Matisse Thybulle says he is excited by the prospect of playing at the Olympics. (Reuters: Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)
When Kyrie Irving was picked first in the 2011 NBA draft, Australian basketball fans imagined a world where the star point guard pulled on green and gold.
He was born in Australia after all, but there never was much hope. Barely even a fool’s hope.
Unfortunately, he had moved to the US when he was two and was good enough to make the grade for them. Why would he hang around to play for the Boomers when gold medals were effectively guaranteed when he made the US team?
That all proved to be true when he won the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic gold with the Americans. There was no need to be bummed out though, because it was never really going to happen.
In 2020, Australian basketball feels like it should be past the stage where it’s pining for an NBA rookie because they once had a layover at a Melbourne airport, but this time it’s different.
Matisse Thybulle is the real deal and he’s spoken about his excitement at the prospect of playing for Australia.
Ben Simmons and Thybulle form one of the best defensive duos in the world. (Reuters: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)
During the All-Star weekend Ben Simmons revealed he had been working on his Philadelphia 76ers teammate, who was born in the States but moved to Australia when he was two and spent seven years in the country, ahead of this year’s Olympic Games.
Simmons said in no uncertain terms that Thybulle was “going to play for Australia”, which felt like misplaced confidence until Thybulle spoke to AAP about the prospect of joining the Boomers for the 2020 Games (provided they actually happen).
“I think it will be an exciting opportunity,” he said.
“My Australian passport is up to date, my citizenship is still active.”
It was believed to be a move to ensure Simmons’s spot on the team, but now it’s pulling double duty in the hopes of bringing together two elite talents on the international stage.
“It’s really exciting they have my back and they want me to play and be a part of it,” Thybulle said, maintaining he would make a call at season’s end on whether go to Tokyo.
And while Simmons is one of the NBA’s unicorns — a unique beast the likes of which the NBA has never seen before — Thybulle is something the league has always had but Australia never really has.
The 22-year-old is listed at 1.96 metres tall and plays bigger than that, thanks largely to an Inspector Gadget-like wingspan of 2.1 metres.
He’s also got the athleticism to match it with other NBA swingmen and the sort of on-court instincts that can’t be taught but can have a serious impact on winning basketball.
Could Thybulle be the key that unlocks the medal cabinet?
Patty Mills and the Boomers took down the mighty Team USA, but it was not exactly the Dream Team they beat. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
We know the gap between the Aussies and the Yanks is narrower than ever before, but last year’s historic win ahead of the World Cup, while glorious, came against what could barely be called a second-string American squad that will look very different come Olympics time.
No one man can defend LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or James Harden, and that’s especially difficult when your best players are a 1.8-metre point guard (Patty Mills), a 2.1-metre centre (Andrew Bogut) and a “maths teacher” (Joe Ingles).
Mills, Bogut and Ingles deserve medals (literally) for their services to the Boomers, but the hardest things to find and some of the most difficult to defend are long, athletic shooting guards or small forwards who can hit from deep and handle the ball well enough to get to the basket (think LeBron, Kobe, MJ).
Thybulle is not exactly that, but he can at least offer a serviceable facsimile while carrying a massive defensive load.
In the past, the Boomers have always had to make up the difference by committee to the point that a commentator during the 2016 Olympics remarked about how Kevin Durant was getting a taste of how pesky Damian Martin was on defence.
The then-32-year-old was a wily Perth Wildcats veteran who worked his backside off on the defensive end and it’s never fun to play against those sort of guys, but suggesting that the NBA MVP and four-time scoring champion would lose sleep over Martin is generous.
It’s not so crazy with Thybulle.
He’s become a cult hero with Philly thanks to his heads-up plays on defence, making on-ball steals, intercepts and sneaky blocks from behind his trademark.
On top of that is solid shooting from deep. Hitting 36 per cent from the NBA three-point line should translate to something close to 40 per cent from the FIBA arc that’s half a metre closer to the basket.
With Mills, Ingles and Bogut possibly playing in their last Olympics, the introduction of Thybulle alongside Simmons would make that pill infinitely less bitter.
And according to Thybulle’s quotes to AAP, he doesn’t much care for Vegemite but he’d be willing to scarf down the salty yeast extract if that’s what it takes to prove himself to the team.
If that’s not the sort of commitment that exemplifies the spirit of the Boomers, nothing is.