After a game in which two All-Stars got ejected and a third, Ben Simmons, stayed in the game despite a well-executed headlock on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, it would be understandable to focus entirely on the fight between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns.
However, there’s a fact that shouldn’t be glossed over: Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle leads the NBA in steals with 12 after a four-steal night Wednesday vs. the Timberwolves. He’s first in deflections, too, with 21, and also has six blocks.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Thybulle said following the Sixers’ 117-95 win over Minnesota. “I don’t even know what to make of it. I’m just going out there and trying to do my job. To think that I could lead the NBA — even though it’s so early — in any stat, it's pretty cool. And for it to be one that I take that much pride in, it’s pretty special.”
As Thybulle noted, it’s early. The 4-0 Sixers have 78 regular-season games to go. Opponents might start to become more cautious when Thybulle is in the vicinity and game plan for his gambling. They might recognize he sometimes plays like a clever NFL free safety, baiting passes he can snatch, and have counters designed specifically for him. Thybulle’s level of play also might simply decline at some point because of the fatigue of his first NBA season.
For the time being, we have to acknowledge a rookie averaging 21.8 minutes per game is leading the league in two significant defensive categories. And it’s not as if Thybulle is making so many self-centered gambles that he’s hurting the Sixers defensively more than helping — he has a 91.5 defensive rating and plus-9.6 defensive box plus-minus. The numbers still don’t mean much this early in the season. But, in the context of Thybulle’s background as the all-time Pac-12 steals leader and his highly impressive preseason, they mean something.
“I think he just fits into this whole defensive mindset, this defensive identity — trying to be as disruptive as we can defensively,” Brett Brown said. “He fits in just fine — really fine. And over time, he'll grow to understand sort of when is it just too risky in the moment, but he really does fit into what we're trying to do defensively."
NBA offense has been a much less fluid adjustment for Thybulle, who has made 4 of his 15 three-point attempts and has 11 turnovers. He’s yet to provide the outside shooting the Sixers — 31 percent from long range thus far — are seeking.
Brown acknowledged pregame Shake Milton’s left knee injury also removes a shooter from the picture. Milton told NBC Sports Philadelphia Wednesday that he and the Sixers’ training staff have the goal of him being ready to return to game action when he’s re-evaluated following the team’s upcoming West Coast road trip. Milton said he feels “pretty good” at the moment and is grateful his injury wasn’t worse.
With Milton out and Thybulle ineffective offensively, Furkan Korkmaz provided Wednesday what Brown and the Sixers had envisioned he could. The 22-year-old had 17 points on 5 for 10 shooting (3 for 8 from three-point range).
Brown has said he “wants to grow a bomber,” and Korkmaz did well in showing why the Sixers think he should contend for that job. James Ennis was another Sixers bench player who had a strong night — the veteran had five offensive rebounds in close to 19 minutes. That’s one fewer than Minnesota collected as a team.
But Ennis and Korkmaz weren’t the big story Wednesday night. Thybulle wasn’t either, which is remarkable on a night when he took the NBA lead in a major statistical category.
He didn’t have any elaborate explanations for how well he’s taken to professional defense.
“Just playing hard,” he said. “My whole thing is just playing hard. I’ve done that my whole career, and I’ve been lucky enough that it’s translated at this level.”
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