From Projected Top Pick to Struggling Reserve: The Decline of Skal Labissiere

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 16, 2016

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats calls for the ball during second half action against the South Florida Bulls on November 27, 2015 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. Kentucky defeated South Florida 84-63. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The trajectory of Skal Labissiere since he arrived at Kentucky has been the equivalent of a hot new stock taking an unexpected nosedive once it reaches the market.

Labissiere was one of the top two prospects by every recruiting service, and both Rivals and Scout had him at No. 1 ahead of LSU's Ben Simmons.

"As a junior-to-be, he worked Karl Towns over," Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi told Bleacher Report. "The summer before out in Vegas, he was ridiculous. He looked like a guy who was ready to play in the NBA from a skill level right then and there."

Labissiere had also impressed NBA scouts during the Nike Hoops Summit last spring and at Kentucky's combine in the fall.

"He was good," an NBA scout told B/R. "His skill, when you see him and look at him, the skill jumps out at you, because he has size and length and athleticism and then the ability that he can step out and hit a three-pointer."

Scouts tempered their expectations until they saw the 6'11", 225-pound big man in college games, but Labissiere was clearly one of the most intriguing prospects in the country as the season started.

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Kentucky head coach John Calipari also has an excellent track record with top-rated recruits.

Dating back to Derrick Rose, Calipari has had 11 players ranked among the top four prospects in their class by one of the major recruiting services. To date, every one of those players has left after his freshman year, been drafted in the top eight picks and experienced success in the league or appears headed in that direction.

John Calipari's highest-rated recruits since 2007
Player/HS ClassHighest recruiting rankDraft Pick
Derrick Rose, 200711
Tyreke Evans, 200844
DeMarcus Cousins, 200925
John Wall, 200911
Brandon Knight, 201048
Enes Kanter, 201033
Anthony Davis, 201111
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 201132
Nerlens Noel, 201216
Julius Randle, 201327
Karl-Anthony Towns, 201441
Skal Labissiere, 20151?

Labissiere got off to a promising start. In his second game as a Wildcat, he scored 26 points on 12 shots and averaged 14.7 points per game through the first six games of the season.

But Labissiere's playing time started to decrease as the campaign progressed, mainly because of an inability to rebound or defend, and Calipari pulled him from the starting lineup Dec. 26 against Louisville. That day, he scored only two points in 10 minutes.

Labissiere has put up modest numbers, which have dipped each month of the season (see chart). He's also been beaten out of the starting lineup by Derek Willis, a former 3-star recruit, according to 247Sports.

Labissiere by the month
UK Athletics

Kentucky's struggles as a team have only increased the spotlight on Labissiere's slow development, and what could end up burning the most is the fact the big man is dropping on NBA draft boards. Meanwhile, LSU's Simmons has emerged as the clear-cut No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft and will likely be a first-team All-American. It's hard to believe that this time a year ago there was a real debate over which player was better.

This is not the first time a high-profile prospect has failed to produce as a freshman—Kansas' Cliff Alexander and Florida's Chris Walker are two recent examples—but Labissiere might be one of the biggest surprises, considering Calipari's track record with one-and-done freshmen and the expectations that evaluators and Kentucky had.

His case study on why he's struggled, what the red flags were before he got to UK and what is going to happen to him next is a hot topic in the basketball community. I spoke with three NBA scouts and Bossi to get some answers.

Why Has Labissiere Struggled at the College Level So Far?

Jan 2, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Skal Labissiere (1) keeps the ball away from Mississippi Rebels guard Sam Finley (10) during the first half at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest two aspects of Labissiere's game to attack are his defense and rebounding. Defensively, he's struggled to hold his ground and averages 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes. He's also struggled to rebound, and both weaknesses go beyond strength and a willingness to battle.

"Anytime you see a guy who just doesn't seem to react well to the ball coming off the rim, the ball bounces off the rim, and there's a delay between when that happens and when he's able to react to it, that's scary," a second NBA scout said. "For a guy as tall and as athletic as him to not be able to go get rebounds at a good rate, that's really problematic, and I don't think that can be blamed on Kentucky.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 26:  Trey Lewis #3 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball while defended by Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on December 26, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"The game is just a little bit too fast and too physical for him. He needs to keep things simple. It's hard for him to make decisions at game speed. It's hard for him to get where he wants to go because of a lack of physicality. But he still has that high-release jump shot, still can block some shots. The rest of it has been a real struggle for him."

The high-release jump shot and Labissiere's length are the reasons he looks like such an intriguing prospect in a workout. That doesn't always translate to success in the league. One relevant example is Yi Jianlian, who went sixth in the 2007 NBA draft after famously looking like a stud in private workouts when he was posting up a chair.

Labissiere also looked good in the preseason when he wasn't facing a defense or stiff competition. 

"I saw him early in the season [at practice], and he showed skill," a third scout said. "At the time, he looked like a very skilled post. You could put him out on the floor, he was hitting turnaround jumpers and blocking shots in the lane. He was showing decent activity, and they were throwing him the ball, but I'm not sure how much his teammates were pushing him or testing him. For the most part, they're pretty small, and I'm not sure he was really pushed until real competition came along.

"At that point in time, it became evident that he really didn't know how to play in a team setting and he's just not strong enough yet. I think that's the major thing. He just need to gain strength. It's not like a situation where the system just doesn't fit him. He's not ready for college basketball, and if you're not ready for college basketball, everything gets exacerbated at the next level."

All three scouts said it's hard to envision putting Labissiere on an NBA floor next season. 

"There's so much pick-and-roll defense in the NBA, and teams are going to attack him, and then teams are going to attack him in the post because he's a young player and he's small in terms of muscle mass and physical stature," the first scout said. "He does have great shot-blocking instincts, and you'd like to think of him as a guy who can anchor your defense with shot blocking, but how's he going to do it if he can't stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court?"

Bossi has a different perspective because he saw him play many times during his high school career when he was having success. Early this season, Bossi quickly noticed that Labissiere didn't seem to like the role he was playing—getting used as a post-up player—and he allowed that to influence his energy level. 

"I think early on effort was a big issue," Bossi said. "Now what I think has happened is a whole combination of things have come together—lack of strength, effort, whatever—and now you have a kid whose confidence doesn't appear to be very good. And why would it be?

"It's a tough situation. This is a kid who is considered a one-and-done kid, who undoubtedly has a lot of people who are relying on him and have belief in him that he's going to make it to the NBA and help take care of them."

Labissiere is from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, and Luke Winn's excellent preseason feature in Sports Illustrated on Labissiere provides some context on his inner circle and what his family has had to endure. It doesn't take much of a leap to say those outside pressures are affecting his play. 

"It creates a pressure situation when things aren't going well," Bossi said. "Kids start pressing, and it's a situation where, 'what do I do? I've never not found success before. How do I turn this around?' It just doesn't seem like he's been able to quite figure it out yet, and he looks real low on confidence."

Calipari's Take

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 27: Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Missouri Tigers at Rupp Arena on January 27, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After Labissiere's best game in the SEC—12 points, zero rebounds and five blocks in a blowout win versus Missouri on Jan. 27—Calipari was candid about Labissiere's struggles and how he had misinterpreted what the big man could do.

Kentucky's original plan with Labissiere was to play through him in the post and use him in a way similar to how Calipari used Karl-Anthony Towns last season.

"I probably screwed this guy up trying to make him Karl Towns," Calipari said. "He's not Karl Towns. He can't play like Karl Towns. He probably shoots better than Karl Towns. Karl would love hearing that. But he's not Karl. Karl had a nasty beast streak in him. He's averaged more rebounds and points in the NBA than he averaged here."

The Wildcats are going to Labissiere less in the post now and trying to get him his shots in the mid-range. While he's had success there—he's making 44 percent of his two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com—that hasn't been enough to keep him on the floor.

"The issue with Skal, and again, I've probably screwed him up to this point, because now you're seeing, I'm letting him play different, and I'm putting him in different spots, and he looks more confident," Calipari said after the Mizzou game. "But he had no rebounds today. But he had five blocks. The blocks left him in the game.

"... [Labissiere's shot blocking] makes our team different. When he blocks shots, now you can't drive in there, and he goes and blocks one. But I'm going to say it again: You must rebound and attempt to guard a post player. The guy just can't turn and score on you. ... You asked me why [against] Vandy didn't you play him more? Because of that. They had a moose in the post and a three-point-shooting big, and I didn't think he could guard either guy."

It's hard to quantify Labissiere's struggles on defense, but his rebounding numbers back up what Calipari has said. Advanced statistics show Labissiere is UK's worst rebounder among its big men—guard Isaiah Briscoe is also superior on the boards.

Kentucky's rebounding leaders
Alex Poythress9.620.7
Marcus Lee15.018.5
Derek Willis6.318.5
Isaac Humphries8.716.3
Isaiah Briscoe4.813.2
Skal Labissiere7.411.4

Shot-blockers don't always put up the greatest defensive rebounding numbers because they often take themselves out of rebounding position on shots around the basket that they're trying to block, but Labissiere's struggles on the offensive boards suggest it is not just a shot-blocking excuse.

Labissiere is also getting crushed on the boards when comparing his numbers with other top big men who could be in the 2016 draft.

Rebounding rates of highly rated big men
Ben Simmons, LSU9.926.6
Jakob Poeltl, Utah10.822.7
Henry Ellenson, Marquette8.323.4
Diamond Stone, Maryland14.215.7
Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV9.327.3
Ivan Rabb, California11.421.8
Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga11.329.0
Brice Johnson, UNC10.030.4
Damian Jones, Vandy9.917.7
Cheick Diallo, KU9.026.3
Skal Labissiere, UK7.411.4

Were There Red Flags Before Labissiere Got to Kentucky? 

Labissiere had a bizarre senior year of high school basketball, and now that he has struggled this season, more blame has been heaped on how his guardian, Gerald Hamilton, handled his situation.

Prior to his senior year, Labissiere transferred to Lausanne, a private school in Memphis. He had spent the previous four years at Evangelical Christian, a school just outside of Memphis, and because he had practiced with Evangelical Christian that previous spring, he was ruled ineligible by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. To give Labissiere a team to play with as a senior, Hamilton created the Memphis-based Reach Your Dream Prep.

Reach Your Dream Prep was not an actual school. Labissiere continued to attend Lausanne while he traveled the country playing for RYDP against high schools and prep schools. The team did not fare well.

"I think that entire club-team situation instead of playing traditional high school and the structure that involves, I think that should have been a huge red flag," Bossi said. "Could this be detrimental to his development? There's no way to know for sure, but it certainly didn't help.

"At a regular high school, things would have been a lot different. There would have been more accountability and stuff like that, because I think Skal is a really hard worker. He's known for all the workouts and stuff he does, but I think being out of a traditional setting for a year sets you back."

Labissiere seemed to legitimize his ranking during the Nike Hoops Summit, where NBA scouts got to take a longer look at him because he played on the international team. (Scouts are allowed to watch more of the international team's practices than those of the United States.)

"He was pretty good in that setting," the second scout said. "He thoroughly outplayed Thon Maker. (Maker is ranked 10th in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports). ... He showed a smooth stroke. Could run. Could catch. The building blocks of a player were there."

Labissiere's lack of strength was a question mark, but as with most high school players, he received the benefit of the doubt that college would help.

"For a kid who was coming from a weird situation like he was and hadn't been in a college strength program yet, there was a lot to be excited about and just a few things to be concerned about," the second scout said. "I thought he would gain more strength, and his body would have developed more."

What's Next for Labissiere After This Season?

While Labissiere has dropped in mock drafts, he's still in the discussion as a lottery pick. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman and DraftExpress both have Labissiere going 10th in their latest mock drafts.

The word out of Labissiere's camp, the third scout said, is that the Kentucky freshman is going to declare.

"That's probably a mistake, because I think he's going to have a harder road than most because of his lack of strength and physical preparedness and basketball preparedness as far as playing in a team setting," the scout said.

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Skal Labissiere #1 and Jamal Murray #23 of the Kentucky Wildcats foul Wayne Selden Jr. #1 of the Kansas Jayhawks during overtime in the game at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/G
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One reason to declare this year is this is considered a thin draft class. There's still intrigue with Labissiere for the same reasons he was highly ranked coming out of high school, but it's becoming more common for projected first-rounders to return to school and improve their standing in the draft.

"I think he needs more time if he wants to have great confidence that he's going to be a high pick," the first scout said. "There's momentum with other players who are passing him on our board and the boards you see online, so I imagine other teams are similar."

Some of the other reasons to leave are based in fear. What if Labissiere struggles as a sophomore as well?

The 2017 draft is considered a deeper class, and Calipari has already signed four big men in his 2016 recruiting class.

"Everyone thinks he can't come back next year because their frontcourt is so loaded, but maybe he needs that competition," the first scout said. "Maybe he needs that experience of going against those guys every day.

"Players do get better at Kentucky, and a good example for him is Willie Cauley-Stein, who really sort of got it his third year at Kentucky and was the sixth pick in the draft. After his first year, he probably would have been the 20th. After his second year, maybe in the teens. So maybe that's what he needs to do."

It's also possible that Labissiere could improve his game at the NBA level, but that process would likely take place outside of games.

"I think it's a big decision for him to make," the third scout said. "Someone will draft him at some level, but if he's not in a rush and he's willing to stay at Kentucky, he can increase his draft stock and probably the likelihood of success that he'll have a good career in the pros.

"I think a team that doesn't need him right away will draft him. I think if you're a team that needs production in the next two or three years, he's probably not the guy for you."

For Labissiere to go in the lottery, as expected, it'll have to be a team that's willing to wait. As he continues to struggle, it's becoming more plausible that he could fall out of the lottery.

This creates an interesting scenario: The later Labissiere goes in the draft, the less pressure he'll have on his shoulders; but the later the pick, the less incentive a team has to invest time and resources in that player. In other words, it's easier to let go if it doesn't appear that prospect is going to work out.

Labissiere deserves time before he's labeled a bust, yet the expectations are much different now than they were several months ago. He's no longer considered one of the best prospects in this draft class, but one thing hasn't changed: Labissiere is still one of the most interesting.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.

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