When athletes rehash the dismissive cliché, “It is what it is,” there’s an urge to roll your eyes.
But when Skal Labissiere says it, there’s a refreshing honesty in his tone. A sense of optimism that whatever happened in the past was a life lesson. .
The Sacramento Kings rookie forward was asked how he remained upbeat after a disappointing season at the University of Kentucky and nearly slipping out the first round of June’s NBA Draft.
He was eventually snagged by Phoenix with the 28th pick and traded to the Kings.
“It is what it is,” Labissiere said. “Things happen. It starts over for everybody. It’s new to me just like it is for everybody else. I’m just learning and having fun with it.”
Some of Labissiere’s approach is just his personality. Some comes with the help of Graham Betchart, a mental skills coach.
A positive approach is why Labissiere was not fretting his return to Kentucky’s Rupp Arena on Saturday for the Kings’ exhibition game against the Washington Wizards.
“People think he forgot how to play basketball last year at Kentucky,” Betchart said. “They were like, ‘This dude lost everything,’ but no he didn’t. He’s just going through this experience. And he’s not going to stop; he’s going to keep coming.”
Labissiere met Betchart after the player’s junior year in high school at the NBA’s Top 100 basketball camp and has worked with him since then.
“The stuff he talked about just really made sense to me, so I started taking it seriously and it made a difference for me going into my senior year of high school,” said Labissiere, who attended Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis as a senior. “In college I wish I did it more, but I’m back at it again.”
It helps that Betchart is based in the Bay Area, where he is the director of mental training for Lucid, a new company. He plans to attend Kings games this season.
Betchart, 38, has a master’s degree in sports psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill. He also works with George Mumford, who helped Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant with their mental skills.
Betchart — who has worked with first overall draft picks Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons, among others — became interested in sports psychology by observing Jordan’s resilience in the 1990s.
Because there wasn’t a big market for his services in the early 2000s, Betchart began to train high school athletes. His techniques include meditation, visualization, self-reinforcement and whether things focused on were in or out of an athlete’s control.
He said athletes must be taught to focus. Otherwise, it’s like instructing someone to get stronger without lifting weights.
Betchart, 38, said Labissiere is naturally resilient and driven.
“He has an open mind,” Betchart said. “Regardless of where he’s at in basketball, he’s open and wants to be great and wants to work on this stuff. He knows if he works on his stuff, nobody can stop him. And he’s got plenty of basketball talent.”
Labissiere focuses on breathing to relax before a workout or game and has an app and tapes supplied by Betchart. Labissiere added that he’s mentally stronger and tougher than when he last played at Rupp.
“Last year was good for me as far as getting mentally tougher,” Labissiere said. “I learned a lot going through that year. I wish I was in contact with coach Graham more, but it was a good way for me to learn. And then with the mental aspect of the game, I feel like I’m mentally tougher than before it happened, so that’s all I can ask for. I feel like that’s going to pay off in the future.”
Betchart said he knows Labissiere is in a good space mentally if he sees him miss three consecutive shots but does not hesitate to take a fourth.
It’s about conquering the fear of failure, which greats like Jordan and Bryant did, Betchart said.
That might explain why a player once projected to be selected first overall never seemed fazed by dropping 27 spots.
Since the Las Vegas Summer League, Labissiere has impressed coaches with his skills and work ethic.
“The mental aspect of the game is probably like 80 percent of it — that’s really important,” Labissiere said. “I take it very, very seriously. It’s all about the mindset.”
It is what it is. And that’s good for Labissiere.