Skal Labissiere had to know the stakes from the moment he committed to Kentucky. As a consensus top-two recruit in the class of 2015, Labissiere would be next in college basketball's most impressive evolving lineage: that of the superstar freshman big man recruited and developed by John Calipari.
Labissiere's path was laid out before him by a run of great bigs that stretches from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Nerlens Noel to Julius Randle to Karl-Anthony Towns. He was expected to dominate the college level, power a deep NCAA Tournament run and promptly become a top-five NBA draft pick. Only this time around, it quickly became apparent that Labissiere's Kentucky run wasn't going to follow the script.
The player DraftExpress tabbed as the preseason No. 1 pick averaged just 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds in his first 16 SEC games. Anonymous scouts ripped him, teammate Tyler Ulis personally challenged him and his playing time dwindled. He simply looked physically overmatched in a way that felt completely foreign for a five-star big man in Lexington.
But just as everyone has written him off as a non-factor, Labissiere has come alive. He put up a modest 11 points and eight rebounds in a win over Florida on March 1, then broke out for real four days later against LSU with 18 points, nine rebounds and six blocks. Suddenly, Kentucky might finally have the frontcourt scorer it's been strangely missing all season.
How did this happen? Is this level of production here to stay? With just two good games, Labissiere is changing the narrative on his freshman season and opening up a world of possibilities for the Wildcats.
Alex on Skal: "I guess he must've hit rock bottom. You hit rock bottom, you start to fight. You start to swim."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 5, 2016
It's easy to attribute Labissiere's breakout to increased confidence, a newfound comfort level or a sudden comprehension of Kentucky's schemes. While all of that could be true, there also appears to be a shift in coaching philosophy. Call it 'The Tweak II' if you want. Finally, Calipari has started playing Labissiere to his strengths.
To understand Labissiere's slow start, you first need to know the origin story of Karl-Anthony Towns. When Towns was a recruit, he was known as a great shooter who wasn't tough enough to score inside. These were real headlines from his days on the grassroots circuit:
Calipari decided he was going to change that. He didn't let Towns shoot threes and instead forced him to develop his low-post game. It all came together for Towns in Kentucky's instant classic Elite Eight win over Notre Dame, when he scored in the post seemingly every time down the floor. For the first three months of this season, it appeared that Calipari was determined to spark Labissiere in the same way.
There was only one problem: not all five-star recruits are created equal. As a 250-pound freshman, Towns always had the body to be a rugged interior scorer. Skal just wasn't strong enough, and his game was suffering because of it. That didn't change until Cal mercifully relented and let Skal be Skal.
Labissiere entered the discussion as Ben Simmons' main competition for the No. 1 pick at the Nike Hoops Summit in April when he showcased a sweet mid-range jumper and the ability to protect the rim. It was easy to envision him as a rough outline of LaMarcus Aldridge: a 6'11 pick-and-pop wrecking ball who needed to be guarded 20-feet from the basket. Kentucky is running those plays for him now, and the results are impossible to argue with:
Labissiere started 6-for-6 from the field against LSU, doing most of his work from mid-range. It helps that he's playing with Ulis, arguably the best point guard in the country this season. That's a combination that should have been crushing teams all season for the Wildcats, and they're just starting to figure it out.
Labissiere still has potential on defense, too. Is it troubling that to this point in the season he has 94 fouls and 98 rebounds? Of course. But he's getting better, and you can see it every game. He moves his feet well on the perimeter, he has a good sense for timing on his blocks and he doesn't back down when he's challenged.
At this point, it's safe to say Skal isn't the next Towns or Davis or Cousins, but that's okay. He can still be a major weapon for the Wildcats come tournament time if he keeps playing like this. And if that happens, Kentucky's chances at a deep NCAA Tournament run just improved exponentially.
Given what Labissiere has already been through in his life, a slow start to his freshman year is nothing. This is a kid who was trapped under his own home during the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010. He came to America soon after and quickly established himself as a top prospect, but learned first-hand just how grimy the five-star recruiting market can be.
There were questions about his Memphis-based handler, Gerald Hamilton, who reportedly tried to profit off of him. He was ruled ineligible for his senior season of high school when the Tennessee School Sports Athletic Association blocked his attempt to transfer. And from the moment he committed to UK, there was rampant speculation over his eligibility. It was only natural to feel overwhelmed.
It took some time, but Labissiere is finally moving out of his shell and showcasing his raw talent. Calipari found a way to tap into confidence, through sleepovers, through positive reinforcement and finally through play design. For Kentucky to be great, Skal never had to measure up to the NBA All-Stars in Calipari's recent past. He only had to be himself.