Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: High School Basketball

Matisse Thybulle: The Condor Soars … and blocks shots, lots of them

As of the morning of November 25th, 2018, University of Washington senior and NBA draft prospect, Matisse Thybulle has nearly as many steals and blocks as he has points scored. This strange inversion of accumulated stats is simultaneously distressing and impressive and also unlikely to continue, but such is the evolution of Thybulle’s game.

Thybulle is listed as 6-5, 190 pounds, but he looks a little bigger than that. Maybe it’s because he appears to have the wingspan of a condor (listed at 7-0, but he looks longer) or maybe it’s because accurate measures (see LeBron’s weight) are harder to come by than they should be. Whatever the case, the UW wing plays much larger than his size (6-5 or whatever he is). Six games into his senior season, he’s averaging a ludicrous 2.7 blocks alongside 2.2 steals which, when combined, is just a hair beneath a paltry 5.5 points.

If we go back to the high school hoops class of 2015, the year of Ben Simmons, Skal Labissiere, and Brandon Ingram, Thybulle doesn’t appear on ESPN’s Top 100 and is ranked somewhere between 104th and 126th nationally on 247sports.com. (For what it’s worth, 247 lists him as 6-7.) He came into UW with current NBAers Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss and has started 104 of his 105 games for the Seattle-based school. Even as a freshman, he projected as 3-and-D wing and his play has become borderline synonymous with the type. Through his first three seasons, half of his shots came from behind the arc while he stacked up multiple UW defensive records. As a junior, he was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year with per-game averages of 3 steals and 1.4 blocks; his steal (5.2%) and block (4.8%) percentages are rare and elite for any college player. The only other player in Sports-Reference.com’s database (dating back to 2009-10) to appear in at least 600 minutes with these block and steal percentages is Gary Payton II.

Thybulle’s junior season coincided with the hiring of former Syracuse assistant and Jim Boeheim right-hand-man, Mike Hopkins whose go-to defensive scheme is the ol’ Syracuse’s 2-3 zone with Thybulle up top. UW’s previous and long-time coach, Lorenzo Romar employed a man-to-man switching defense that, by the time Thybulle arrived, had deteriorated into sieving unit that ranked 337th (2016) and 332nd (2017) nationally and that’s despite having Thybulle, the wiry, quick Murray, and a long rim protector in Malik Dime. Defensively, the whole was much weaker than the sum of its parts and Romar ultimately lost his job as a result.

With Thybulle at the top of the zone, his defensive strengths and instincts are being fully weaponized. With a wide stance and long strides, he covers more ground than opponents anticipate and fluidly moves between the paint and perimeter or side-to-side. At his best, he can shut down an entire quarter of the half-court not unlike a shutdown corner. Where he’s at his most dangerous is in his aggressive collapses into the paint to attack would-be shooters. In a way I haven’t seen many top men in a 2-3, Thybulle uses the element of surprise to drop down and block the shots of unknowing, blind-spot-having opponents: they make their move into the paint or towards the rim and the second they turn their head in the direction of the basket and elevate to shoot, Thybulle, who had already started creeping in the direction of the ball, is swiping out with those long arms, swatting a shot that never had a prayer. His length and timing allow him to exploit this blind spot the way most guards or perimeter defenders can’t or wouldn’t even think to and it’s driving that near-3 blocks-per-game. It’s not all roses though as he’s developed a habit of winding up and swinging at the ball – not quite wildly, but in a way that leaves him vulnerable to fouls or slightly off balance. That said, his timing is so good that he typically avoids contact. Against Santa Clara, this drop down technique was happening so frequently that I found myself wondering if UW’s backline defenders were funneling the offense into the lane to take advantage of the Thybulle drop down.

A comic, possibly, likely, almost certainly inspired by Matisse Thybulle; re-produced from the original by Steve Moore

To be an effective defender at the next level, the shot blocks don’t need to carry over. With his length, positioning, and ability to slice through screens, he should be able to close space and make it a little harder for shooters to get clean looks at the hoop. I have seen him open his hips and bait ball handlers into driving so he can set them up for the shot block. He this against Minnesota’s sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington, but the savvy Washington took a scoop shot with the ball well out of Thybulle’s reach. This is the type of adjustment pros will use against his baiting tactics.

Where his defense has become an all-harassing one-man-gang, his shooting from distance has descended into ugly inaccuracy. Through his first 99 games, Thybulle shot 38% on over 380 three-point attempts. He was remarkably consistent as a standstill, catch-and-shoot option who could be utilized by Murray or, for a single season, Markelle Fultz. As a senior, he’s made just 3 of 22 attempts (13%). He’s perfect from the free throw line (6-6), but getting there with less frequency than his previous seasons and his two-point attempts are also down. UW has more options to score this season than previous years, but you have to wonder if his struggles from the perimeter are negatively affecting the rest of his offense. At a glance, his shooting mechanics don’t look to be fundamentally changed. He’s always had somewhat of a tall, erect form with a higher release point and I’m much more comfortable trusting his previous 358 attempts than his most recent 22.

His usage rate is down to 13.7% which is its lowest since he was a freshman playing just 24 minutes/game. His assist percentage (10%) and free throw rate (16%) are the lowest of his four years at UW, but watching him, he doesn’t appear to be tentative. Rather, UW’s offense is frequently stagnant and heavily dependent on sophomore Jaylen Nowell as its only creator off-the-dribble. Nowell is an off-guard whose primary instincts are to score rather than distribute. And when it’s not Nowell attacking, the Huskies dump the ball into senior forward and part-time blackhole, Noah Dickerson who sports a 36% usage rate. There just haven’t been as many opportunities for Thybulle who frequently ends up standing still on the wing. There’s very little cutting in Hopkins’s system which is unfortunate, because Thybulle, who looks more explosive this season, could be better utilized with more movement. When he does put the ball on the floor, it’s powered by a long and strong first step and not much wiggle. He goes one direction at a single speed,  taking what the defense gives him and primarily looking to draw in defenders to kick out or dump off. If the daylight’s there, he’s more than able to smash dunk on the heads of unprepared opponents as he did against Auburn earlier this season.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has Thybulle ranked 45th on his big board and going 39th in his most recent mock draft. Between his game tape and measurements, Thybulle looks like someone who can defend at least the one through three and potentially small ball fours or even lesser-skilled big fours. In the NBA, that defensive versatility is slobber-worthy right now and is present across the league’s top teams. How well his defense translates at the pro level will be fun to see as UW’s zone is just bizarre as a defensive measuring stick. But if you find yourself watching a UW game this season, clear the clutter of the court and watch Thybulle operate at the top of that zone and you’ll see a master, hard at work, swinging, swatting, blanketing, blotting out an entire side of the court. And maybe watch the him on the offensive end as well and hope, with me, that his jump shot returns to form.

Andrew Nembhard: A Passing Savant in Florida

When I first saw Andrew Nembhard participate at basketball, I was oblivious to him – his game, his story, existence. I tuned in to some Montverde Academy game to see all-world Canadian basketball phenom RJ Barrett, the current Robin to Zion Williamson’s Batman. Montverde is essentially a D1 college program. In addition to Barrett and Nembhard, the team featured Mike Devoe (now at Georgia Tech), Filip Petrusev (Gonzaga), Morris Udeze (Wichita State), Jermaine Cousinard (South Carolina), Josh Roberts (St. John’s), Kevin Zhang (Tulane), and Karrington Davis (Nebraksa) – and that’s just counting players that graduated in 2018, not to mention the D1-level underclassmen. This is an elite basketball factory that has helped to produce current NBA players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

And there was Nembhard, a high school senior playing ball at Montverde near Orlando, Florida by way of Aurora, Ontario. In a college freshman class that features a generational athlete like Zion, a prototypical wing athlete in Barrett, and a James Hardenesque manchild in USC’s Kevin Porter Jr, Nembhard actually looks like the 18-year-old he is. He’s 6-4 or 6-5 (depending on where you look), somewhere around 190-pounds. Among you or me, he’d be a tall kid; not big or physically imposing. On Montverde’s collegiately-sized team and on the Florida Gators’ actual college team, his appearance merely blends into the kids and young men wearing same-colored jerseys, most taller, some shorter.

It was against this embarrassment of riches that Nembhard somehow stood out. Playing point guard for a stacked team, he wasn’t faster or quicker, didn’t jump higher and reach longer than opponents or teammates. In the multiple games I’ve seen of his now, I don’t recall him ever dunking and my notes don’t indicate anything about a dunk. Yet, there he was in medium-sized glory, tall by point guard standards, splitting playmaking duties with the wunderkind Barrett. Point guards, for all the unselfishness that we associate with passing and facilitating, can be brutally ball dominant and taskmasterish, insistent on being the engine through which an offense runs. Nembhard, by contrast, has proven a modern awareness of positionless basketball. Alongside Barrett, he willingly shared playmaking duties and in his brief, three-game career at Gainesville, he’s shown comfort playing on and off the ball.

Nembhard’s overall feel for the game is what pops. I don’t believe passing and court vision are genetically passed on though some of the root abilities are likely transferred genetically. Despite my beliefs, Nembhard has the so-called passing gene. Next to his Montverde All-Stars, he combined sound fundamentals (head up, always kept his dribble, always knew where teammates were) with the occasional flair required of playing with an ensemble cast: no-look passes, lobs, and pinpoint outlet passes to streaking gazelles wearing basketball uniforms.

Where the passing gene has been forced to take on a different lens at the NCAA level has been a skewing towards functionality and Nembhard is nothing if not functional. Against bigger, faster college defenses, I haven’t seen the no-looks or even many lobs. That doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. He’s averaging nearly 6 assists and just two turnovers. Before he even played his first game at Florida, head coach Mike White said, “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program.” His offensive awareness, with head up and darting eyes, continues to be a weapon that takes in and computes the entirety of his surroundings: cross-court passes to unguarded teammates made easier since he can see over most college guards, wrap-around passes to players he can’t possibly see, transition passing to leaking runners, and of course the penetrate and kick or dump after drawing in help defenders. And that head up habit? His dad, who coached him since he was three, “taught Andrew to keep his head up when receiving a pass,” and said, “when Andrew catches the ball, his first tendency is to look up … to see if someone is open.”

He doesn’t quite have old man game, but you can see intention in the tactics he employs that call to mind more veteran players. Already at Florida, I’ve seen him beat defenders off the dribble and instead of straight line, single speed drives, he slows down, gets the defender on his hip and forces the defense to make a decision: switch over to help or stay home. This quick-read and upshift/downshift ability leverages his size, strength, and decision making. And when the help defender stays at home, Nembhard has a nice floater and can attack with either hand.

Photo: FIBA

While he’s competent with both hands, his finishing around the rim is still developing. Against Charleston Southern, he attempted three lefty layups from the right side of the rim and missed all three. In each case, it didn’t look like he gained any advantage by going with the left hand. When he finally switched to a more natural right side/right hand attempt, he drew a foul. Given his feel for the game, these types of forays seem exploratory more than symptomatic of larger issues and 14 shot attempts on two-pointers is hardly statistically significant, but it will be telling to see how he adjusts as competition gets better.

On the defensive side, the Canadian’s court and spatial awareness translate. He keeps a wide base and slides his feet well though he appears to bend more at the waist at times instead of at the knees which likely limits his quickness. He’s not the longest guy (close to 6-6 wingspan) and he doesn’t present as a disruptive force on defense, but not everyone needs to be Robert Covington or Kris Dunn to play defense. Nembhard seems to always be in the right place – rotating at the right time, moving his feet to the right spot. There was a play against Charleston Southern where an opponent beat one of Nembhard’s teammates on a basket cut. Anticipating the defensive breakdown, he checked the cutter which slowed him down enough for his teammate to recover and for the window of opportunity to close. It was a small, micro-moment, but it showed how he’s able to both diagnose and react to plays as a defender.

ESPN had him ranked 28th overall in the recruiting class of 2018, but he doesn’t appear in their mock draft or on their top-100 big board for players draft eligible in 2019. At present, the point guards ahead of him just do more things better than he does: Darius Garland is quicker and a better shooter, Ja Morant is longer and more athletic, Ayo Dosunmu more explosive. This doesn’t imply Nembhard isn’t a pro prospect as his overall game is on par with any of the aforementioned prospects, he’s just not as athletic or efficient enough with enough volume from the perimeter to push into that upper tier of current prospects. But this is a kid who’s already competed with the Canadian men’s national team where he’s made two appearances and averaged 5 assists in just 15 minutes/game. Against the University School at the Geico High School National Championships, he scored 8 points and racked up 13 assists to zero turnovers. He’s a confident, selfless player who can pass his ass off. I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it. Whether that happens in 2019 or beyond, his ability to develop and persevere (look up volvulus) are both good indicators that his arrival in the NBA is question of when rather than if.

Trae Young and the Long Arm of Steph Curry

I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.

Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.

My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”

However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”

LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.

With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.

Steph, Tyreke Locure, LaMelo Ball

Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.

In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”

Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:

“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”

Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”

That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.

McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”

I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”

It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.

The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)

14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.

The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.

I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.

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