Before and after the earthquake demolished his native Haiti in 2010, Kings rookie Skal Labissiere was plotting his escape from the island. He had nothing against his homeland, where his parents and two siblings still reside.
It was all about the ball.
Labissiere, who was selected 28th overall and acquired in a draft-day trade with the Phoenix Suns, gave up soccer and volleyball for a game he loved and believed would lead to a lucrative job in the NBA. So far, he is right about the lucrative job. Rookie contracts are the envy of every working stiff.
But the other part of the blueprint? When does anything go according to plan?
His journey to America began months after the earthquake, which left Labissiere, then 13, trapped for hours before rescuers removed the debris that immobilized his lower legs, causing numbness and leading to weeks of recovery. The family moved into the school where his mother, Ema, taught kindergarten while the home was restored. His father, Lesly, an entrepreneur, rebuilt his business from scratch.
Skal, the oldest of the three Labissiere children, continued his pursuit of attending high school in the United States to increase his odds of playing for a major college program and, ultimately, in the NBA.
But what a trip. Different schools. Several coaches. Prep eligibility issues. Questionable influences and the always messy Amateur Athletic Union circuit. A language barrier. And a plummeting ranking as a NBA prospect. And the kid is only 20.
Yet for a variety of reasons, the power forward, who was upbeat, insightful and engaging in an hour-long conversation Tuesday – and dismissive of his drop in the draft – thinks he finally has found stability with a certain struggling franchise in Sacramento.
“I’m glad to be going to Sacramento,” he said before Tuesday’s practice at the summer league tournament. “At first I thought they had too many bigs with DeMarcus (Cousins), Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Kosta (Koufos), but things will work out. I am very excited to play in the new arena and be part of something that is new and building. And what’s kind of funny, but I know coach (Dave Joerger) because he was coaching in Memphis.”
So about Labissiere’s long-awaited move to the States. Aided by a Memphis, Tenn.-based benefactor who remains his guardian, Labissiere’s request for a visa was twice rejected because the private school he planned to attend required students to speak English. The young Haitian, who is fluent in Creole and French, didn’t know a word of English. Seven months into the process, the school deleted the language requirement and Labissiere was given his visa and allowed to enroll.
Thrust into an eighth-grade classroom with minimal tutoring available, he said, Labissiere somehow mastered English within months. He speaks with a slight accent and tries to retain the nuances of his native language through video chats with his boyhood friends.
Sometimes we would be barefoot, but that wasn’t a big deal for us because we played everything barefoot, even soccer.
Seated in a cafe near the hotel where the Kings are staying, Labissiere talked about how education was a priority but, at about age 11, basketball became a passion. With only a handful of indoor courts on the island, he and his friends played outdoors on asphalt, grass or dirt.
“Sometimes we would be barefoot,” he said, laughing, “but that wasn’t a big deal for us because we played everything barefoot, even soccer. We also used to take hangers and twist them into rims.”
Labissiere’s talents already were on the recruiting radar when he arrived in Memphis. He was approached by many of the nation’s major college programs and committed as a sophomore to Kentucky. But a stress fracture in his lower back caused him to sit out his junior prep season, and he was ruled ineligible for his senior year because he transferred to Lausanne Collegiate Academy.
Kentucky coach John Calipari stuck with him anyway. Then he struggled during his one season in Lexington. Labissiere lost his starting position and dropped from a consensus top-two NBA prospect for the 2016 draft to going anywhere from the lottery to the late first round.
Yet not unlike Calipari, Kings general manager Vlade Divac and members of the front office were intrigued by Labissiere’s physical gifts and obvious talents. He’s 6-foot-11 and a tight 225 pounds, with a 7-2 wingspan. Throughout the week he has appeared more comfortable on the perimeter than in the low post, more about finesse than force.
All the tools are there.
Kings assistant coach Elston Turner, on Skal Labissiere
In four games, he has converted step-back and face-up jumpers and left- and right-handed hooks, and exploded for dunks and reverses. His most impressive attribute might be his patience. Labissiere uses his length to create separation and uses a wide array of fakes and counters to fool defenders.
“I learned a lot of that from watching tapes of old NBA games when I was in high school,” he said. “Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy. I would just sit there on the couch and study their footwork, replaying the tape over and over. Then I’d try to take what I saw and add it to my game.”
Kings assistant coach Elston Turner described the rookie as a quick learner and willing pupil.
“When it comes to competing and wanting to learn, he’s asking questions,” Turner said. “ ‘How do you do this? What do you want me to do?’ You tell him to do something one time and he gets it, and that’s encouraging. All the tools are there.”
What the Kings are really saying is they think Labissiere has a chance. Late first-round picks are always gambles, and despite Labissiere’s uneven path to Sacramento, his talents are hard to ignore. And one of these years, it would seem, the Kings are going to swing hard and score big. Time always tells.