Ever since the Portland Trail Blazers let Patty Mills walk 13 years ago, I’ve been waiting for the day the franchise brought in another Australian player. That wait ended in February.
While Matisse Thybulle was born in the US, he spent his early years Down Under. He returned to the US, specifically the Pacific Northwest, to play high school and then college ball at Washington before being selected by the Boston Celtics with the 20th pick in 2019, moved instantly to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Sure he’s not a lifelong Aussie but the fact that he plays for the national team Boomers is enough for me — I’m claiming it.
While Josh Hart was probably the best all-round player in that deal, Thybulle may still have the ability to have the biggest impact on winning. It was a no-brainer move by General Manager Joe Cronin with Hart unlikely coming back to Portland this summer. The Blazers weren’t going to pay him the money he richly deserves when he likely opts out of his 2023-24 player option.
Instead of losing Hart for nothing, Cronin brought back Thybulle, Cam Reddish, Ryan Arcidiacono and a protected first round pick, which will convey to the Blazers in June.
We’ve spoken at length about Reddish, and Arcidiacono was waived last week. It’s Thybulle’s time under the microscope.
We all know how good Thybulle is on defense. The 26-year-old is a juggernaut, able to guard almost every position thanks to supreme athleticism, length and basketball IQ. I’m not remotely concerned about his prowess on the defensive side of the ball. His two NBA All Defensive Second team nominations should speak loudly to this.
Through four seasons, Thybulle has not once dropped below the 97 percentile in block and steal percentage for wings.
Since arriving in Portland he’s blocked a ridiculous 1.4 percent of opposition shots (0.8 a game) and stolen 2.7 percent of opposing team plays (1.7 a game). These numbers might not initially seem like much, but they are well and truly elite.
As mentioned above, he’s been honored with two All NBA Defensive Second Team nominations. I want to make special mention of the first. During the COVID shortened 2020-21 season, the then 23-year-old was averaging a meager 20 minutes a night, starting only eight of his 65 games for the 76ers.
The other four members of that team were the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo (starting 64 of 64 games averaging 33.5 minutes), Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (starting 52 of 52 games averaging 34.1 minutes).
There was Thybulle’s 76ers teammate Joel Embiid (starting 51 of 51 games averaging 31.1 minutes) and Adebayo’s Heat teammate Jimmy Butler (starting 52 of 52 games averaging 33.6 minutes).
That’s right, Thybulle’s four Second Team nominations started all of their games, playing at least 11 more minutes a night.
To me, this highlights that voters were so supremely confident in Thybulle’s defensive worth that he deserved a spot, despite Coach Doc Rivers reluctance to put him on the court.
Whether Rivers didn’t make enough use of Thybulle remains to be seen but it’s clear the sophomore wing was already an elite stopper at a position featuring some of the league’s most elite offensive players.
Thybulle’s biggest roadblock to this point has been offense. It’s why his minutes with the 76ers dropped from 25.5 in 2021-22 to 12.1 through the first 49 games of this season. But is the affable wing just a one-trick pony?
In Philadelphia, Thybulle largely figured in the low-to-mid 30 percentage three-point range, unable to average more than seven points game on roughly the same usage he’s seen in Portland over the past couple of months. A free throw percentage consistently under 70 percent didn’t help either.
But something happened on his arrival in Portland. The free throw percentage remained low, but he found his three point shot, hitting 38 percent from that range through 22 games.
Thybulle’s gone from 32.2 percent and the 24th percentile through 49 games with the 76ers to 38.8 percent in Portland, good enough for the 72nd percentile among wings.
To put this in perspective, he started the season as the 83rd best three point shooting wing—behind Evan Fournier and Dillon Brooks—to the 34th best three point shooting wing.
If we drill down further, Thybulle is shooting 41.7 percent on 2.2 attempts from between 20 and 24 feet as a Blazer. (Three point shots range between 22 and 23 feet.)
In 2021-22, Thybulle was hitting 33.3 percent on 1.3 attempts and in 2020-21, it was 23.6 percent on 1.1 shots a game. Interestingly, his rookie 2019-20 season with the 76ers, Thybulle’s three point shooting wasn’t awful. He drilled 35.7 percent overall from three through 65 games, hitting 37.8 percent from between 20 and 24 feet on 1.1 shots a game.
Thybulle has form to build on. His shot mechanics aren’t horrible. The prime factor might genuinely be between his ears and above his shoulders. Let’s just hope that whatever he’s tapped into on the West Coast, remains.
Of course, 22 games isn’t enough to change Thybulle’s label as a liability on the offensive end. But assuming the Blazers bring him back in July and he continues to play elite point of attack defense, hitting three pointers at a close to 40 percent clip should produce smiles all round.
Thybulle hits restricted free agency in July, in line for a Qualifying Offer of $6.2 million. The Blazers will have first right to sign him no matter what.
Thybulle was sent to Portland because Daryl Morey and the 76ers were no longer enamored with him. Like fellow Blazers restricted free agent Cam Reddish, Thybulle is in no position to demand big money.
Having said that, his elite defense, particularly at the point of attack, combined with his increased accuracy from three should be worth something.
At 26, a modest four-year deal for Thybulle—below $10 million per year, even—might make sense. The new contract should placate both sides, ensuring Thybulle receives a decent-enough salary and the Blazers don’t overpay while giving them a mid-size, relatively attractive contract that can be dealt, if needed, down the road.
The Blazers sent out Josh Hart at the trade deadline, not because they didn’t value him as a player, but because it wouldn’t be prudent for this particular franchise to bring him back on a figure he would likely receive from one of the other 29 franchises.
In his stead the team received an elite defender with potential for two-way effectiveness.
No one can deny Thybulle’s defensive attributes. The Australian’s length, athleticism and, most importantly, defensive instincts should be marveled at, appreciated and enjoyed by all who watch.
It’s the offense that we’re all watching with hope. If he’s able to maintain his recent accuracy, then even a moderate bump in salary could yield an absolute steal for the Blazers as they try to fast-track the construction of a contender around Damian Lillard.