You could say Cal wants Skal to play with a scowl.
There's no confusion about what Kentucky Coach John Calipari wants from star freshman Skal Labissiere. In a word: fight! Not in the sense of fisticuffs. Calipari means he wants Labissiere to be more assertive on the court, to play more aggressively, to show more competitive fight.
"Oh, I hear that every single day," Labissiere said after UK's Blue-White Game on Tuesday. "Every single day. 'Fight, Skal!'
"I'm trying to get used to it. It's a different level here."
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A pleasant, inviting smile on his face, Labissiere defined what he believed Calipari meant when calling for fight.
"Just showing more effort out there," he said. "More heart. It's not even about scoring. It's about establishing myself in the paint and being a presence down there."
A talented big man bursting with potential. A call for a more determined effort to translate potential into production. Kentucky has been here before. In fact, there are many precedents, most recently with Karl-Anthony Towns last season. Like Labissiere a player projected to be a possible overall No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft, Towns went from novice back-to-the-basket scorer to low-post anchor. UK fans will recall Towns repeatedly posting up for scores in the hotly competitive region final game against Notre Dame last March. This from a player whose early-season wish to be indulged led to the affectionate nickname of Karl Kardashian.
"Early in the season, Karl wasn't there yet," Tyler Ulis said. "He wasn't fighting. ... As the season went on, he started dominating games. We started playing through him."
Ulis suggested that Kentucky has a similar idea for Labissiere to become a low-post presence who commands defensive attention, thus creating opportunities for teammates.
"We've got to keep in mind that Skal is there," he said. "I try to get him some touches. When Skal's got the fight, we're going to be playing through him. We can't wait for it."
When Calipari has talked about fight, in connection with Labissiere or the team in general, he usually volunteers an explanation of what he meant. The UK coach seems intent on stamping out the possibility of listeners thinking he's inciting violence.
"Before you have to guard a guy, the opponent, you're playing him before he catches it," Calipari said after the Blue-White Game. "A shot goes up on a rebound, you're moving before the ball hits the rim. If there's a 50/50 ball, you're getting that ball. You're diving on the floor. You're making an extra effort. ... You fight for position.
"We're not doing any of that right now."
Of course, it's late October, not late February. There is no pressing deadline for Labissiere to make a Towns-like change from caterpillar to butterfly.
"I feel I'm getting better," Labissiere said. He had 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the Blue-White Game.
When it was noted that Labissiere was no metaphorical black hole, that he showed a willingness to pass the ball from the low post, Calipari said, "At this point, I would rather he be the black hole. I just want him to get comfortable scoring."
To foster that comfort level, Calipari said that when he used the much-discussed three-guard lineup in the second half, he asked Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Ulis to keep Labissiere involved.
"Figure out how we get Skal in on this," he said he told the trio. "We need to get him the ball inside. And that kind of took away from the free flow."
A reporter asked Ulis if Labissiere knew how good he could be as a basketball player.
"I think he does," Ulis said with a knowing smile. "Everybody understands how good he can be. And I understand how good he is now. Once he fights, he's going to be a problem" for opponents.
"Once he gets that fight," Ulis said, "he's probably going to be like Karl."
When asked about a report that the NCAA had resolved questions about amateurism and determined that he is eligible to play this season, Labissiere smiled.
"Like I said before, I plan on playing in the first game," he said. "I'm very excited about that."