I've already learned."

For a team that sometimes appears unable to make a perimeter shot, Thybulle is giving Brown another reason to keep him on the court.

"Even though we have so many guys that can score the ball," Joel Embiid said, "him adding what he's been adding, especially his shooting, has been tremendous."

Like any other rookie, Thybulle has had mixed results during his first two months in the NBA. Still, the Sixers are quite pleased that as a Christmas Day showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks -- a team they expect to have to get through to reach the NBA Finals -- approaches, Thybulle is making himself a regular member of Brown's rotation.

"He's a good person, and he cares, and there is a tolerance level that I have to be better with," Brown said. "And at times, that's hard, because we're trying to win. [But] I think he has shown progressive growth in a mature way. And in a way, I can delineate. I can see it. I can feel it."

Progressive growth toward playing in December and January is one thing. Becoming a player Brown can trust in May and June? That is very much another.

Last postseason, the Sixers saw how costly a weak second unit can be. Philadelphia didn't have a single reserve average eight points per game. The Sixers' bench players collectively averaged 27.2 PPG, ranking 11th among the 16 playoff teams, and shot 29% from 3-point range.

The Sixers remain active in trying to upgrade their bench, per sources. But they drafted Thybulle with the thought that by the time the playoffs roll around, he can be an integral part of what this team hopes is a run to its first championship in 36 years.

Between now and then, Brown will repeatedly be reminding himself of just that: "I'm always reminding myself, 'If we woke up tomorrow and it's April 15, do I feel comfortable I've grown him the way that I should?'"

If the past few weeks are any indication, that growth is coming along just fine.