Matisse Thybulle was on the receiving end of the pass that changed everything for the Philadelphia 76ers. The top-seeded Sixers were down two to the Atlanta Hawks with three and half minutes left in Game 7 of last season’s second-round playoff series, and after backing down and spinning away from his defender, Ben Simmons had a wide-open layup. But with a clear look at the rim and only 6-foot-1 Trae Young closing in on him, Simmons surprisingly dished the ball to Thybulle, who was fouled and made just one of two free throws.
Simmons’s phantom layup quickly became a symbol for everything wrong with his Philly tenure—his uneven offensive game, his uneasy fit with Joel Embiid—setting off a chain of events that led to his trade demand and endless drama. But Thybulle feels Simmons’s missed opportunity overshadows his own mistake, one that he thinks cost the Sixers the game: his foul of Kevin Huerter on a 3-pointer, which allowed the Hawks to take a four-point lead in the closing minute.
In the days after the game, Thybulle ruminated on the mistake, even when speaking with Sixers front office boss Daryl Morey. “If you’re gonna get down on yourself for fouling Kevin Huerter, you have to give yourself credit for all the amazing plays he made earlier in the game,” Morey tells me he said to Thybulle over the phone. Minutes before the foul, Thybulle blocked Young from behind. Morey added, “We know the good far outweighs the bad.”
Thybulle blocked a jumper or floater 53 times during the regular season, which led the NBA and helped him earn All-Defensive honors in just his second season. Since his playoff mistake, he’s been on a mission to further balance being disruptive and disciplined.
“You know what you did so you can learn from it. But what sense is there in beating myself up over it?” Thybulle tells me. “I can’t will myself through time to change what I did.”
Timing is everything for Thybulle. In his four years at Washington, he’d grown accustomed to freelancing on the defensive end. But NBA offenses moved fast, and his coaches needed him to gamble less often. He says he second-guessed his instincts as a rookie. Even if he made the right reads, he wondered whether he was wrong. He made errors. He still does.
Thybulle watches videos of great defenders from the past and present to pick out their strengths and weaknesses. He studies his own games. He listens to his teammates, especially Danny Green, a former All-Defensive team member who helps him study opponent tendencies. “His recovery speed is unbelievable. He can get hit by a screen or be out of position, then make up that ground to make a play,” Green says. “But sometimes during a game I’ll tell him to just be solid because there’s certain players you can’t gamble against.”
This season, Thybulle’s foul rate is trending down to a career-low three fouls per 36 minutes, and he’s still giving offenses headaches. He is on pace to again hit 50 blocks on jump shots and floaters—a feat that no player except him has accomplished since at least 2013-14, according to Second Spectrum.
“There are three discouraging things that can happen to you as a player,” Thybulle’s teammate Tobias Harris says. “When you get dunked on, when you get beat one-on-one, and when somebody blocks your jumper. Factor in the intensity that he volleyball spikes people’s shots, it’s borderline disrespectful.”
With Simmons away from the team and Embiid missing time due to injury and the NBA’s COVID protocols, Thybulle has taken on greater defensive responsibility. The results have not been the same for Philadelphia, which currently sits in seventh place in the East and has fallen to 20th in defensive rating following two straight seasons ranking in the top eight. With a Simmons deal still in limbo, and thus no reinforcements in sight, the Sixers could use an internal boost. And Thybulle, now a starter, has learned to find comfort in the face of adversity.
Thybulle didn’t grow up playing on winning teams like the Sixers. His teams at Skyline High, in Sammamish, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, were typically below .500.
After rough losses, Thybulle would often talk to his mom, Elizabeth, who was an athlete when she was her son’s age but didn’t specialize in basketball. In response, she would tell him that his “timing” was off.
“I played terribly, Mom. You don’t even know what a 3-pointer is. Don’t tell me about timing,” Thybulle says in his best angsty teenager voice. “It used to just irk me to no end, but now it’s something that I really do love. She just really wanted to see her kids happy. She always said, ‘If you’re happy, keep doing it, and figure out how to get better.’”
Thybulle’s parents were fixtures at his high school games. His father, Greg, would stand in the corner of the gym with a camera mounted on a monopod, filming the action so Thybulle could watch the tape afterward. If he got a steal leading to a fast break, his dad would never catch the dunk. “Because he would always watch the dunk with his eyes and move the camera afterwards,” Thybulle says with a chuckle.
To get a better high school experience and play for a better team, Thybulle transferred to nearby Eastside Catholic for his junior year. He was 6-foot-5. He could leap. He brought energy. Thybulle began to draw increased interest from Division I schools, including Washington and Gonzaga, and he participated in the AAU circuit to get more reps for his development.
Toward the end of his junior year, Thybulle spent a weekend in Las Vegas for an AAU camp. Whenever he would return from a trip, the family would talk about it over dinner. Family dinner was a nightly staple of the Thybulle household. No TV. No phones at the table. They’d discuss whether his younger sister Chloe learned something new in school, or when Matisse got a good grade on a project. “We celebrated the little things,” Thybulle says. “We also talked about the bad things.”
Everything seemed normal when he returned from Vegas. “But,” Thybulle says, “as I began unpacking my parents said we were having a family meeting.”
They all gathered in the living room. Chloe and Greg sat together on one couch, Matisse and Elizabeth on the other.
“Mommy’s sick,” Greg said. Elizabeth had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow and can move into the blood or other parts of the body.
“I want you to promise me this,” Greg recalls Elizabeth telling him the night before. “This battle we’re about to face is our battle. You and I. Not the kids. What I’m going through is for you and I. We will not deny the kids any opportunities to be kids.”
Matisse and Chloe mostly saw their mother on good days. They would spend time at the facility with her while she underwent chemotherapy, walking the hallways, and listening to their mom negotiate with nurses for a stationary bike to be brought to her room. “We had to run laps with her,” Thybulle remembers. “As unfortunate as the situation was, we were able to laugh. We were happy in those moments.”
It didn’t take long for her golden hair to fall out. Greg would tell her, Wow, you look goooood. She’d smile. It was harder to watch her eat. She lost the taste for food, a common side effect of chemo. “Anything you put in your mouth tastes exactly like nothing. But you got to choke it down because you need fuel in your body,” Greg says. “I would watch her eat, and in the back of my mind think, ‘This woman is a goddess amongst us mortals. Wonder Woman’s got nothing on you, boo!’”
Over the next year, Elizabeth had a bone marrow transplant, and her sister Amy Sehrer donated stem cells. She went into remission in early 2015, toward the end of Thybulle’s senior season. The family began to make plans for the future. Matisse committed to Washington, Chloe planned to finish high school, and then their parents wanted to move to Arizona, where Matisse was born and the family hoped to settle.
But some cancers can require maintenance chemo to get rid of all of the leukemia cells in order to achieve long-term remission or even cure the person. Oncologists determined Elizabeth should have one additional dose of chemo. But it lowered her immune system and she got an infection, which turned into a fever that put her in the hospital. Soon after, she fell into a coma. Days later, on February 2, Elizabeth passed away at age 50.
One day after Thybulle’s mother passed, it was senior night for Eastside Catholic. The game was against Nathan Hale, one of the worst teams in the area. Everyone would’ve understood if he didn’t play.
“You’re anticipating time to stop,” Thybulle says. “But then nothing stops, nothing slows down. The world around you continues, while you’re faced with this reality of a devastating event.”
But his family made a mutual decision that Elizabeth would have wanted her two children to keep doing what they love. “Our parents gave us the attitude that you make what you make of every situation,” Chloe says. “At the end of the day, the world keeps spinning even if it feels like your world stopped.”
Thybulle scored 17 points that night in a win. He threw down a one-handed alley-oop. He intercepted a pass and took it the other way for a dunk. “It was all subconscious,” Greg says. “His body was on autopilot, and he knew that he was playing for his mom.”
The impact of such a loss never really goes away, but Thybulle says the comfort of his mother’s love is always present.
“Taking that mindset into every experience, knowing that she’s always there, she’s never really gone, I found a lot of comfort,” Thybulle says. “I didn’t really need to feel like I was moving on or moving forward. I was just moving with.”
The first time Thybulle was scouted by the University of Washington, he wasn’t the main attraction. In his third varsity game, Thybulle faced off against a junior at Bothell High by the name of Zach LaVine. LaVine’s talent was obvious. The future NBA All-Star was ranked first in the state of Washington and in the top 50 nationally. Thybulle was unranked. Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar was in attendance to watch LaVine, who scored 29 points. But Thybulle made LaVine work for it when they were in the game together. He raced round screens. He stretched his long arms to contest him. He logged two steals and two blocks.
“He’d just soar through the air,” Romar recalls. “It was as if he dropped from the ceiling.”
In the parking lot following the game, Romar introduced himself and told Thybulle he believed he could someday be good enough to get a scholarship to play college basketball. Greg says “that’s when Matisse’s dreams started to come alive.”
Thybulle ultimately chose to attend Washington, in part because it was close to home and in part because of his strong relationship with Romar. Matisse’s father moved from the sidelines with his monopod to the stands, and ultimately became known locally for his loud cheering and for talking trash to opposing student sections.
But Romar was fired by Washington after Thybulle’s sophomore season. When Mike Hopkins was hired, Matisse and Greg met with the new coach and drilled him with questions about life and basketball—where the program was going, what Thybulle’s role would look like playing in a zone defense. Thybulle considered transferring, but later, Greg met with Hopkins and gave him a card from Elizabeth’s memorial service and told the story of their family. “This picture is Elizabeth showing her belly, pregnant with Matisse, and the next one is our shotgun wedding,” Greg says as he details the photo to me over the phone. “And here’s Matisse holding little Chloe.”
Greg also told Hopkins stories about Elizabeth, like how on each anniversary of Elizabeth’s passing, the family would visit the cancer unit where she received treatments and bring flowers, cards, and basketball gear to the nurses and patients. Midway through the season, Hopkins was invited to join the family. “It was one of the greatest moments of my career,” Hopkins says.
A coach looking to establish a culture felt accepted, and Thybulle continued to blossom under the new leadership. Thybulle was a defensive menace, no matter what scheme he played in, and it put him on the draft radar.
“We were on the lookout for guys we hoped would slide into the second round,” says Morey, who was running the Rockets at the time. Ariana Andonian, then a scouting coordinator for Houston who now works for Memphis, told Morey he needed to travel to see Thybulle near the start of his junior season. So Morey flew to Kansas City and saw Washington upset then-undefeated Kansas.
“We found out,” Morey says, “he’s very unique.”
Despite his rising draft status, Thybulle had promised his parents he’d finish college. In four years, he broke records at Washington and in the Pac-12 Conference: He passed Gary Payton, a Hall of Famer, to become the conference leader in career steals. He broke the Huskies and Pac-12 record for steals in a single season, previously held by another Hall of Famer, Jason Kidd.
He did it all wearing no. 4, his mom’s favorite number.
For Thybulle’s college senior night, his friends and family stood at center court, all wearing shirts bearing a photo of Elizabeth.
The Sixers were high on Thybulle prior to the 2019 draft, but they needed to be sure before they targeted him with the no. 24 pick. Romar says the Sixers asked about Thybulle’s practice habits, and wondered how he could adapt to a more restrictive defensive system that didn’t let him freelance quite as often. Hopkins told them he believed Thybulle could make the transition to the pros because of his adaptability switching between man-to-man and zone defenses in college.
Elton Brand, the Sixers’ general manager at the time, traveled to meet with Thybulle and privately work him out. During lunch, Thybulle says Brand challenged him: Why’d you shoot 30 percent from 3 after hitting 38 percent your first three years? How did you balance basketball with all of your other interests, like photography? What do you view your role as in the NBA?
The Sixers made a promise that they’d pick him. So Thybulle’s camp shut down workouts early in the draft process, in order to prevent Thybulle’s draft stock from rising so high that he’d be out of their range. But knowledge of Philadelphia’s promise became an open secret across the league.
On draft night, the Boston Celtics selected Thybulle with the 20th pick, forcing the Sixers to trade if they wanted him. Boston wanted the 24th and 33rd picks from Philadelphia—a high price to pay to a rival. The Sixers accepted. “To win games, we wanted to become a team defined by getting stops,” Brand says. “And with Matisse getting these steals and deflections, we are getting the highest-rated basketball shot attempt every time: a transition layup.”
The Sixers were betting on Thybulle’s ability to adapt and shape-shift into whatever role the team needed on defense. Greg says that Matisse is a lot like his mother. “He has high intellect, high athletic skills, and little common sense,” he says. “I had to work hard to understand stuff. All they’d do was glance at it.”
Those traits have helped Thybulle become one of the best defenders in the world. He’s a rangy, anticipatory stopper who often seems like he knows what an opponent will do even before they do. He will reach his arm out as soon as an opponent elevates for a jumper. He’ll see a player motion to run toward a screen and ready himself to swat at the ball as they turn a corner. He’ll even bait players into making a pass just so he can leap at it.
“Matisse is smooth. Matisse is just catlike,” Thybulle’s father says. “I never told him this, but he reminds me in a lot of ways of two people: Bruce Lee and Michael Jackson.”
Off the court, Thybulle moves slower. In the locker room before games, on team flights and bus rides, Harris says he sees him always “reading a lot of books, watching YouTube videos, trying to find a way to learn something new.” Morey noticed too. “He reads a lot,” Morey says. “You just don’t see that often from anyone under the age of 30.”
Thybulle has a book club with his sister Chloe and friends from home; they read at least one book each month, from The Midnight Library to The Alchemist.
With books to get lost in, and pregame prep to do, sometimes he’d run out to the tunnel before games with seconds to spare. Harris remembers him as a rookie, sprinting out late, still putting on his sweats over his jersey or still tying his sneakers. Being a veteran on the team, he pushed Thybulle to develop a routine. “Tobias told me, ‘If I have enough time to get out here and be ready, you do,’” Thybulle says. “It’s all time management.”
Once on the court, Thybulle quickly proved to be as good as advertised for the Sixers, earning a steady spot in the rotation on a veteran team from his first game. There are many great defenders in the NBA, but there is no one like Thybulle. “His reflexes when the ball is thrown in the air is triple-times what mine would be,” Harris says. “If someone threw a baseball at me, I would react first by ducking. Matisse would react by catching it.”
When chatting last season before the playoffs, Thybulle remembered one of his favorite plays. With about five seconds left in the half in Oklahoma City, he intercepted an inbound pass and flipped it to Simmons for a dunk.
“It’s those kinds of plays where it’s just that feel for one another on the court that just allows even more to become of a play,” Thybulle says. “It’s my favorite play. You can just see on the other team just how frustrating it is and deflating it is to have the ball taken and then we score immediately.”
Thybulle said playing with Simmons was one of the “coolest experiences” of his NBA career because of the on-court symbiosis they developed. Over the summer, Thybulle got his first experience learning how to win without Simmons, winning a bronze medal with Team Australia in the Olympics. Thybulle is an Australian citizen because Greg’s job with Hewlett Packard moved the family to the country for a short time when Matisse was young. Simmons, who was born in Melbourne, declined to play for his home country.
“It’s one of my proudest accomplishments,” Thybulle says of representing the Australian national team. “As a kid, it was just a random fact about me that I was an Australian citizen. Now, I’ve done something with it, and achieved something that I honestly didn’t even dream of being a possibility.”
The challenge now is finding success without Simmons in Philadelphia. With both Simmons and Embiid, Thybulle was in an ideal basketball situation to do what he does on defense. Embiid’s presence around the rim empowers perimeter defenders to be more aggressive, getting in the jersey of a player one-on-one. Simmons and Thybulle took full advantage, bothering opponents all game. Last season, the Sixers finished a close second in defensive rating, with Simmons, Embiid, and Thybulle earning spots on the All-Defensive teams.
This season, without Simmons and with an injury-riddled roster, the Sixers have fallen into the league’s bottom third. The Sixers aren’t crumbling but they are hovering around .500. Defense requires a collective connection to consistently get stops, so with players coming in and out of the lineup, Thybulle’s individual abilities are minimized. Though Thybulle can still remind viewers of his individual ability to lock down a star, like when he recently put the clamps on Steph Curry.
Offensively, Thybulle’s still working to make a difference. He is a career 32.3 percent shooter from 3, a subpar number for any player, especially one who primarily takes stationary shots. Perhaps, if Simmons were traded for a playmaking guard, Thybulle’s lack of shooting could be minimized by utilizing him in a different role. Poor shooters such as Bruce Brown in Brooklyn or Gary Payton II in Golden State have found success as cutters and screeners who roll to the rim much like bigs. Thybulle is an elite finisher inside but the Sixers don’t currently have the personnel to best complement his strengths on defense or make up for his shooting flaws.
“He’s very cerebral,” Morey says of Thybulle’s general approach to life and basketball. Thinking too much while shooting a basketball can have its downfalls, but Thybulle’s mindfulness puts him in positions to succeed on the court.
The Sixers have been in a state of unease ever since their loss to the Hawks last postseason—whether it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop on Simmons’s trade demand, or more recently, when a rash of injuries and health-and-safety-protocol absences decimated the roster. But Thybulle is comfortable in the discomfort. It’s something that has buoyed him throughout his life.
Simmons may be moving on. The rest of the Sixers are moving forward. Thybulle is moving with.