'God Has a Plan': The Seas Have Parted for Kings' Rookie Skal Labissiere

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterApril 6, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 18: Skal Labissiere #3 of the Sacramento Kings dunks against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on March 18, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

For an NBA rookie, Skal Labissiere leads a relatively simple life. In his solar system, the world revolves around basketball—workouts with Sacramento Kings coaches, daily shootouts with his vet Anthony Tolliver, practices, games—and his dogs: Dash the Pomsky and Yogi the Chow Chow.

"I knew I always wanted a dog," Labissiere said. "My parents never really wanted me to."

Labissiere's parents hadn't been keen for him to pursue basketball in the United States, either. That all changed on Jan. 12, 2010, when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake ripped through his native Haiti and tore apart Labissiere's home, his country and his world.

He, his brother Elliot and his mother Ema were buried beneath the rubble of the three-story building in which his family occupied the top floor. Labissiere spent three hours in a painful crouch beneath a wall that had collapsed onto his back. He held on, listening to his brother's cries and his mother's prayers.

His family survived, thanks in part to the sturdy furniture his father Lesly had built that bore the brunt of the destruction. That Lesly had been outside at the time of the quake—fixing a basketball hoop, as it happens—left him free to rescue his family from the debris.

But their home was no more. Skal's school in Port-au-Prince had been leveled, too. Amid the wreckage, the opportunity for Labissiere to play basketball in America looked better than ever.

Skal's parents gave him the OK to leave the island for Tennessee, where he played high school ball at a few different places in Memphis. Long before graduating, he was already on recruiting radars across the nation. When he left Lausanne Collegiate School for a basketball scholarship at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 2015, Labissiere was the No. 1 player in his class.

By the time he finished his freshman year in Lexington, his name was no longer on top of most draft boards.

Despite being limited to less than 16 minutes per game, Skal Labissiere blocked 59 shots in 36 games in his one year at Kentucky.
Despite being limited to less than 16 minutes per game, Skal Labissiere blocked 59 shots in 36 games in his one year at Kentucky.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Wildcats had cast the 6'11" Labissiere as the successor to the one-and-done throne that had been occupied by Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Karl-Anthony Towns. He was another lanky big built to shine inside. But that wasn't Skal's game, and it showed. The day after Christmas, Labissiere found himself on the bench against Louisville. He didn't return to the starting lineup until March.

On draft day last June 23rd, Labissiere, once touted as a potential top-five pick, was the last man in the green room when the Phoenix Suns called his name at No. 28, only to trade him to Sacramento along with Georgios Papagiannis for Marquese Chriss.

"God has a plan," he said. "I'm here for a reason."


Sacramento already had a surplus of players at Labissiere's likely positions when the season began.

DeMarcus Cousins was entrenched as an All-Star in the middle, with veteran Kosta Koufos and second-year Willie Cauley-Stein behind him and Papagiannis buried beneath them all. Tolliver took his turns at power forward. So did Rudy Gay.

If there was a place for Labissiere in Sacramento, he'd have to carve it out himself.

"A guy like that could've come into the season with a different mindset," Kings wing Garrett Temple said, "but he's always been a humble guy, a hard worker."

The Kings could tell there was something special about Skal early in the season. His coaches and teammates witnessed a kid with the complete package—size, basketball ability, a measured self-esteem and a maturity that belied his baby face—who rarely saw the light of day in the NBA.

"You could just see the immense skill set that he has at that position and you know it will come," Temple said. "He’s going to be alright. He’s going to be really alright."

"I know what I'm trying to be in this league," Labissiere said. "I don't just want to be another guy that comes through the NBA. I know how talented I am."

Between occasional garbage-time stints in Sacramento, Labissiere shuttled to Reno, Nevada, where he sharpened his skills with the Bighorns, the Kings' D-League affiliate. In 17 games there, he averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 31.0 minutes.

With playing time hard to come by with the Kings earlier this season, Labissiere spent 17 games with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League.
With playing time hard to come by with the Kings earlier this season, Labissiere spent 17 games with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Once Cousins was traded to New Orleans during All-Star Weekend, the Kings plugged Labissiere into a bigger role to see what kind of player they had on their hands. Since then, he's averaged 9.8 points on 52.4 percent shooting with 6.2 rebounds, bolstered by 11 double-digit scoring efforts and two double-doubles in 21 games.

"I knew my time was coming at some point, so I just kept working," Labissiere said.


The sailing hasn't all been smooth for Labissiere as a member of head coach Dave Joerger's rotation. During the Kings' trip to L.A. last weekend, he got his rookie comeuppance from the Clippers' resident All-Star bigs.

Blake Griffin plowed past him to the hoop.

DeAndre Jordan dunked him into oblivion.

L.A.'s team defense swarmed Labissiere into 1-of-7 shooting before he fouled out in the fourth quarter—his first NBA disqualification—just as the Kings were starting to claw their way out of an 18-point hole.

Labissiere's plus-minus upon exit? Minus-18.

The next night, Labissiere was a minus-7 in nine minutes off the bench against the grown-up Memphis Grizzlies.

"One thing I've learned throughout my experience so far in the NBA," he said, "you have to have a quick memory."

Not that Labissiere forgot what it was like to go toe-to-toe with an All-Star. He practiced plenty against Cousins, absorbing the big man's tests and taunts with zingers of his own.

"When he gets in between those lines, he dunks, he yells," Temple said. "He's a guy that's going to let it be known."

Labissiere found trash talk has its place on a team that once revolved around DeMarcus Cousins.
Labissiere found trash talk has its place on a team that once revolved around DeMarcus Cousins.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

In one particular early-season session, Labissiere got cozy enough on the court to unleash his skills on all comers, Cousins included.

"He was just in a zone," said Tolliver, who also caught some of Skal's wrath that day.

Labissiere has shown that those eye-opening moments in practice can translate to games, as well. On the Kings' first possession of the game at Staples Center, with Griffin on his back, the 21-year-old turned, faced, rose and fired from 19 feet, holding his follow-through as he glided to the other side of the court.

"I know I can compete with anybody on the court," Labissiere said. "I just have to figure out how to go about doing it."

Labissiere's shot isn't the entire answer, but it figures to be an important part of it. He's attempted just five threes (and made one) so far this season, but has thrived everywhere inside the arc.

Skal Labissiere's shooting heat map
Skal Labissiere's shooting heat mapNBAsavant.com

With a 7'3" wingspan and a sky-high vertical, he can see the hoop any time he wants.

Tolliver has seen those tantalizing tools and the ability Labissiere has to turn them into lethal weapons from all over the floor. During Kings training camp, he challenged Labissiere to a shooting contest—three makes apiece from a handful of spots around the three-point arc—and lost...the first time, anyway.

"I tried to walk away after the win and he called me back, and he won like two or three in a row," Labissiere recalled.

"He's never beat me ever since on anything because it woke me up," Tolliver said. "But he got my attention."

Tolliver took Labissiere under his wing, one sweet-shooting power forward grooming another. Step by step, he turned up the intensity of the rookie's drills.

Three makes in a row became five, then seven, then 10. Three spots turned into five. Stand-still shots gave way to jumpers on the move, flings off wayward passes—any uncomfortable shooting situation Tolliver could think of that he'd encountered during his eight-plus seasons in the NBA.

It was one thing for Labissiere to shoot under ideal conditions, but how would his stroke hold up in a game, especially with the DNPs piling up?

That ceased being an issue, however, once the Kings dealt Cousins. Prior to that, the rookie had shot the ball 13 times in 52 minutes across eight NBA appearances.

Bu Labissiere hoisted seven shots (and two free throws) in Game 1 A.B. (After Boogie) alone. His 12 points helped the Kings score a surprising smackdown of the Denver Nuggets. In Game 2, he shot 10 times for eight points with 13 rebounds in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Come mid-March, Labissiere turned 15 field-goal attempts (and 11 foul shots) into 32 points and 11 rebounds in Phoenix.

Now a regular part of the Kings' playing rotation, Labissiere has shown moments of significant progress as well as times that prove how much he still has to learn.
Now a regular part of the Kings' playing rotation, Labissiere has shown moments of significant progress as well as times that prove how much he still has to learn.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"Honestly," Tolliver said, "I didn't expect him to put it all together this quick."


Collectively, the 2016 draft class has been, to put it nicely, slow to develop. Injuries and inconsistency have left the group without a breakout star…yet.

Labissiere could be among those to rewrite the story of last year's newcomers in the seasons ahead. Without Cousins, the Kings have a star-sized hole in their front court, and among those currently on Sacramento's roster, Labissiere might be the one best equipped to fill it.

"I think we see a lot of guys that are interested in their brand and all this and all that," Joerger said. "The guy's just a hooper."

For Labissiere, there's God, family and ball...and Dash and Yogi.

"It's really cool. It's really refreshing to see a young guy not getting sucked into the lifestyle that you could easily get sucked into," Tolliver said. "He's a guy that's not worried about that stuff."

What he is concerned with is the work ahead of him. He's already eyeing a busy schedule this summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

He'll hit the weight room to add the strength he'll need to hang with grown men in the middle. He'll work on his agility so he can stay with smaller, quicker forwards defensively. He'll hone his guard skills and his post game so he can be "a totally different player when I come back."

And he'll shoot and shoot and shoot some more, at every spot on the court. And if enough of those fall in actual games, the Kings might have themselves a fresh gem for their tattered crown.

"People always talk about ceiling. I don't look at it that way," Labissiere said. "I know how good I can be. To me, my saying is 'No limits.' Work on everything. You just never know what situation you'll be put in."

   

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted and are current through Wednesday. April 5. 

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.

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