The regular members of the 2019-20 Sixers’ bench are yet to be fully determined, but there are no shortage of colorful descriptions for the group.
James Ennis called them “bulldogs.”
Brett Brown said Tuesday night he wants his bench to “try to create a bomb squad mentality,” and he added Wednesday he hopes the second unit plays "with that kamikaze spirit.”
Through the team’s Blue x White Scrimmage on Saturday and preseason opener Tuesday against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions, the bench player it seems everyone is raving about is rookie Matisse Thybulle. He had 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting (2 for 4 from three-point range), three steals and two blocks in his debut at Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid must not be listening into his teammates’ chats with the media, but he had high praise for Thybulle after practice Wednesday.
“I don’t know why no one is talking about him,” he said. “He gets his hands on everything. He reminds me of [Robert Covington] when Cov was here. He’s only going to get better. I love playing with him. Defensively, he’s going to help us a lot.”
Covington, traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last November as part of the Sixers’ deal to acquire Jimmy Butler, is an interesting comparison for Thybulle. In the short term, the Sixers would probably be thrilled if Thybulle can be a version of Covington, a selection to the All-Defensive First Team in 2017-18 known for his instincts, length and nose for the ball.
Without Covington, the Sixers’ defense didn’t have much success tallying up deflections, recording steals, forcing turnovers or generally causing much discomfort for opponents last season.
Below are the team's deflections, steals and opponent turnover rankings over the past two seasons. Covington, who led the league in deflections in 2017-18 and was sixth in steals, was dealt after the 13th game of last season.
Turnovers forced: 15th
Turnovers forced: 27th
Brown and new assistant coach Ime Udoka have expressed a desire to make the Sixers more of an irritant defensively this season, with an attacking, physical style.
In the preseason opener, Brown ordered more full court, trapping defense than we typically saw last season.
I feel like when you look at the course of 82 games in the regular season, I think that our second team can establish that type of identity," Brown said Tuesday. "But I've said a lot, I want to play aggressive defense. I want our defense to be the launching pad to our offense, not the other way around. And I think that our length and mentality can help me achieve that.
As a senior at Washington, the 22-year-old Thybulle broke Gary Payton’s all-time Pac-12 steals record. He’s aligned with that brand of defense, both in attitude and skill set.
“I'll just say, for me, the most important thing was I just wanted to feel like I belonged out there,” he said Tuesday night. “And I feel like I was able to feel that.”
Though Zhaire Smith is also talented defensively, Brown framed his situation Wednesday as being centered on development, likely not immediate contribution to the Sixers. Brown said the 20-year-old Smith, who missed the majority of his rookie season after a Jones fracture in his foot followed by a severe allergic reaction that caused him to lose about 35 pounds, has “got a lot more to learn and grow.”
Thybulle, a four-year college player with an unambiguous, three-and-D identity, looks like he might be ready to help right away. Regardless of how his career ultimately compares to Covington’s, it’s remarkable that, at this early stage, his teammates view him as a key piece of the bench and enjoy sharing the court with him.
“Matisse has been playing so great [on defense] — we’re going to need that from him all year,” Trey Burke said Wednesday. "I think when you've got guys that want to lock in on defense, want to play defense, want to play with a lot of energy, it’s fun. You’re not out there uptight. It’s fun, and you get easy buckets. I think that’s what happened last night and we’ve got to continue to build off that.”
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