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Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle already recognized as one of NBA’s elite defenders

Thybulle led the NBA in steals at 3.0 per game heading into Saturday’'s late matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Sixers' Matisse Thybulle chases after a loose ball past the  Timberwolves' Josh Okogie.
The Sixers' Matisse Thybulle chases after a loose ball past the Timberwolves' Josh Okogie.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

PORTLAND – Matisse Thybulle is purposely oblivious.

The 76ers rookie doesn’t keep up with the NBA statistical rankings. So Thybulle was unaware that he was the league’s leader in steals heading into Saturday night’s 129-128 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I try not to look at the numbers, because for me all the defensive [ones] just come from hustle and just getting lost in the game,” he said after the shootaround Saturday.

Consciously trying to get steals has never worked for him.

“So it’s exciting to see the numbers,” he said. “But do I really worry about them? No.”

Thybulle lead the NBA in steals at 2.8 per game.

Thybulle is the only Sixer to have multiple steals in the first five career games with the franchise since steals were first tracked during the 1973-74 season.

Making a defensive impact is nothing new for Thybulle. The swingman swept the Lefty Driesell and Naismith defensive player of the year awards last season as a senior at Washington. He was also the two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

Even after excelling on defense in the preseason, Thybulle has still exceeded expectations at the start of the regular season. Rookies tend to go through an adjustment period once the real games begin. The 22-year-old, however, has played like a proven veteran.

“It’s early days, but there has been a trend, and it’s been consistent," coach Brett Brown said. "To hope and wish that it plays out like this going forward would be certainly welcome news.

“But it has surprised me that he has been consistently effective in the area that you are mentioning that he has been.”

Simmons isn’t as surprised.

“It’s just something you have,” the point guard said. “Some guys will never be great defenders. He just got it.”

Thybulle just thinks he was ready for the challenge.

“I think it’s been a lot of preparation,” he said. “I think four years in college did me really good, and just being able to play with a high level of intensity. Just being locked on.”

He’s been out of position a lot, but he’s been able to recover. A lot of his steals have come on plays in which defenders who allowed their opponent to get past them would normally quit on.

Thybulle made his second career start Saturday, playing in place of suspended center Joel Embiid. Embiid is serving a two-game suspension after getting into a fight with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday.

Power forward Al Horford started at center in Embiid’s place. Tobias Harris moved from small forward to power forward. That opened up a spot for Thybulle at small forward alongside Horford, Harris, and guards Simmons and Josh Richardson in the starting lineup.

In addition to averaging 3.0 steals, Thybulle was second on the team with 1.5 blocks per game. He had four steals and two blocks in each of the Sixers’ previous two games.

“He reads the game well,” Simmons said. “Hes’ long. He’s active. I think that’s the main things with his defense.”

The 6-foot-5, 200-pounder is averaging 4.6 points while shooting just 23.1 percent. He wants to grow his offensive skills so he can be the best fit for his teammates -- whether it’s being a catch-and-shoot shooter or scoring in transition.

On Saturday night, he had a lot of family and friends in the stands. Thybulle played high school ball in the Seattle area, at Eastside Catholic. He grandparents, aunt, godfather/agent, were among those in town for the game.

This game was a homecoming for Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka, a Portland native.