UK Men's Basketball

Meet the Cats: Labissiere's potential similar to previous UK bigs, but Calipari respecting differences

Skal Labissiere
has not yet been cleared by the NCAA to play this season.
Skal Labissiere has not yet been cleared by the NCAA to play this season. Herald-Leader

Though synonymous with standout point guards, John Calipari can also be linked to top-shelf big men: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle and Karl-Anthony Towns in his first six seasons as Kentucky coach. All were lottery picks, Davis and Towns the first overall selections in the 2012 and 2015 NBA drafts, respectively.

Skal Labissiere is supposed to be the latest in this line of players who succeeded for a season at Kentucky before proceeding to the NBA. Naturally, this invites inevitable and irresistible urges to compare UK's expected big man star of the present with his predecessors.

Calipari will not play this game.

After noting that former UK coach Joe B. Hall compared Labissiere favorably with Towns at this early stage, Calipari said he responded by saying, "But Karl has a fight in him. Skal's not there yet."

And don't even suggest that Labissiere is another Davis. This causes Calipari to shake his head.

"He's not that, believe me," he said of Labissiere. "A.D. is a freak of nature. A.D., I'm guessing, within the next few years is the best player in the universe."

While Labissiere has been projected as the first pick in next year's NBA Draft, Calipari wants him to evolve as a player as normally as can be possible at Kentucky.

"All kids are different," the UK coach said. "Different makeup. Different work capacities. Different toughness. All I want him to do is be the best he can be. I'm not comparing him to anybody.

"I'm telling you he's got a ways to go, and he knows it though. He'll be the first to tell you."

Labissiere followed this script when asked if he can do Davis-like things for Kentucky this season.

"I think I'm pretty far from that," he said. "As of right now, I have a lot of work to do. I need to learn to run the floor better (and) be more aggressive. Anthony's timing on the blocks was crazy. So I still have a lot to work on."

Labissiere had an abbreviated high school career. He missed the bulk of his junior season because of a stress fracture in his lower back.

"Just overdoing things and not resting properly," he said.

Tennessee's high school governing body ruled him ineligible as a senior, which left AAU basketball as a way to continue playing.

When asked if these missing years hurt Labissiere's development as a player, Calipari said, "Probably. ...Probably didn't help him. I'm not sure if it hurt him. We'll find out."

Clearly, Calipari joins UK fans in expecting Labissiere to have a major impact on Kentucky's season.

"For us to be what we can be as a team, he's got to have a presence. ... ," said Calipari, who then could not prevent making a comparison. "He's basically like Karl. He's learning how to run. How about that? 'You don't run right. We have to teach you how to run.'"

But Labissiere is a likely lottery pick having to learn how to run. Not a 6-foot intramural player.

"He's a great kid and working hard," Calipari said. "You just don't have 7-footers who have the kind of skill he has ... "He needs game competition where you're going at the other guy."

That will come this season in UK practices and, hopefully, games. Questions about amateurism followed Labissiere through the AAU circuit. That evokes the memory of another big man in the Kentucky pipeline: Enes Kanter. The NCAA ruled Kanter ineligible. So he proceeded without succeeding in UK games.

"I will play this year," Labissiere said.

When asked why he was so sure of that, he said, "We just have a good feeling about it. I will play this year."