UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Skal’s struggles puzzle analysts as well as UK fans

Kentucky Coach John Calipari talked with forward Skal Labissiere (1) in the second half against LSU in Baton Rogue, La., on Jan. 5, 2016. LSU defeated UK 85-67.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari talked with forward Skal Labissiere (1) in the second half against LSU in Baton Rogue, La., on Jan. 5, 2016. LSU defeated UK 85-67. palcala@herald-leader.com

They can’t believe how Skal Labissiere has played. They expected dominance. They wonder how they could have been so wrong about the Kentucky freshman. They hold out hope that he will ultimately validate their lofty expectations.

UK fans? Yes. But also the basketball analysts who make their reputations appraising, rating and projecting the impact of players.

“I’m a little speechless about it all, honestly,” said Evan Daniels, an analyst for the Scout.com recruiting service. “It’s shocking.”

Jerry Meyer, an analyst for 247 Sports, saw a cautionary tale in Labissiere’s fall from possible first player selected in this year’s NBA Draft to rag doll thrown aside by Kentucky opponents.

“This should cause introspection in my business,” Meyer said. “We should try to get better.”

For example, the analysts should place greater importance on physical strength and mental toughness, Meyer said.

Chad Ford, who projects NBA drafts for ESPN, originally had Labissiere as the second player chosen in 2016. LSU freshman Ben Simmons was his first pick.

In a later update, Ford dropped Labissiere to the fourth pick. Another update in his mock draft is scheduled for this coming week.

“He’s not going to be a four,” Ford said. “He’ll drop. But it’s really tough. NBA scouts preach patience.”

Ford said he might project Labissiere as high as the sixth player chosen and perhaps no lower than the 15th pick.

“Pretty big range,” he said. “Kentucky fans might be surprised (Labissiere will not drop farther in the first round).”

Two factors are in play, Ford said. The 2016 NBA Draft is not seen as particularly strong. And NBA teams see Labissiere as a fluid athlete at nearly 7-feet tall, not the novice low-post player at Kentucky.

Labissiere made his reputation at the Nike Hoop Summit. As a fluid, skilled player, he wowed the analysts and NBA scouts and general managers. Soft touch. Rebounding out of his area. Blocking shots.

“He was the best prospect there,” Daniels said. And, don’t forget, another player there was Simmons. “He’s flat-out not the same player I saw at the Nike Hoop Summit.”

Added Meyer: “The NBA was drooling over him at the Hoop Summit.”

In retrospect, the analysts question how two days of basketball at the Hoop Summit swept them off their feet.

Then there’s a more basic question: How well does high school and AAU basketball simulate the sport on the college and NBA levels?

The competition in high school isn’t as strong. AAU offers better competition. But, Ford said, “It’s not basketball.”

Further complicating Labissiere’s development was not playing high school basketball the last two years. A stress fracture in his back ended his junior season, then he was ruled ineligible as a senior.

His guardian put together a team for Labissiere last winter. Daniels said he heard UK Coach John Calipari refer to this collection of players as a church league team.

“Probably the worst high school team I’ve ever seen,” Daniels said, “if that’s what you want to consider a high school team.”

So how much insight can be gained by repeatedly watching prospects in these settings? Meyer said he saw Labissiere play more than 30 times. Daniels said he’d been following Labissiere since the summer prior to the player’s sophomore year of high school.

Of course, Labissiere isn’t the first highly rated player to get off to a shaky start in college. As he averaged 10 points and 7.6 rebounds in a fitful freshman season for Connecticut, Andre Drummond went from the projected No. 2 player to the No. 9 selection.

“Now, he’s a monster,” Ford said. “A beast.”

Nor is it unusual for big men to need time to transition from high school to college. “But this is an awful extreme case,” Meyer said. “He can barely hold onto the ball.”

The analysts haven’t given up on Labissiere. They say that in time, he can be a wealthy and productive NBA player.

But it’s no sure thing.

“One thing that concerns me is he’s older than most freshmen,” Ford said. “That’s a little scary.”

Labissiere will be 20 on March 18.

Daniels, who watched Labissiere dominate against Oak Hill Academy at the Marshall County Hoop Fest, finds it hard to believe what he’s seeing.

“I’m just so puzzled,” he said. “It was one of the better high school performances I’ve ever seen. I was waving that flag.

“I know saying it doesn’t add up isn’t exactly analysis. I’ve literally thought about this for hours.”

Charge/block

In a recent game, Alex Poythress drove to the basket. He cleared a way to the basket by lowering his shoulder into the defender. A whistle blew.

The call? Blocking. Apparently, the defender was within the block/charge arc in the lane where charging cannot occur. Right?

The call seemed to follow the letter of the rule, but not the spirit of the rule. Isn’t lowering a shoulder into a defender a classic example of charging?

According to SEC Coordinator of Officials Jake Bell, the arc is not a charge-free zone. In other words, a defender can draw a charge even if he’s standing in the arc. But in this case, Poythress was not guilty of a charge.

Here’s how Bell explained it: A player can be called for charging into a defender standing in the arc if he leads with a knee or elbow.

But an offensive player can lead with his shoulder to clear out a defender.

‘That’s it?’

The SEC is making an ongoing effort to raise its basketball profile. But the league’s first coaches’ teleconference suggested more work must be done.

The league schedules each coach for seven minutes of question-and-answer duty. It seemed there wasn’t that much interest.

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin, who has the SEC’s only unbeaten team, was on the call for four and a half minutes.

Although they were involved in the first week’s marquee game, UK Coach John Calipari fielded only two questions. LSU Coach Johnny Jones was on the call for less than five minutes.

Only one reporter asked a question of Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes. After Barnes answered, the teleconference moderator said that this segment was completed.

Barnes blurted out, “That’s it?”

Too much credit?

When asked about the critics of LSU Coach Johnny Jones, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas returned to a familiar refrain. He said coaches get too much credit and too much blame.

That also goes for the idea of coaches producing pros.

“They don’t develop pros,” Bilas said. “They recruit pros.”

Bilas included himself in the media impulse to hail coaches.

“It’s so stupid that we do it,” he said. “Where so-and-so develops all these pros. Certain years they decide not to develop them? How come they only develop top-100 players?”

John Calipari has made Kentucky synonymous with preparation for the NBA. Bilas drew an important distinction.

“‘Prepare’ and ‘develop’ are two different things,” he said. “If the (recruiting) pitch is you’re going to play every day against NBA caliber players, you’re going to be as prepared as you can be and look at our track record, that’s fine.

“But when we, the media, start talking about (a coach) develops (NBA players), it’s an absurd thing. And we keep doing it.”

Oh, the shame

Reader Dan Matherly noticed that the Herald-Leader did not publish the UK-LSU box score in Wednesday’s edition. When he called to ask what happened, he offered a possible reason.

The Herald-Leader did not print the box score “due to embarrassment,” he said in a voice mail message.

No, that wasn’t it. The game’s late start was the reason. The box score appeared in Thursday’s paper.

Matherly, 68, lives in Lexington. He’s a retired employee of state government.

War on sportsmanship?

In what might become a regular update, the ideal of sportsmanship took another blow last week. Video surfaced of a high school coach in Pennsylvania seemingly head-butting a referee.

Our man on good sporting manners, Mid-South Conference Commissioner Eric Ward, reviewed the video. He said he saw the coach chest-bump the ref, and the ref flop to the floor.

“God bless them,” Ward said with a chuckle. “It’s like professional wrestling. It’s theatrics.”

Only a week earlier, Ward took some solace in how good sportsmanship was being maintained to a greater degree at the lower levels of athletics. Then, we saw the high school “theatrics” in Pennsylvania.

“It does make me feel a little better when I see that the school district immediately put (the coach, Jerry Devine) on leave of absence, and they suspended him,” Ward said. There should be accountability for bad behavior.

One question: Where is this bad behavior heading?

“Eventually, you’re going to see criminal charges,” Ward said, “and it will play out in the courts. If there was a head butt, I’d encourage the person file charges.”

Euro informed

Last week The Ledger Independent in Maysville offered an update on two of its favorite basketball sons who are playing in Europe.

Former UK player Darius Miller is playing in Germany. Through 11 Euroleague games with Brose Baskets, he was averaging 8.3 points and 2.2 rebounds. He had made 53 percent of his shots and 94 percent of his free throws.

Former Tennessee star Chris Lofton is playing Lemains in France. Through 20 games, he was averaging 11.9 points and shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Book note

Jeff Marx, one of the lead reporters in the Herald-Leader’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on UK basketball, lives in Baton Rouge. He attended last week’s UK-LSU game.

Marx has written a new book that arrived in stores in September. The book, titled Walking with Tigers, is a series of in-depth profiles of former LSU athletes.

There’s a chapter on current football star Leonard Fournette. But the look back at former athletes caught the attention of Scott Rabalais, a sportswriter for the daily newspaper in Baton Rouge, The Advocate.

In his review, Rabalais wrote, “The best is the chapter on Stanley Roberts, remembered for his one brief year as Shaquille O’Neal’s low-post mate at LSU in 1989-90. Marx takes the reader from Roberts’ humble beginnings in South Carolina as a hotly pursued recruit considered at the time to have more upside than O’Neal, through his largely wasted days at LSU and in the NBA and through a litany of demons to emerge at 42 as an LSU graduate at last.”

For more information, visit JeffreyMarx.org.

Happy birthday

To Bobby Perry. He turned 31 on Thursday. … To Rod Barnes. The former Ole Miss player and coach turned 50 on Friday. … To Kirk Chiles. He turned 67 on Friday. … To Terrence Jones. He turned 24 on Saturday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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