If Skal Labissiere needs a shove in the right direction, then Tyler Ulis is there to provide it. Literally.
That was the lasting image from Kentucky’s 87-77 loss to UCLA in the Hollywood production that was Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night. True, Prince Ali’s high-flying, in-your-face jam over a fouling Alex Poythress rightfully made all the highlight reels, but it was Ulis’ push of Labissiere that summed up the night on the Big Blue end.
A freshman, Labissiere had failed to secure a loose ball. A leader, Ulis let him know it was unacceptable, shoving his teammate in the shoulder during a timeout. It wasn’t a love tap, but it wasn’t a punch either. It was more like a “What are you doing? You’re better than that?” reaction.
And Labissiere is better than that as he will surely show as the season progresses. A plum of a prospect, the 6-foot-11 native of Haiti has some of the silkiest offensive skills you’ll see. He was expected to follow in the long line of Kentucky/John Calipari big men — DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns — who did a one-year star-turn before hugging the commissioner in the early moments of the NBA Draft.
As soon as practices started, however, Calipari issued an early warning statement: “Skal needs to fight more.”
The coach knew his pupil. Third game of the year, facing Duke in the Champions Classic, Labissiere was pushed aside by the Blue Devils’ hulking Mason Plumlee, who scored Duke’s first nine points. Labissiere was quickly confined to the bench. He ended up playing just 13 minutes, scoring seven points and claiming four rebounds.
Then last Monday night, at home against Illinois State, Labissiere again was a non-factor. He played just 16 minutes, took just one shot, scored just two points, grabbed just two rebounds.
Thursday, facing UCLA muscle men Thomas Welsh (7-foot) and Tony Parker (6-9), Labissiere was limited to just 16 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing one rebound. Not-so-fun fact: Labissiere has gone three straight games without an offensive rebound.
Cal on Skal: “Gotta do it. Got no options. Gotta get lower, gotta use leverage, can’t try to use your arms and hands. When they came at you and you go down (with your hands), that’s a foul now. Can’t do it.”
More Cal on Skal: “He’s going to be fine.”
He will be. It’s early. It bears pointing out Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, did not score in double figures until his sixth collegiate game. Labissiere reached double figures in four of his first six games, including 26 points in his second game. By the way, KAT turned out OK.
The difference is Towns enjoyed a much deeper supporting cast. Last year’s Cats overflowed with big men from Towns to Willie Cauley-Stein to Dakari Johnson to Marcus Lee. This year’s Cats have Labissiere, Lee and Isaac Humphries, the 17-year-old Australian who is still learning what the game is all about.
In that regard, Calipari has a crew. Jamal Murray “messes with the ball” too much, according to the coach. Isaiah Briscoe battled the Bruins better than any other Cat, but is still prone to rookie errors. Charles Matthews has provided energy, but he’s still learning. They all are. Time is on their side.
The one with the greatest upside is Labissiere. There was a moment Thursday when the UK center received the ball on the block, proceeded to the lane and made a beautiful left-handed hook. It was a move worthy of the greats who had played on that very court, from Lew Alcindor to Bill Walton. The difference, of course, is that those legendary Bruins made that type of play over and over again.
Labissiere is capable of such consistency, which is why — in the heat of the moment — a frustrated Ulis supplied some hands-on direction.
“Whatever he did,” Calipari said of Ulis’ shove, “I know he did it with love in his heart.”
The push to make Labissiere better, however, may not truly begin until Skal pushes back.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
7 p.m. (ESPN2)