A slow start from Kentucky's Skal Labissiere has led to some early panic and criticism. We haven't witnessed what the NBA mock draft boards and recruiting rankings suggested we would. Labissiere, who'd been viewed as a potential top pick in June, has come off the bench to average just 9.2 points and nearly more personal fouls (3.3) than rebounds (3.5) per game.
With the narrative shifted to Labissiere's overrated billing, we've gotten to where his mistakes have become magnified. No missed shot or rough stretch goes unnoticed.
And maybe it's time we back away.
Karl-Anthony Towns wasn't written off after a quiet first two months at Kentucky. Before emerging as the 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year favorite and the No. 1 pick in last summer's draft, he'd averaged 8.2 points through his first 13 games in college. Towns finished without a shot attempt against North Carolina (December 13, 2014) and followed with four points in 20 minutes against UCLA (December 20, 2014).
|Through first 13 games at Kentucky|
It wasn't until February that we talked about Towns as an elite NBA prospect. Nobody considered him a No. 1 option until March Madness.
It's just too soon to decide Labissiere won't ever become the player we expected him to. A raw big man like him will need at least a full season to build a convincing NBA case.
At 225 pounds, it's obvious he'll have to put on some bulk, as he gets moved around under the boards and struggles to gain position down low. But it's not a deal-breaker in terms of whether this kid can eventually become a coveted NBA player, as it's correctable. No exposed weakness appears permanently threatening.
It's also worth noting he didn't play much over his final two years in high school, thanks to a back issue he suffered as a junior and eligibility problems that led to his transferring for his senior campaign.
And this season, he's entered a guard-heavy lineup that's seen Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe rank in the top three in field goals attempted for the Wildcats. Coach John Calipari also doesn't run too many pick-and-rolls for Labissiere, meaning his scoring opportunities have been limited to sporadic post-ups and second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
This isn't to completely excuse him, but we're not talking about a situation that's easy for one to quickly establish rhythm.
It's possible over time, though. And I'm willing to bank on it eventually clicking for Labissiere the way it did for Towns.
He may have already built back some confidence after Kentucky's win over Ole Miss on Saturday, when he opened his afternoon with a slam (off an offensive rebound) that sparked a nine-point effort and 14 energetic minutes.
ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman described the freshman's performance in Saturday's game:
Jeff Goodman @GoodmanESPN
Skal Labissiere playing much tougher in the early going against Ole Miss -- and his teammates are loving it.2016-1-3 00:17:51
Labissiere talked about turning the corner, per the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker:
Mentally, I just have to believe in myself a little bit more. There was a period where my confidence was down a little bit, but I’m good now. So I think I’m getting better every single day. Every day I practice, going against my teammates. Practice has gotten harder over the past couple of weeks, but I feel like I’m getting better. That’s what I came here for. Coach Cal, when he was recruiting me, told me it wasn’t going to be easy at all. I came here to get better and that’s all I can ask for, and I feel like I’m getting better.
In doses through November and December, Labissiere has flashed righty and lefty jump hooks, fadeaways from the elbows and mid-range shooting touch (43.4 percent on two-point jumpers, which accounts for any shot away from the rim worth two points, according to Hoop-Math.com).
And though he hasn't put up monster shot-blocking numbers, he's had a handful of strong defensive moments that have highlighted foot speed and the ability to contain smaller, faster assignments in space.
Labissiere's 6'11" size, bounce, quickness and inside-out skills still fuel enticing pro potential. And five to six uninspiring performances—he has hit the 10-point mark five times in 13 tries—shouldn't change that this early in the process.
The 19-year-old Haitian isn't Towns and seems unlikely to challenge LSU's Ben Simmons for the No. 1 spot on draft boards. But with most of his freshman season left, don't sell on Labissiere just yet.