Here’s the thing about playing basketball at Kentucky.
When things are going well for a player, there’s no better place in all of American sports to be than at UK. However, when things are not going well, there is no tougher place in all of American sports to be than at UK.
For Skal Labissiere, UK’s touted freshman big man, things are not going well.
Overcoming a sluggish first half with an impressive second-half performance, Kentucky (9-1) whipped Arizona State (6-3) 72-58 Saturday afternoon before an energetic Rupp Arena crowd of 23,665.
After struggling to a 32-31 halftime lead, the second-half UK looked again like the team that walloped Duke.
Yet the Wildcats win came with all but no contribution from Labissiere, the top-rated recruit in the 2015 Rivals 150 and a preseason first-team All-American choice by the respected Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook.
The line for the 6-foot-11, 225-pound Port-au-Prince, Haiti, native was 13 minutes, no points, no rebounds, no assists, one blocked shot, one turnover and five fouls.
Through 10 games, Labissiere barely has more rebounds (35) than 5-9 UK point guard Tyler Ulis (29).
As tends to happen with players who do not score or get a rebound, Labissiere was not one of the players UK made available to the media after the game. That did not keep questions about his confidence level from dominating the proceedings.
“If I had a game with no points and no rebounds, I would feel down, honestly,” said UK junior forward Derek Willis (seven points, three rebounds in 14 minutes).
“Maybe a little,” said Kentucky guard Jamal Murray (12 of team-high 17 points in second half), asked if Labissiere had lost confidence. “But that happens to every basketball player, not just him”
Asked if he, too, were worried about Labissiere’s belief in self dropping, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said “somewhat.”
Then the UK coach made a very pertinent point. For all the recruiting hype Labissiere brought to Lexington, he really hasn’t played that much basketball. It’s not like Skal was born in Indiana, a hoop hanging above his cradle.
He grew up in Haiti, a country where basketball is an afterthought. Rather than competing last year at a top American high school or prep school, Labissiere played on a thrown-together team that was more or less created for him that had minimal talent around him.
“You understand, he came from Haiti,” Calipari said. “He played basketball for a year and a half, then he played in a church league for two years. He’s never been through any of this. This is all new to him.
“Now, he played in a couple of games (early this season) that were more like pick-up games. He made some jumpers. He ran up and down. And there were no men. See, he’s playing against men now. The kid (Eric Jacobsen, a 6-10, 240-pound senior) he went against (today) was a senior and he just bulldozed him. And (Labissiere) couldn’t play against a man. Well, this is all part of it.”
Because he is so inexperienced, I wonder if part of Labissiere’s current passivity is because he has to think about what to do rather than rely on ingrained basketball instinct.
Just looking at Labissiere’s willowy frame, it’s obvious he could use some bulk. But his UK teammates say it is a mistake to assume the skinny big man is not physically strong.
“He is strong,” Willis said. “You look at him, his arms are developed. He’s fine in that nature. You’ve just got to put in the work. You build his confidence in the gym. Just fight.”
Said Kentucky junior forward Marcus Lee: “I wouldn’t say he’s not physically big enough. He needs to learn to work with what he’s got. It took me three years to figure it out.”
In the one-and-done era, massive expectations for Kentucky players are coupled to a hyper-speed time table. Time to develop is measured in games, not seasons.
Labissiere is as nice a person as any athlete I’ve ever interviewed. Every one I’ve ever spoken to about him renders a similar assessment.
One hopes he finds his game before the UK pressure cooker consumes him.
Said Calipari: “I love Skal … I want him to play well so bad.”