Though his rookie season ends this week, Skal Labissiere is just getting started. His summer itinerary consists of all work and no play. Daily trips to the gym. Hours in the weight room. A week at the Las Vegas summer league. A trip to his native Haiti, where he is sponsoring a youth basketball camp.
Take a seat? Take a breath? Not this kid.
Labissiere always feels as if he is cramming for another exam, unable to speed read, yet determined to learn something new every day. As a teenager, his challenge was mastering English and maintaining academic eligibility. As a freshman at the University of Kentucky, his biggest test was adjusting to John Calipari’s booming presence, far from his family and friends. As one of three Kings drafted last summer, his goal was twofold: make the team and make the draft experts look silly.
The first-year forward was still available at No. 28, there to be plucked by Vlade Divac with his draft-day maneuvering that also yielded rookies Georgios Papagiannis (No. 13) and the injured Malachi Richardson (No. 22). Of the three, Labissiere, 21, can make the strongest argument that several other teams dropped the ball, either by underestimating his abilities or being fooled by his calm, almost peaceful demeanor.
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“Skal seems like a meek, humble, quiet guy off the court,” veteran guard Garrett Temple said, “but when he gets between the lines, he is a very different person. He attacks rebounds. He has immense talent and an excellent work ethic. He is receptive to coaching. He wants to be a great, great player in this league.”
For now, the Kings just want Labissiere’s development to continue. As his minutes have increased these past several weeks, the rangy 6-foot-11 Labissiere has displayed some of that immense talent Temple was talking about. He is a fluid, graceful athlete who loves to bust out in transition and finish with powerful left- and right-handed dunks. His mid-range jumper is almost textbook, and because of his length, is very difficult to contest. In the lane he converts floaters and layups with either hand, and he surprises defenders with an array of ball fakes and counters he learned by studying tapes of Hakeem Olajuwon and James Worthy.
Defensively, Labissiere swoops in and block shots, using his 7-foot-2 wingspan and innate sense of anticipation. Though he can get overpowered underneath by bigger, more experienced opponents, that will become less of an issue as he physically matures and gets stronger. His body already has undergone a dramatic change since the summer league. Those hours in the weight room have packed muscle onto his slender frame, most noticeably with the added definition in his arms.
Besides the grueling nature of an 82-game season, Labissiere said the biggest adjustment has been maintaining a mental focus, particularly on the boards. His habit of “attacking” rebounds, he admits, is an acquired taste.
“It’s just a mindset,” he said, “and it’s something I had to work on. I try to get every rebound, every ball. I think it’s just wanting it a little bit more.”
Labissiere’s background undoubtedly is a motivating factor; he is intimately familiar with tragedy. Born in Port-au-Prince, he grew up playing soccer and volleyball on outdoor courts, often running around in bare feet. But his life changed forever at age 13, when a massive earthquake shook the island, destroying his home and trapping him in debris for several hours. He suffered recurring bouts of numbness in his lower legs for weeks. While he recovered, his family moved into the school where his mother, Ema, taught kindergarten. His father, Lesly, an entrepreneur, rebuilt his business from scratch.
Skal came to the United States about six months after the earthquake, aided by a Memphis-based benefactor, but speaking only Creole and French. He nonetheless was thrust into an eighth-grade, private school classroom that offered minimal tutoring. Yet he persevered, comforted by his passion for basketball, he says, and an evolving skill set that already was attracting college recruiters. Following two more setbacks — a stress fracture in his back that sidelined him for his entire junior season and transfer violations that cost him his senior year — Calipari offered him a scholarship to Kentucky.
A year later, after an inconsistent freshman season caused his draft value to plummet, Labissiere was grabbed by the Kings.
“Skal can be special,” Divac said. “He has size and skill, and he’s a great kid. We’re very, very lucky.”
Unfailingly polite and soft-spoken, Labissiere, who retains his island accent by chatting frequently with boyhood friends, is extremely well liked within the organization. He has been the victim of typical rookie teasing and pranks, and after he failed to pass the ball recently while leading a three-on-one fastbreak, endured some good-natured ribbing in the locker room by Temple and Ty Lawson.
“I’m feeling a little more comfortable out there,” Labissiere said, with a soft smile. “It’s me learning at my own pace, not getting rushed, learning how to see things on the court. It’s not about the next three or four games, it’s about the next couple years, learning how to play with each, develop our chemistry. I’m nowhere near (physically) where I want to be. But this should be a fun summer. Lots of time with the weights, and working on all aspects of my game.”