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You wouldn't call Skal Labissière 'soft' if you knew what he's been through

The Kentucky big man prospect is tired of hearing critics question his toughness. If you know his story, you'll understand why.

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Skal Labissiere couldn't feel his legs. For three hours, he was stuck in a crouched position, knees in his chest, nose pointing towards the ground, collapsed wall pushing down on his back. At 4:53 p.m. a vicious earthquake roared through Haiti. Labissiere was standing over his bathroom sink, washing his hands in preparation for dinner, when he felt the ground of his family's third-floor Port-au-Prince apartment begin to shake.

Minutes later, Labissiere, his mother and his nine-year-old brother were plummeting down towards the earth. The foundation of the apartment complex had withered away. For three hours, Labissiere sat there, in the dark. Unable to feel his legs, unable to do anything about the blood blanketing parts of his mother's face, unable to pry his brother's leg out from under the weight of his family's computer desk.

Close to 160,000 people died because of that earthquake. Skal thought he was going to die, too, before his dad, Leslie, discovered his family amid the rubble and used a barbell to pry them free.

Six-and-half-years later, you can understand why he's a bit miffed by all the fans, pundits and scouts who question his toughness.

"I was 13 years old when the earthquake happened," Labissiere said recently in a phone interview with SB Nation. "To be able to survive that, and follow my dreams to come to the [United] States, not know any English, move in with a new family, make it to Kentucky and soon the NBA — I don't know what everybody else in the draft has been through, but I don't really see how you can say I'm soft."

That word started popping up early in Labissiere's lone year at Kentucky. After entering the season as a possible No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft, Labissiere underperformed all expectations. He played fewer than 16 minutes a night and averaged a measly seven points and three rebounds, despite being 7 feet tall. He struggled on defense and was abused whenever he was forced to face someone close to his size. As he faltered, so did his draft stock. Both ESPN and Draft Express currently project Labissiere going to the Magic at No. 11, but some analysts expect him to fall ever further.

All of which, ironically, has morphed Labissiere into an even more intriguing prospect.

"He's a bargain right now," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "His season at Kentucky left you wanting more, but there's a lot to be optimistic about. If you can get him in the teens or 20s (of the draft), that's great value."

It's easy to see why Labissiere had scouts and writers drooling as recently as 10 months ago. He's 7 feet, sure, but also jumps like there are springs in his shoes (35-inch vertical) and has the reach of Inspector Gadget (a 7'2.5 wingspan). "He's probably one of the five or six best athletes who will go in the first round," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said.

He also averaged 1.6 blocks per game despite his lack of playing time and has wowed teams with his feathery jumper in workouts. Labissiere connected on an impressive 46 percent of his two-point jumpers last season, according to statistics from He was especially deadly when playing pick-and-pop.

"His shot reminds me of a poor man's — and I want to emphasize ‘poor man' — LaMarcus Aldridge," Bilas said.

This sounds like the package NBA teams are craving in big men these days. He can help space the floor on offense, but also protects the rim and maybe even switches the occasional pick-and-roll.

"One thing that helps him is that he's got the type of skill set the league is now looking for," Fraschilla said.

The worry, though, is all that talent was oozing out of him last year, and yet it didn't seem to matter. Why should teams expect the results to be any different against even stiffer competition?

"I had my ups and downs at Kentucky," Labissiere said. "It was a mix of a bunch of things: adjusting to college life, to the game, to a new system, a new team. Also, coach [John] Calipari had to adjust to me."

Those issues began before the season even tipped off. Labissiere arrived in Lexington weighing 221 pounds. When he returned to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. for Christmas break — Labissiere moved in with a man named Gerald Hamilton a few months after the 2010 earthquake — he had shed nearly 15 pounds off his already rail-thin frame.

That made life even more difficult for him in the trenches. Labissiere was overmatched physically and often in foul trouble. He allowed rebounds to fall into his opponent's hands. He especially struggled whenever Kentucky faced one of the country's bigger programs: six points and one rebound against UCLA, two points and five rebounds performance against Ohio State, two points and three rebounds against Louisville. That's when the soft label really was tossed around.

Labissiere's head coach compounded the problem. Calipari stationed his newest weapon on the block instead of allowing him to roam the perimeter, a tactic he now says he regrets.

"A lot of that is on me," Calipari said on a media conference call this week when talking about Labissiere's disappointing freshman year. "I was trying to use the blueprint of Karl Towns and Anthony Davis. That lesson plan didn't fit him and it took me three months to figure out exactly what he was."

Could this be Calipari attempting to boost the stock of one of his now-former players? Possibly. But it's worth noting that Fraschilla and Raheem Shabazz, Labissiere's Memphis-based trainer, each say Calipari shared a similar thought with them earlier this spring. Labissiere's migration out past the foul line late in the year didn't suddenly transform him into a stud, but he did start flashing the skills that propelled him to the top of mock draft boards a year earlier.

What's a team to do with all this clashing information? On the one hand, Labissiere scored in double-digits just nine times last year and rebounded as if he was allergic to the ball.

"Maybe there were some fit issues at the beginning of the season, but I've yet to see a system that keeps a player from rebounding," Bilas said. "To me, given that rebounding translates from level to level more than any other stat, that's the most concerning."

On the other hand, those who know Labissiere can't help but heap praise upon him. They tell stories of how he'd wake up at 5 a.m. in high school to squeeze in the first of his three workouts that day. How he had no interest in talking to girls or going to parties when visiting colleges as a high school senior. How, despite a discouraging and often trying freshman campaign, nobody -- not Calipari, not Shabazz, not Labissiere's other Memphis-based trainer, Andreus Shannon -- heard Labissiere mutter a single complaint.

Labissiere is far from a sure thing. "A project," is how Fraschilla aptly describes him.

This project, though, carries a different type of baggage. Many failed projects have been 7 feet tall, and many have boasted a ridiculous array of skills. None, though, have overcome the odds that Skal Labissiere has.

Six years ago he fought off death. Compared to that, learning to fight for position and rebound isn't much of a challenge at all.