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Skal Labissiere Sruggling Early But Still Has Time to Improve

David Blair/Icon Sportswire

It hasn’t been an easy ride for Skal Labissiere so far. His struggles have been well-documented by Jon Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader after point guard Tyler Ulis gave him a shove for failing to secure a loose ball during last Thursday’s loss to UCLA.

He’s showed inconsistency throughout the early season non-conference slate scoring double-figures in four of Kentucky’s eight games, and clearly lacks the physicality to dominate down low right now. Coach John Calipari said Labissiere “needs to fight more” and that Ulis “did it with love in his heart” and both are equally true.

Labissiere only played 16 minutes against UCLA, scoring six points and blocking two shots, but he struggled to stop a fellow NBA prospect — Bruins 7-foot center Thomas Welsh — who went out of his way to make a statement of his own with 22 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.

A week ago, in a 75-63 home win over Illinois State, Labissiere was a non-factor again, scoring two points, grabbing two boards and blocking a shot in just 16 minutes. This followed a three-game double-figure streak against lower-level division one schools (Wright St., Boston University and South Florida), which surely gave him confidence after being roughed up against Duke during the Champions Classic for one of his worst outings of the season (seven points and four rebounds in just 13 minutes).

There are multiple reasons why Labissiere has had an up-and-down season through eight games. First and foremost, he’s simply fouling too much right now, as he’s notched at least three fouls in his last six games, including fouling out against Duke. Calipari said Labissiere’s “gotta get lower, gotta use leverage, can’t try to use (his) arms and hands” while defending on the low block, and I’m sure he’ll figure it out in time.

But the bigger issue might be who he’s playing with. Kentucky often uses a three-guard lineup of Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, and the latter two aren’t exactly pass-first types like the former, which is why Labissiere might not get the touches he should in the paint. Calipari said after the UCLA loss that Murray “messes with the ball” too much. Briscoe is a score-first, pass-second combo guard who lacks a jump shot. This team has a lot of learning to do right now in general with so many new faces learning what it’s like to play at Kentucky.

November 20, 2015: Kentucky Wildcats forward Skal Labissiere (1) shoots a free throw during the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Wright State Raiders and the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. Kentucky defeated Wright State 78-63. (Photo by David Blair/Icon Sportswire)

November 20, 2015: Kentucky Wildcats forward Skal Labissiere (1) shoots a free throw during the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Wright State Raiders and the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. Kentucky defeated Wright State 78-63. (Photo by David Blair/Icon Sportswire)

It’s also an issue that Labissiere just lacks the weight and bulk to fight down there right now. At 6-11 and 220 pounds, Labissiere struggles to guard natural centers like Thomas Welsh, who weighs a good 245 pounds. Labissiere’s slight frame doesn’t do him any favors either, as he clearly doesn’t have the lower-body to box out opponents easily (3.9 rebounds per game). Labissiere has gone three straight games without an offensive rebound as well.

However, don’t let Skal Labissiere’s early inconsistencies at Kentucky move the needle too much when considering his NBA stock. Labissiere is probably the most offensively-gifted big men to come through the Calipari-era at Kentucky, owning a silky-smooth jump shot and skilled post up game, but he’ll struggle to get on the court if the Wildcats can’t get him the ball in the right places.

But the nice thing is Labissiere has plenty of time throughout the season to figure it out on both ends of the court. It’s worth noting that Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t notch double-figures in a Wildcat uniform until his sixth game of the season last year, and that turned out OK.  He went number one overall in the 2015 draft. Labissiere obviously benefits from a less-crowded frontcourt as well, but the rise of Derek Willis, the intrigue of 17-year old Australian Isaac Humphries and veteran Marcus Lee make it tough to find minutes up front for Labissiere when he’s struggling.

I’m not moving Labissiere down much at all despite the concerns early on. The adjustment in physicality and speed of play from high school or AAU to college is a lot to handle for a 19-year old athletic big man with great offensive skills. From DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns, they all figured it out as freshmen at Kentucky.

I’d be willing to bet Labissiere will become the main reason Kentucky makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament this coming March. And, if that’s the case, it’s safe to assume he’ll be one of the top three picks in the draft with his combination of shot blocking (2.1 per game thus far), offensive skill and athleticism rolled into a fluid 6-11 frame.

Just ss Calipari said — “He’s going to be fine.”

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