Why Skal Labissière Failed at Kentucky


When potential NBA draftees attend the media sessions for the Draft Combine, they essentially sit at a table and field questions from whatever media members float in and out of their atmospheres over the course of their 30-45 minutes of availability.

For former Kentucky Wildcats big man Skal Labissiere, the crowd was a rather large one, which isn’t surprising considering the expectations laid out for arguably the most talented player in the draft class and how he fell so short of those expectations throughout the season.

Journalists tend to stop by for a few minutes, grab a bit of audio, then slip over to the next table. That is how over the course of seven minutes, Labissiere was asked essentially the same question three times: “What are you going to tell teams in interviews about why you didn’t have as strong a season statistically as some thought you should have?”

These, of course, were peppered among the cliché combine questions such as asking which teams had interviewed him and which interview questions were the oddest, but that single big concern served as a frustrating refrain for the Haitian big man all afternoon on Thursday.

The first two times it was asked, he gave essentially the same answer:

“I did everything Coach Cal asked me to do,” Labissiere said, referring to John Calipari. “I gave everything I could to my team, and that’s all I can do. It’s all I can say.”

The third time it came up, Labissiere literally laughed. It was a quick chuckle, but his exasperation changed his response.

“I don’t know,” Labissiere said. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

He’s going to have to figure it out, though, because NBA teams are going to be interested in discovering how someone many thought would be in contention for the No. 1 overall pick before the NCAA season started could fall so precipitously in a state that produces NBA big men almost as well as it breeds champion race horses.

Despite the pedigree and the college, Labissiere averaged only 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in just 15.8 minutes per game for Kentucky last season. That wasn’t what the world expected of him, though Labissiere himself believes he got what he needed out of that lone year in Lexington.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Labissiere said. “My basketball IQ is way better than it was, having played at Kentucky… I felt like they prepared me for this next step. It’s always been my dream to play at this level. I feel like I’m ready and that I have the skill set to play at this level, so I’m just going to keep working [and] get my body ready for it.”

He’s a thin guy, but his frame has plenty of room to grow. He’s already 6’11 and 225 pounds, but he’s working with a nutritionist at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, where he’s training ahead of the draft He hopes to put on 10 pounds in the not-too-distant future. The muscle will come, but the big questions for Labissiere are not about talent or size. They’re about drive and intensity.

There are those who believe Labissiere just isn’t the cut-throat, competitive personality who transforms into a superstar in the NBA. He’s been compared to Anthony Davis in terms of his skills more than once, but one fellow writer joked that he may end up being a lot closer to Ed Davis as an NBA player; one night he gives you a double-double, but the next night you’re getting two points and five boards.

There’s nothing wrong with Ed Davis. Plenty of teams would love to have that guy on their teams. However, there isn’t one executive trading a high lottery pick for him.

What to expect from Labissiere all depends on where this young man ends up in the NBA, and he himself admits this. In fact, at the Combine, Labissiere flat-out said he didn’t care one bit about getting drafted in the lottery; he just wanted to end up playing for a team that appreciates his strengths.

“I’m not sure [if I’ll get drafted in the lottery], but I’m not the one making those decisions,” Labissiere said. “I just want to get to the right system, find the right fit, play for someone who’s going to use me the right way.”

If, as some believe, Labissiere just isn’t wired mentally to play for an in-your-face coach like Calipari, it would help explain why he had such a bad freshman year at Kentucky. It also would explain why he’s hoping to end up in “the right system.” This gives us a sense that “the right system” is probably going to include a player-friendly coach and plenty of vets who can help Labissiere adjust to the NBA as slowly and delicately as he requires.

That may be a red flag to some teams picking in the first round, that Labissiere isn’t as intense as top competitors like Russell Westbrook or Kobe Bryant. But in terms of his skill set, there really isn’t a player like him in this year’s draft. Players his size who can not only play strong defense but shoot from pretty much anywhere are increasingly valued in today’s NBA.

There’s a place for Skal in this league, but it has to be the right place. If it’s not, those questions asking him to explain why he’s not living up to expectations are never going to stop.


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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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