Not physical enough. Too easily pushed around. An agreeable guy that personifies the old saying about finishing last … or at least out of the lottery. The target of the athletic world’s most stinging criticism: soft.
That’s the baggage Skal Labissiere brought to the NBA Combine this week. Meeting with reporters Thursday, the Kentucky player with arguably the most circuitous one-and-done route to professional basketball made a case for being a tough guy, an argument that gave pause.
When asked if being a nice guy would hurt his chances of making an NBA roster, Labissiere said, “People say that.
After everything I’ve been through — coming from Haiti, the earthquake — I really don’t think a lot of people can bounce back from that and keep a grounded head like I did.
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“But I really think I’m one of the toughest kids in the draft. After everything I’ve been through — coming from Haiti, the earthquake — I really don’t think a lot of people can bounce back from that and keep a grounded head like I did.”
Only by inference did Labissiere mention the season for Kentucky that saw him struggle with physical opponents, only further fueling the opposition’s aim to muscle him around. He went from projected first or second pick in this year’s NBA Draft to perhaps the fringe of the lottery or somewhere later in the first round.
“Even when things were not going my way, I never talked back to the coach,” Labissiere said. “So I really think I’m one of the toughest kids in the draft.”
On Wednesday, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla referred to Labissiere as a “projection pick.” Valid judgments about his value as a NBA player could not be made for four or five years.
“I think that’s pretty good,” Labissiere said. “I see myself four or five years from now and I see myself being a very good player in the league. I’m going to bulk up a little bit, pick up the speed of the game, the physicality of it, so I think I’ll be fine.”
Since Kentucky’s season ended against Indiana in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (UK’s “bigs” came up noticeably small), Labissiere has been “hitting the weight room pretty hard.” He also said he altered his nutrition at the direction of the IMG Academy medical/training staff.
Labissiere said he hoped to add 10 pounds to his 6-foot-11 3/4 frame (as measured at the Combine while wearing shoes). He weighed 215.8 pounds.
Labissiere said he lost weight during Kentucky’s 2015-16 season. He arrived on campus weighing 221 pounds. His weight fell to 212.
When asked how he would try to rationalize his modest numbers (6.6 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game) to NBA general managers, Labissiere said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know (laughs nervously). I don’t know how to answer that.”
Yet, after the season, Labissiere told UK Coach John Calipari that he was ready to enter the NBA Draft. He signed with an agent: Travis King of Relativity Sports. So there’s no going back.
“Kentucky is just a different place,” Labissiere said of the decision to take the plunge. “I felt like it prepared me for this next step. It’s always been my dream to play at this level. I feel I’m ready. I feel I have the skillset.”
Former UK teammate Tyler Ulis vouched for Labissiere making it in the NBA eventually.
“He’s so skilled,” Ulis said Thursday. “Skal really has a lot of skills to his game. … You’ll see in a workout, he’ll make 50 hook shots left and right in a row. Then, he’ll step out and make 25 jumpers in a row. He has the skills to do it.”
Labissiere apparently flashed these skills at a workout here Wednesday. This apparently created a buzz.
What did he show in the workout? “Just my versatility,” he said. “My inside-and-out game, basically.”
Labissiere’s one season for Kentucky prompted several questions. Did he get anything out of it?
“I learned a lot,” he said. “My basketball IQ is way better than it was.”
Labissiere basically did not play basketball as a high school junior and senior because of injury and being declared ineligible, respectively.
“It went, you know, well, I would say,” he said of the 2015-16 season. “I had ups and downs. But I got better as a player. That’s all I can ask for. I did everything Coach Cal asked me to do. I gave my best for the team. That’s all I can say.”
NBA Draft Combine
When: Through Sunday
UK players in attendance: Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis.
Friday’s TV: 3-7 p.m. (ESPN2)