NBA PM: Skal Labissiere Ready For Increased Role

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Through the first half of Skal Labissiere’s rookie season, he logged just 52 minutes and 20 seconds of playing time, all spread meekly over a total of eight games. Then the Sacramento Kings made the shock decision to trade DeMarcus Cousins during the All-Star break and everything changed for the talented power forward. Any theoretical training wheels came off with the Kings spiraling toward another high lottery pick and Labissiere turned in a promising 25-game stretch. Alongside Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein, the trio exhibited the type of young, athletic potential that the franchise has sorely missed as of late.

Highlighted by a 32-point, 11-rebound effort against the Phoenix Suns in mid-March, Labissiere’s surge had onlookers drooling at his untapped potential. At 6-foot-11, Labissiere is a roaming menace on the court already — clever and crafty in the paint, but just as comfortable out at the elbows. In an era where high-flying dunks and deep three-pointers rule the news cycle, Labissiere and his old-school bag of tricks don’t exactly stand out but that’s about to change. Even as a rookie, his immense body control and excellent footwork were almost worth the price of admission alone, a bona fide steal after sliding to the No. 28 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Following the All-Star break, Labissiere averaged 10.8 points and six rebounds on 51.6 percent shooting from the floor, most often spotting up from mid-range or deftly maneuvering his way near the rim. By all accounts, Labissiere was a prospect on the rise, a worthy building block in Sacramento for years to come.

Armed with a slew of draft picks in June, the Kings took home a promising haul of youngsters that consisted of De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. With first or second-year players two deep at every position on the depth chart — although that stipulation does include 25-year-old Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has played five professional seasons overseas — it appeared as if the Kings were embracing a full-on youth movement. But with consecutive years of franchise instability tugging at the front office’s heels, they opted to sign some much-needed veteran experience in the form of George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph.

For now, thanks to the final name on that list, a completely unleashed Labissiere is unlikely to show up on the opening night of the 2017-18 season. Hopefully, it won’t stay that way for too long. Of course, Randolph as an on-court mentor makes logical sense for the recently bulked-up sophomore as Labissiere, despite his size, often found himself bullied by sturdier competition. Over eight seasons in Memphis, Randolph’s hard-nosed toughness became the Grizzlies’ calling card and identity, traits that this new era of Kings basketball would surely like to embody moving forward.

Shortly after signing a contract worth $24 million over two years, Randolph turned 36 years old — so, in all likelihood, the veteran’s arrival isn’t a permanent roadblock for Labissiere, but instead a very important detour in his blossoming career path. Aside from Randolph’s take-no-prisoners attitude, there are few current players that utilize their size and strength as well as he has. While Labissiere already displays an innate smoothness in the post, it was often when he rose up for floaters or while draining a turnaround jumper. A little dose of viciousness on the block could help Labissiere take his game to the next level and there’s no better fit than Randolph in that regard.

Even if those assumed qualities of Randolph don’t immediately rub off on Labissiere, it’s fair to say that the latter is well on his way to exceeding his low expectations after a disappointing collegiate career. In his one season at the University of Kentucky, Labissiere averaged just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in a paltry 15.8 minutes per game and many scouts questioned the power forward’s competitiveness and desire to compete at the highest level. These criticisms led to one of the most sought-after high school recruits in his class to not only drop out of the lottery but almost out of the first round altogether.

Fifteen months later and Labissiere is looking more and more like a can’t miss NBA prospect.

In four preseason games this month, Labissiere has featured heavily for Sacramento despite head coach Dave Joerger’s mass experimentation. Sure, he hasn’t exploded for any 30-plus point outings yet, but his full arsenal has been on display — from dancing in the paint to catching Fox-tossed alley-oops, it’s all there. On top of that, Labissiere spent the summer expanding his three-point range, a tool that would make him even tougher to defend. Remarkably, Labissiere had an efficient rookie season in which he shot 55 percent from 10-to-23 feet out. Shots from those distances made up 39.4 percent of his total attempts, so it’s clear that his glossy jumpers weren’t an aberration — that’s just his sweet spot.

The mid-range game is certainly a dying art in today’s NBA landscape, but Labissiere has called it home thus far. In punishing those that give him space with a silky jumper or driving by defenders that commit too far in closing out, Labissiere has become a handful to guard, even if the box score doesn’t always show it. He wasn’t awarded the luxury of stepping into a guaranteed role like Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns did as rookies, but there’s an outside chance Labissiere could emerge as the NBA’s next big thing.

Coming out of college, Labissiere was tagged with a number of different professional comparisons. From Channing Frye to Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka, Labissiere’s affinity for the midrange and his hyper-athletic vertical have made him difficult to nail down. Maybe then, instead of looking for a similar player, it’d be simply easier to recognize that Labissiere has one of the more unique skill sets in professional basketball.

In other words: Skal is Skal, there’s no way around it — just enjoy the show.

This offseason, Labissiere reportedly focused on bulking up and stepping back even further on his shooting range. His massive 7-foot-2 wingspan and tantalizing athleticism make him a must-watch player headed into the 2017-18 campaign. If that three-point range is the real deal — and his stellar mid-range percentages point toward a natural improvement there — then look out. At first, Randolph’s arrival seemed like the Kings were pumping the brakes on a strong finish to Labissiere’s rookie season, but that’s not likely the case at all.

At this point, Labissiere is no longer that mixed bag prospect that more than half the league passed on drafting — he’s a unique tweak on today’s modern court-running, jump-shooting big man. Equipped with both an old-school post game and new era athleticism, the stage is set for Labissiere’s breakout season in Sacramento.