Matisse Thybulle still has difficulty comprehending how much his life has changed in the past year.
The former Washington Huskies star never imagined his defensive prowess on the basketball court would catapult him to success in the NBA.
“There’s been a lot of change really fast,” the Philadelphia 76ers rookie said this week. “It’s been exciting. It’s been humbling for sure.
“I don’t know, for me it’s just cool because I never really expected any of this. So a lot of this comes as a surprise and I’m just trying to roll with it and continue to make the most of it.”
Thybulle’s exploits at UW, where he won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award and helped the Huskies to a Pac-12 regular-season title and NCAA tournament appearance, garnered him a Male Sports Star nomination at the 85th annual MTRWestern Sports Star of the Year banquet on Thursday.
The others contending for the award include: Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett, Sounders FC forward Raúl Ruidíaz, former Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura, WSU running back Max Borghi and former UW Huskies midfielder Blake Bodily.
“Being a Seattle kid and playing most of basketball career in Seattle it’s pretty cool to be recognized as one of the top athletes in the city,” Thybulle said. “Again, I never envisioned things like this so I’m just a little in awe to be included among the guys that are on that list.”
A little more than halfway through his first season and the 22-year-old Thybulle has already experienced just about everything the NBA can throw at a wide-eyed rookie.
Thybulle has been hailed as one of the league’s top young defenders, and leads all rookies and ranks 13th in the league in steals at 1.56 per game. He also averages 0.8 blocks and ranks fourth in the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes with 4.8. In late January, Thybulle showcased his lockdown defense with a career-high five steals against LeBron James and the Lakers on national television.
But he’s been benched because of his struggles on offense and his propensity to commit rookie mistakes. He’s averaging 4.9 points and just 4.3 shot attempts per game.
Still, Philadelphia is 19-5 when he plays at least 20 minutes.
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Last week, Thybulle found himself at the center of his first NBA controversy when league assistants excluded him from participating in the Rising Stars challenge — a game that pits first- and second-year players from the U.S. against 10 from around the world to showcase the league’s premier young talent.
Naturally, the 76ers rallied to Thybulle’s defense.
“I think the group that they have selected is for sure a talented group,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters in Philadelphia. “I’m biased. I see what I see. … Just look at the numbers. I think that he should have been in the game.
“He’s one of the league’s top defenders and is amongst the league leaders in steals and blocks — from the guard position,” Thybulle’s agent Eric Goodwin wrote in a statement to Yahoo! Sports last week. “Sad reminder that defense no longer has substance in the new NBA. Shame on the league’s ASSistant coaches.”
Thybulle takes it all in stride and says one of the biggest lessons he’s learning is trying to maintain a consistent routine and focus during the course of a grueling nine-month season.
“It’s a tough, tough league,” he said. “The demand on you is ridiculous just because of the quantity of games. You play almost every other day. Having to show up night in and night out and perform at the highest level is tough and it’s been a really exciting challenge for me.”
Even the most ardent Thybulle admirers quietly wondered if the NBA – a league where James Harden routinely score 40 points – would appreciate and value the most decorated defensive player in Husky history.
“Think about it this way, guys who are making $100 million to do what I’m trying to stop them from doing,” Thybulle said back in November. “As a defender, you’re at a disadvantage so I have to work harder than them to stop them from (doing) what they’re doing.”
Last season, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award winner routinely dominated at the top of Washington’s 2-3 zone while leading Division I players with 126 steals and racking up 83 blocks. Thybulle played like a free safety at the top of UW’s 2-3 zone where he would routinely gamble to intercept passes or block shots from behind.
However, those tactics have proven to be risky and punitive in the NBA.
“I still get away with those things sometimes, but the game is called a little different in the NBA and I’m learning to play to the refs,” he said. “The players are so good, too. They get me into making some cheap fouls. It’s just being smart and picking your spots.”
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Thybulle has become a fan favorite on a team highlighted by All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The love affair between Philadelphia and its defensive menace who has garnered the nickname “Mathief” is visible when Sixers fans pack his promotional events, wear his No. 22 jersey at Wells Fargo Center or cross their arms in an X each time he collects a steal or blocks a shot.
“I did it once like 30 games ago,” he said. “I put up my arms like an X and now people are doing it. I literally did it one time and now it’s a thing. Crazy. Anytime you can make a connection with people that’s awesome.”
Last week, Thybulle, who grew up in Australia, used his celebrity platform to partner with Aussie teammates Jonah Bolden and Simmons to raise money and awareness to combat the bushfires that have ravaged the island continent.
And back in October, Thybulle answered a heartfelt message on his Instagram page from Beth Curley, the mother of a 7-year-old Freddy who has Type-B lymphoblastic leukemia.
Beth was unaware Thybulle’s mother Elizabeth died Feb. 2, 2015 after a two-year bout with leukemia and the Curleys were surprised when he visited Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia the next day and spent hours with Freddy.
When asked to explain his attraction to fans, Thybulle stumbled for an answer. He talked about being accessible, living in downtown Philadelphia and sharing his hobbies like photography.
“I’m not quite sure why anyone likes anyone,” he said. “I attribute a lot of it to literally the fact that I smile a lot. I guess people aren’t used to basketball players looking that friendly or that welcoming.
“I mean my life has changed for sure, but I really haven’t changed much since I was college to who I am now. I suspect people just appreciate the genuineness of my personality. But I really don’t know.”
After a few moments of reflection, Thybulle got emotional while describing the bond between him and Philadelphia.
“I landed in the perfect spot for the type of player that I am,” he said. “I love defense and I like to think I’m somebody that plays hard. Those are two things that this city hangs it hat on.
“It’s a blue-collar city and they appreciate hard work and that’s something that I try to bring to the table. I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.”