Skal Labissiere’s vacillating draft stock is rising again

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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.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.


Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.


Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.