March 10, 2017, 1:34 pm
Before playing a single game for the Kentucky Wildcats, Skal Labissiere had generated enough hype to be considered a candidate for the first overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Ben Simmons, who eventually earned that designation, had been considered the early favorite, but Labissiere’s talent was enticing enough to convince many that he had a chance to overtake him.
Despite the lofty expectations, Labissiere proved to be the biggest “faller” in the draft, eventually being selected late in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. This was by no means a surprise: Players fall virtually every season, and many had already predicted that this would be the case for Labissiere. He had struggled tremendously under John Calipari, and there was obvious concern that these struggles would translate to the NBA.
Labissiere’s issues were primarily centered around lack of size and toughness, and most analysts pointed to his rebounding and foul trouble when discussing the on-court impact. Labissiere issues can be seen from his per 100 possessions stats at Kentucky, shown in the table below:
Per 100 Poss Table Season School Conf G MP TRB STL BLK PF 2015-16 Kentucky SEC 36 567 11.7 0.9 6.1 11.2 Career Kentucky 36 567 11.7 0.9 6.1 11.2
The number of blocks serves to show his potential defensively, but 11.2 fouls per-100 is far too high for any player. Combined with his low steal numbers, Labissiere had shown a relatively low defensive IQ, and on top of that struggled to reign in defensive boards. This combination made it difficult to envision him playing enough to reach his tremendous ceiling.
So that left him as one of the more difficult players to peg in the draft. He was still extremely mobile and active for his size, had an ability to handle the ball, and showed incredible form on his jumper that made it easy to envision him eventually stretching his range out to the NBA three-point line.
It is important to note that, as mentioned and carefully worded above, Labissiere struggled to play in John Calipari’s system. That system, which has groomed some of the NBA’s most talented big men in recent years, may have been why Labissiere struggled the way he did.
In order to understand this distinction, it’s important to look back at some of the players that have succeeded under Calipari. Using DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis as three prime examples, Calipari’s process is fairly easy to understand: Big men, even those that enter with perimeter skills, are expected to adapt to life in the post.
DeMarcus Cousins, who many Kings fans know is quite the bruiser, didn’t struggle much with this. Davis and Towns, who were more similar to Labissiere, did need a little bit of time to adjust, but never struggled the way that Labissiere did. In the end, he didn’t take to the transistion, and Calipari even admitted later that this likely wasn’t the best approach to take with him.
All of this led to the idea that Skal Labissiere was going to be a project, and one that may not ever pan out. For that reason, the Kings played it safe and assigned him to the Reno Bighorns, their NBA D-League affiliate. At the time, this made plenty of sense, and gave Labissiere the opportunity to play regular minutes and begin learning how he could fit on an NBA roster.
Based on his current production and the skill set that he has shown while on the court, it is clear that Labissiere is far closer to the player that people thought he would be prior to his time at Kentucky than he is to the player that people thought he was at the draft. Because of this, it is time to treat him like a top prospect that needs to develop, not a project that can’t yet hang in the NBA.
Labissiere has the ability to provide things than few others on this roster can, and despite his lack of size, has shown both tremendous confidence in his ability to contribute, and a skill level high enough to take on a much larger workload.
It is not uncommon for teams to deploy rookies like Labissiere in much larger capacities. Kristaps Porzingis, another player that was thought to be too raw to take on a large role when he entered the league, was thrown directly into the starting lineup, and ended up averaging over 28 minutes per game in his rookie season. Porzingis, much like Labissiere, showed that he could contribute despite his weakness, and was rewarded with extra playing time.
To illustrate his impact, an easy place to begin is his work on the glass. The Kings have struggled with rebounding since the break, and Labissiere has shown the ability to alleviate those struggles to an extent. The team’s rebounding percentage with Labissiere on the court since the All-Star break rises from 45.4% to 51.6%, and those figures would rank 7th and 30th among teams over that span.
When looking at team ranks per-100 possessions since the break, Labissiere is currently 2nd in points (29.6), second in blocks (1.5), and first in both rebounds (19.6) and defensive rebounds (12). Despite all of this, Labissiere is last in minutes among players that are regularly in the rotation (14.6 per game).
Beyond that, Labissiere has shown the ability to completely transform the dynamic of our team when he enters the game. Since the break, the Kings have posted a 4.4 net rating while Labissiere is on the court, and a -10.3 net rating when he leaves. Those marks would rank 7th and 30th among teams over that span respectively, and serve to show how much better the team is with him on the court. Labissiere also has the only positive net rating on the team outside of Georgios Papagiannis and Langston Galloway, and neither of them have played enough minutes to truly assess their production.
All of this data points to the fact that not only is Labissiere far less raw than originally thought, he may be one of the team’s best producers. Given the small sample size, it would be a little bit too early to commit to that idea, but it is a theory worth testing. The play below serves to succinctly showcase a lot of what makes him so unique:
His length and athleticism make it nearly impossible for Kyle Anderson to contest the shot, and the touch that he has on his jump shot is already well above average. His ability to create space and elevate, combined with his mechanics and feel for shooting, make him one of the few players on the roster that can create his own offense.
Skal Labissiere has shown tremendous potential coupled with the ability to help the Kings win, something that very few players ever do in their rookie year. The sample is still fairly small, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is what was expected of him not too long ago. Increasing his minutes and responsibility are a must moving forward, and would be a perfect way to balance the team’s desire to win with their need for development.