UK Men's Basketball

Calipari says Skal Labissiere’s struggles with physical play can be solved

Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (1) couldn’t pull in the rebound against Illinois State’s guard Paris Lee (1) on Nov. 30.
Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (1) couldn’t pull in the rebound against Illinois State’s guard Paris Lee (1) on Nov. 30. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

No one has more experience than Terry Tippett in trying to make Skal Labissiere a low-post presence.

“I tried to post him up for four years,” said Tippett, who coached Labissiere at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova, Tenn. “He just couldn’t hold that position.”

Tippett sees more of the same this season as Kentucky tries to establish Labissiere around the basket.

“He’s trying,” Tippett said. “He just can’t do it. He’s so long-legged and light. He gets moved off the block.”

Can’t do it?!

Surely, UK Coach John Calipari does not want to hear that. He does not argue that Labissiere has the bulk to physically dominate an opponent. Yet, Calipari continued to insist Tuesday that Labissiere can be a more effective post player.

“I’ve seen skinny guys battle,” Calipari said. “Just because you’re skinny doesn’t mean (voice takes a softer tone), ‘Well, OK.’

“You’ve just got to have that mentality. Some of that is inner dialogue. What exactly are you saying to yourself when a shot goes up? … What are you saying to yourself when the other team is beating you to balls?”

When a shot is taken, what would Calipari like this inner voice to say to Labissiere and several other UK players? “Who am I hitting?” the UK coach said.

Calipari seeks this thirst for contact from players other than Labissiere. Alex Poythress, for instance.

So on Monday Kentucky had what Calipari called a grueling practice.

Tippett saw the wisdom in Calipari’s efforts to get Labissiere to add a presence around the basket to obvious skills with the ball.

For one thing, the NBA, even in the age of so-called “small ball,” is still a physical test.

“The guy is 6-11,” Tippett said of Labissiere. “He needs to learn to play in the post. There’s no doubt about that. But I wonder, if (Calipari) will bail out and let him come out and use the some of his shooting skills. …

“I can see they’re getting impatient with him because of where Cal’s playing him. They’re asking him to do things he just can’t do yet. But Cal’s not wrong. He’s got to learn to play down there. He’s just can’t do it yet. He’s got to gain 30 or 40 more pounds before he can do it.”

Calipari seemed to say the same thing, more or less, earlier this season. He declared in the first week or so that Labissiere was no low-post monster like, say, Shaquille O’Neal. Labissiere’s skills suggested Tim Duncan: face the basket, use skill rather than brawn.

Yet, when Kentucky lost at UCLA on Thursday, Labissiere was back in the post and getting pushed around. He finished with six points. His one rebound was a game-low for any player in game. Tyler Ulis, who is 14 inches shorter, grabbed two.

“You have to be able to rebound around the basket whether you’re Shaq or Anthony Davis,” Calipari said.

Calipari then reminded reporters that Davis, whom UK listed an inch shorter and five pounds lighter than Labissiere, accomplished great things despite a slender physique.

“It doesn’t matter,” Calipari said of a player being skinny. “You’re 7 feet tall. You have to figure out how to get balls.”

While the low post is usually the most congested area of the court, Labissiere can’t expect to escape the need to hold his own physically, Calipari said. Opponents muscle him in the post, at the elbow and on a wing.

“They never have him without a body on him,” the UK coach said of opponents’ strategies. “Because they know he’s not comfortable when there’s a battle.”

Of course, Labissiere had little bulk as a high school player. Tippett recalled teachers collecting money so Labissiere could buy a meal card and eat at the cafeteria.

Tippett balked at the notion of Labissiere being “soft,” one of the worst insults a player can hear in the macho world of athletes. Tippett recalled Labissiere not shying away from drills designed to make players dive for loose balls or take charges.

“He didn’t back down,” Tippett said. “He tried.”

But, Tippett added, “We’d have a 6-2 or 6-3 kid who just knocked him off the block. And there wasn’t much he could do about it.”

As a high school player, Labissiere showed toughness by playing in more than one game before doctors discovered a stress fracture in his back. The injury sidelined him for most of his junior year, the first of two seasons he largely missed.

In the preseason, Calipari said those missing years stunted Labissiere’s development as a player. Perhaps that explains why Labissiere has not immediately dominated like, say, Julius Randle two years ago. Randle, whom UK listed 25 pounds heavier than Labissiere, averaged 18.1 points and 12.6 rebounds after eight games. At the same juncture, Labissiere is averaging 12.0 points and 3.9 rebounds.

“It just comes with time,” Poythress said of Labissiere becoming a more physical player. “We’re trying to help him in practice, telling him what he has to do. That he needs to fight more.”

For the umpteenth time already this season, Calipari said the same applies to many UK players. On Tuesday, he again explained why it’s imperative that the Cats battle, scratch, fight, dive and out-hustle opponents.

“All that gritty stuff is what will win games or lose games,” Calipari said. “We’re not going to be 20 points up on people. These are going to be seven-point games, and you’re got to battle through.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Wednesday

Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m.

Records: EKU (7-2); UK (7-1)

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

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