The buzz from the first day of the NBA’s pre-draft combine centers around former Kentucky center Skal Labissiere.
During a private workout for media members in Chicago, Labissiere reportedly put on a dizzying shooting display, one that has him firmly entrenched in the discussion as a lottery pick, even going as high as the top 10.
And that really shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention.
Once projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Labissiere saw his stock plummet along with his confidence and playing during his one season in Lexington. Part of that was something that, in hindsight, we probably should have predicted. Labissiere didn’t play his junior season in high school due to a back injury and he played his senior season for something called Reach Your Dream Prep, a team that was created by his guardian out of thin air when a decision to transfer went south.
Put another way, Labissiere, who is a native of Haiti, never truly got a chance to get coached or to play a high level of basketball prior to his arrival at Kentucky.
There are differing opinions on what, exactly, went wrong with Labissiere during his tenure at Kentucky. Some will tell you he simply didn’t have the physical strength to contend with high-major big men, and there’s some legitimacy to that sentiment. At seven-feet, he was listed at all of 225 pounds. Some will tell you that Labissiere still didn’t understand how to play the game, that he had not learned how to transition the moves that he learned in workouts into a 5-on-5 setting or when and where he was supposed to be on the defensive end of the floor. There are others that will tell you that he didn’t have the mental strength to handle the way that John Calipari coaches his players. Cal is a screamer that demands perfection, and Labissiere was far from perfect early in the year; some kids respond well to that style of coaching, others go into a shell.
Whatever the reason, Labissiere was lost by the start of SEC play. He wasn’t ‘playing’ basketball, he wasn’t reacting to what happened on the court. He was ‘thinking’ the game. And when you think, you stink.
By the end of the season, as Labissiere started to figure things out a bit more, he started to play better. He had 11 points and eight boards in 15 minutes at Florida. Three nights later he went for 18 points, nine boards and six blocks against LSU. He had 12 points and six blocks in 23 minutes against Stony Brook in the first round of the NCAA tournament. You could see the flashes of what made him such a highly-regarded prospect during his high school years.
And that’s what the media got a glimpse of Wednesday night.
The bottom-line with Skal is this: He’s a 20-year old seven-footer with a frame that can add weight, the kind of fluidity that you never expect to see out of someone his size and a shooting stroke that could make him a better-than 40 percent 3-point shooter in the NBA.
Then look at the direction the league is headed. The phrase that people use is small-ball — thanks, Golden State — and I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Talents like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are not replicable. To me, the correct phrase to use would be spacing, and the reason small-ball is the word gets thrown around is because there aren’t that many big guys who can hit NBA 3s.
Think about it. Marreese Speights won a ring last year and may win another one this year because … he’s a big guy who can hit 3s. The corpse of Channing Frye came back to life in Cleveland because … he’s a big guy who can hit 3s. Serge Ibaka shot six 3s his first three seasons in the NBA. He took nearly 400 the last two seasons combined.
Labissiere needs to add weight and get stronger. He needs to develop his game beyond being a pick-and-pop, spot-up shooter. He desperately needs to be coached, to be taught how to play basketball against the kind of competition that he’s going to see on a nightly basis in the professional ranks.
But his physical tools combined with his ability to shoot the ball makes him an attractive prospect at a position that is valued by NBA teams.
And in a draft that is as weak as this one at the top, someone is going to roll the dice on that potential. As long as Labissiere winds up in an organization that’s adept at developing players, there’s a good chance he can end up being a productive and valuable player at the NBA level for a decade.