Despite an underwhelming freshman season at Kentucky, forward Skal Labissiere is headed to the NBA Draft.
The university announced Labissiere’s widely-expected decision in a news release on Tuesday morning.
“I want to thank my family, my coaches, teammates and most importantly I want to thank God for the opportunity that he gave me to represent and play for the University of Kentucky,” Labissiere said.
Labissiere averaged 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game this season while handling an ever-growing level of scrutiny for his play on the floor. His coach, John Calipari, was sure to point that out in his statement.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a player and the way Skal handled himself on our campus this season,” Calipari said in the statement. “He was a great student, a great teammate and I’m so proud of the way he handled himself in the community. He is one of the greatest kids I’ve ever coached. On the basketball court, it took him and our staff a while to figure out how to best utilize him, but his improvement on the court over the year is why he’s in this position to put his name in the draft and be projected in the middle of the lottery. His future is out ahead of him and I think in time he will be in the same breath as all of our big guys who have performed well in the NBA.”
It’s fitting that he makes his announcement on this Tuesday, as it comes exactly one year after he fully burst onto the scene for NBA scouts at Nike Hoop Summit. His performance at that event followed by a few others were the major reason as to why he was ranked as the No. 1 player in the 2016 NBA Draft coming into the 2015-16 college basketball season.
And while Labissiere did show some flashes throughout the year, it’s hard to say that the 6-foot-11 Haitian big man helped his draft stock after struggling regularly with his consistency on the floor. On a Kentucky team starved for length and rim protection in the paint, Labissiere struggled to stay on the floor due to his lack of strength, bouts with confidence struggles, and his inability to rebound or defend effectively beyond simply being a help-side shot-blocker.
Still though, in a draft as weak as the 2016 iteration, it’s hard to look over Labissiere’s potential skill set. He’s still sitting at No. 15 overall on the CBS Sports NBA Draft Big Board, and here’s why.
Basically, Labissiere has a combination of talents that is tailor made for the NBA along with being incredibly rare for a player his age. The near-7-foot big man has solid length and terrific fluid athleticism for a player his size. He is also quite capable of exploding off the ground for a dunk, and has the ability to jump off of either one or two feet (although he seems a bit more comfortable off of two).
Skill-wise, he can step away and knock down shots from the outside with about as smooth a shooting stroke out to 20 feet as you’ll find in a player his size. The shots didn’t always fall this season as he seemed to waver with his confidence, but the stroke is as pure as you’ll find and projects well to the next level.
Throughout the year, Calipari demanded that Labissiere show more “fight” on the glass, and at the very least he also improved in that regard. That allowed the Wildcats to keep him on the floor as a shot-blocking presence inside, and he rewarded them with an 11.5 block rate in conference season, a number that would have been tops in the SEC if he had played a qualifying number of minutes early in the year.
Overall, Labissiere’s per-minute numbers are actually relatively solid despite the down season. He scored nearly 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked 4.2 shots per 40 minutes. But the tape tells a different story sometimes, and that’s especially true in this scenario.
Simply, Labissiere was not ready for the physicality and toughness of college basketball this season. He was consistently pushed off of his spots, moved out of the lane by bigger guys carving out space, and seemed to avoid contact early in the year. That changed a bit later on, as his performances in the month of March improved. But on the whole, these are big question marks going forward. He needs to improve his body by putting on weight to deal with bigger players, and continue to develop the toughness he showed later in the year.
Another big question is simply his feel for the game. Labissiere often doesn’t seem to make the right reads defensively — as many young players who are relatively inexperienced with basketball don’t. He also doesn’t seem to react instinctively to the ball on the glass. His passing is also relatively non-existent, as his 3.6 assist rate shows on the season. All of this points to the fact that Labissiere just doesn’t seem to see the floor and react to the external forces of what’s happening around him all that well yet. Is this a situation where he will improve as he plays more, or is his feel basketball IQ level simply lacking? It’s something scouts and executives will need to figure out pre-draft.
Overall Draft Stock
Basically, it’s relatively clear that Labissiere isn’t necessarily “ready” to help an NBA team now. He’s a project. But that’s not a death sentence with the advent of the D-League. Labissiere simply just needs to get competitive game time on the floor against guys that are as big and stronger than him. He’ll get a chance to do that at the next level regardless of whether which professional level he plays at, and he’ll get paid to do so.
And given where his draft stock currently is as a first-rounder, it seems likely he’ll get guaranteed money to learn and develop in the hopes that he becomes a real player within a couple of years. The key for Labissiere to consolidate that stock will be knocking out his interviews. He needs to show teams that he’s serious about improving, and that he has the work ethic to do so. Given that nobody in or around the Kentucky program has a bad word to say about him or his character, that actually seems relatively possible. Also remember: Labissiere’s time at Kentucky is not the only sample with which NBA scouts have to work with. It may be the most important given the competition level, but his time before Kentucky will absolutely matter when scouts look to what Labissiere can become.
As far as the best fits for Labissiere, teams with multiple first round picks or teams looking to take a home run swing in the 12 through 24 range would seem like the likeliest targets. Even if he does fall out of the lottery, it’s hard to imagine a guy with his sort of ceiling falling out of the first round given what the typical value return is on late round selections. Labissiere is a high-risk, high-reward type pick that could either be out of the league in three years or could develop into a legitimate inside-out weapon for a good team.
The skill set is there for Labissiere to become an effective player. The key will be developing the mental aspects of his game to match that high level of talent when he gets into the sink or swim waters of the NBA.
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