Matisse Thybulle had forgotten his vegetables, and now it was time to pay the price.
The rookie first-round draft pick was slipping into his street clothes at his locker when Tobias Harris called over. An hour earlier, Thybulle had put the finishing touches on another impressive outing: nine points, 3-for-3 from behind the arc, three steals, and a plus-13 in 25 minutes off the bench. But he’d also turned in one of the most embarrassing performances of the night. During an in-game video bit that aired on the arena scoreboard, Thybulle had been asked to name as many vegetables as he could think of and managed to come up with only three.
How, Harris wanted to know, could a 22-year-old college graduate and finely tuned professional athlete fail to come up with enough ingredients to build even a basic garden salad?
“I hate being on camera,” Thybulle protested. “I panic.”
That will come as a surprise to anybody who has watched his highlight reel. Twenty games into his first NBA season, Thybulle has established himself as one of the best values of the 2019 draft class, logging 15.9 minutes per night for a Sixers team that ranks among the league’s leading contenders. No player in the NBA is averaging more than his 4.5 steals per 100 possessions, and his 2.0 blocks per 100 ranks seventh among rookies with at least 10 games played.
Yet the most encouraging part of his performance has come on the offensive end, where he is playing with a confidence uncommon for his draft position. When the Sixers traded up to select Thybulle at No. 20 overall, they were reasonably certain they were getting a player who could impact a game with his range and length. What they did not know was how quickly he would emerge as a playoff-caliber shooter. In his senior season at Washington, Thybulle shot just 30.5% from three-point range, a dramatic departure from the 37.9% mark that he posted in his first three collegiate seasons.
Now, less than two months into his rookie campaign, Thybulle is shooting 43.2% from behind the arc, including 10-for-14 (71.4%) in his last nine games. In the Sixers win over the Jazz on Monday night, he drained a couple of corner threes during a second-quarter run that blew the game open, a performance that prompted head coach Brett Brown to put him on the court with the first unit to start the second half.
“It doesn’t entirely surprise me because of what you could see deflection wise and athletically, that he’s able to do some things in that regard," Brown said after the win over the Jazz. “His shot has surprised me. And I think that the human being -- he’s just elite. He’s a great person, and he’s a legitimate teammate, a prideful learner. That side of it I think is as important as the athletic side we’re talking about. I think that partnership, you can expedite improvement quicker maybe than with most.”
Brown has repeatedly expressed a belief that the first few months of the season will be a fact-finding mission for his roster. For Thybulle, that means an ever-evolving role contingent upon performance and situation. In his first seven games, he averaged 17.3 minutes per game and drew a couple of injury-related starts. But after shooting just 24.2% from the field during that stretch, he played just 31 minutes total over the Sixers’ next five games.
Since then, Thybulle has logged at least 14 minutes in eight of nine games, including a season-high 25 on Monday.
“I chalk it up to being a rookie," he said. “I just go with the flow, take what I get, and then try to make the most of what I have out there.”
That’s a mentality that he has stressed since arriving in Philadelphia. Midway through the second quarter of Monday night’s win, Thybulle picked off a pass from Mike Conley in the backcourt and took a couple of dribbles toward the hoop for what looked to be an easy layup. But as he planted his left foot and prepared to elevate, he saw Ben Simmons in his periphery, charging free down the lane. Rather than taking the bucket himself, he tossed a lob above the rim for a thunderous alley-oop dunk that his teammate punctuated with a roar.
“I’ve learned that you pass the ball to the vets when you’re out there with them,” Thybulle said with a smile. “They like that.”