PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Pospect Preview: Skal Labissiere

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Skal Labissiere had one of the weirdest freshman seasons that I can remember seeing since I’ve been doing this job. He entered the year as arguably the best prospect in college basketball, a projected top two pick and the guy expected to anchor the front line for a national title contender in Kentucky. He played well for about a month … and then totally went in the tank. John Calipari lost confidence in him. He lost confidence in himself. His minutes evaporated.

By the middle of SEC play, he was a total non-factor for the Wildcats.

But then Labissiere started to put the pieces together. There was an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Florida that seemed to wake him up. He followed that up with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks in a dominating win over LSU and Ben Simmons, the other guy that thought to be the No. 1 recruit in his class. His numbers down the stretch weren’t all that impressive, but anyone watching him play could see the difference.

And that’s where things get interesting for Skal. Because he had a season that would make you believe he had no chance of ever playing in the NBA. Yet there’s a good chance that he’ll end up getting picked in the lottery. How is that possible?

Height: 6′ 11.75″
Weight: 216
Wingspan: 7′ 2.5″
2015-16 Stats: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 15.8 mpg

STRENGTHS: Have you seen his shooting stroke?

Seriously, have you? Look at this:

This dude measured in a quarter-inch short of seven-feet, and he’s out here shooting like that. I’m not really concerned about what his shooting numbers were this season  — he shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, which isn’t good considering he shot just one three — because I think what happened to Skal at Kentucky had a whole lot more to do with confidence than ability — we’ll get to all that — but anyone with even a minor sense of basketball intellect can watch him shoot and see a guy that can make NBA threes at a very good clip.

Now think about where the NBA is heading these days. They call it small-ball, right? But it’s less about “small-ball” than it is about spacing the floor with shooters, and it just so happens that most of the guys that can shoot are small. Put another way, big dudes that can shoot have real value. Channing Frye has a four-year, $32-million contract with Cleveland right now. Marreese Speights might win his second straight NBA title with the Warriors. What do those guys have in common? They’re big and they can shoot.

And not only that, but Skal is fluid and agile, meaning he doesn’t just project as a pick-and-pop threat. He’s got a post game. He’s got a face-up game. He could, one day, be a really, really good offensive weapon. He’s also a much better shot-blocker than he gets credit for, averaging over four blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman. He’s got issues defensively — again, we’ll get to that — but they don’t include length, athleticism and a sense of timing as a shot-blocker.

There’s a reason that scouts have loved his potential for a long time.

WEAKNESSES: There are many, which is the reason why people are fairly shocked to see where he stands in mock drafts.

Physically, the biggest weakness for Skal right now is, simply, that he’s too weak. He weighs all of 216 pounds, according to the measurements at the NBA Combine. He needs to add a good 20-30 pounds of muscle if he’s going to have a prayer of holding his own in the post in the NBA. And as he gets stronger physically he’s going to get stronger with the ball. Not only did he get beaten up in the paint last season but he had trouble corralling rebounds and holding onto the ball in traffic.

Toughness was also a problem for him. Some bigs love going bow-for-bow in the post. Some don’t. Skal may be the latter. He’s got no ‘dog’ to him. He’s never going to be Draymond Green or Steven Adams. And while that will likely improve as he gets stronger, he may just be a kid that’s too nice for his own good. Given the role he’s projected to play, that may not end up being too much of a problem if he’s at least strong enough to hold position on the block; his long-term value is as a guy that can guard fives while pulling them away from the rim at the other end of the floor.

His mental toughness, or lack thereof, will be, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For me, the single biggest issue Skal is facing is that he lacks feel and basketball IQ because he just hasn’t played all that much basketball in his life. He didn’t play his junior season in high school because of a stress fracture in his back. His senior season he spent at something called Reach Your Dream Prep, which was a prep school team created out of thin air after his guardian totally mishandled a transfer of high schools. In other words, prior to Kentucky, he had never really been coached before.

And you can see that in the way that he played. I think the best way to describe it is that he was robotic. He didn’t react to plays. He didn’t read what was happening around him. He had to think it through, and as the adage goes, ‘when you think, you stink’. He strikes me as a kid that was spent far too much of his basketball life working through drills and has no idea has to translate what he’s been working on into an actual game.

He was slow to react offensively. He was even slower to react defensively, where his quick feet and knack for shot-blocking helped hide the fact that he was more or less clueless on positional defending for the majority of the season. That’s part of the reason he was seemingly always in foul trouble. Being too weak was a major cause as well, and after every mistake he made he got an earful from head coach John Calipari back on the bench.

And when you put all of that together, what you got was a player whose confidence was totally shattered by the middle of the season.

That’s where the issue of mental toughness comes into play. Coach Cal has a philosophy with these perimeter-oriented bigs: he’s going to play them in the post. It worked for Karl-Anthony Towns. It didn’t work quite as well with Skal, but you could see him start to put the pieces together by the end of the season.

Put another way, Skal’s flaws were exacerbated and magnified because he was broken mentally. He didn’t believe in himself, partly because he wasn’t ready to handle what he had to handle at Kentucky. The question NBA teams have to answer: Will that change once he learns how to play the game?

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NBA COMPARISON: Channing Frye.

I really like Skal’s potential, but I’m not sure he quite reaches his ceiling. The role I see him playing in the NBA for the next 10-12 years is as a center that thrives in a pace-and-space offense. That’s Channing Frye. He’s never averaged more than 12.7 points or 6.7 boards in a season, but he’s now been in the league for 11 years and just signed a contract with $32 million over four years because he’s 6-foot-11 and shoots 38.6 percent from three.

And this isn’t a perfect comparison, either, because Frye has never been a shot-blocker. There have only been 14 players in NBA history that have shot better than 35 percent from three (attempting at least one three per game) and averaged 1.5 blocks in a season. Donyell Marshall in 2003-04 is the only player that did so and shot better than 40 percent from three.

OUTLOOK: Skal is something of a lottery ticket. His size, his fluidity and his shooting ability gives him a ceiling close to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it’s inarguable that he has a long, long way to go to get there. The issues surrounding his in-game experience is something that people seem to gloss over when discussing him.

The fact that he’s still quite raw is good and bad. Whatever organization picks him is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t be an impact NBA player for a year or two. But they’re also not going to have to erase any bad habits. He’s more or less a blank canvas that can be molded into whatever that coach wants him to be. He’s also a hard-worker — a jump-shot like that doesn’t just come naturally — and I think that, eventually, he’ll add the strength that will allow him to handle the rigors of playing this level of basketball.

The question is whether or not he’ll ever develop that feel or those basketball instincts that he lacks. I don’t have an answer for that, but in a draft that is this week, a guy with his potential in a role that has extreme value in this iteration of the NBA, I think he’s absolutely worth a first round pick, maybe even a late lottery pick. Just hope that he ends up in a good situation.