The Sixers eased into their preseason Saturday with their annual intrasquad scrimmage. The rosters were essentially Starters vs. Bench, with the Starting 5 plus Raul Neto and Furkan Korkmaz on the Blue Team and all of the rest of the key reserves on the White Team (starting for the latter: Trey Burke, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Mike Scott, Kyle O’Quinn).
A few takeaways from our first extended chance to watch this team in action:
1. Matisse Thybulle brings unique skills to the court, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it manifests itself once the NBA preseason begins and the intensity and competition ratchet up a notch. Within the first 17 minutes of the scrimmage, the rookie first-round pick had five steals and a ferocious swat of a Josh Richardson three-pointer that drew some serious “ooohs” from the crowd. Thybulle hunts the ball on defense like a golden retriever who’s been cooped up inside all day, and his seven-foot wingspan can really mess with an opposing ballhandler’s spatial awareness. Early in the first period, he picked Al Horford’s pocket from his blindside as the latter was setting up in the post. Later, he had a clean steal of Simmons off the dribble. But his loudest play came three minutes into the second period, when he covered 15 to 20 feet of court in a few strides to get back in transition and stun Richardson by coming from out of nowhere to send his three-point attempt into the second row of seats.
It’s easy to see why the Sixers were enamored with Thybulle on draft night, especially when he is matched up against someone like Ben Simmons, who was his main assignment. While Simmons has half a foot on Thybulle, Thybulle’s long arms somehow make the two look more even in dimensions than the raw numbers indicate. That suggests an intriguing amount of potential as you project him and match him against today’s increasingly long and nimble guards and wings.
We didn’t get to see much out of Thybulle on the offensive end. He clanked a dunk attempt off the front of the rim, was blocked by Al Horford in transition, and missed an open catch-and-shoot three (on the flip side, he finished his first attempt at the rim, drawing a foul in the process).
2. Sticking with the young kids, coach Brett Brown recently referred to Zhaire Smith as a “pogo stick” and we saw a little bit of that in the closing seconds of the second period, when he got into the lane and got off the ground and up to the rim faster than either of the defenders who were around him, laying in a bucket that helped the White team to a halftime lead. While Smith and Thybulle play the same position, and are likely competing for the same bucket of minutes, they are much different players, and it is going to be interesting to see how the competition between them unfolds. Like Thybulle, Smith spent much of his time on the court matched up against Simmons. And, like Thybulle, he has the makings of a solid defender, if not a plus one. Smith’s chief attributes are his quick-twitch athleticism and his strength. There was a play in the first half where Smith did a nice job to move his feet and keep his body in front of Simmons on a right-handed drive late in the first period. He absorbed a body blow from Simmons that stopped the latter’s progress without giving up an inch of his own.
3. Speaking of Simmons: We did not see him shoot anything outside the paint, although we didn’t have much of an opportunity. His real chance came early in the second period, when he caught the ball at the top of the arc with the White Team in mid-rotation and would have had an open look at a three. Instead, he charged straight to the rim and finished an off-balance layup.
Simmons had another opportunity in the second half when Thybulle dropped into the paint to cover Horford and Simmons got the kick-out pass in the corner. Instead of looking to shoot, he made the higher percentage play and took an open baseline for a big dunk.
4. With Simmons on the bench late in the third period, Tobias Harris brought the ball up the court and into a middle pick-and-roll play that resulted in Jonah Bolden’s switching onto him. Harris backed the ball out and took advantage of the speed mismatch, beating Bolden to the spot in the paint and using his length to finish a smooth four-footer. The scrimmage offered plenty of chances to watch Harris work with the ball in his hands. That’s something you are going to see a lot more of this season, especially, one would assume, during Simmons’ breathers. I don’t think you can read too much into Brown’s substitution patterns during this game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a conscious thing to keep Harris out there after both Simmons and Josh Richardson had checked out of the game during the starters’ first shift.
The expectation is that Harris will get a lot of the pick-and-roll opportunities that featured Jimmy Butler late last season. Harris isn’t as strong a ballhandler as Butler, and opponents tried to crowd him on the dribble in the postseason. That will be something to watch as the preseason continues.
5. It’s hard to overstate how much better this defense has the potential to be simply with the addition of Al Horford. If there is a more technically sound defender in the league, I’d like to see him. Horford had a couple of blocks in transition and another one in the post. Given how much worse the Sixers have been without Joel Embiid on the court, the ability to stagger him and Horford and keep a top defensive center out there at all times should pay huge dividends.