A year ago, Skal Labissiere was in the midst of an erratic, if intriguing rookie season. At 6-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he was performing to the pre-draft scouting reports as if he had written them himself.
Long, quick and athletic. Soft hands and a high-arching, feathery jumper that threatens to kiss the rafters. Runs the floor like a colt, finishes with resounding dunks, and with either hand. Has an expansive offensive repertoire that includes runners, turn-around jumpers, jump hooks, also with either hand.
The questions about his skill set, and what enabled the Kings to grab him at No. 28 overall, pertained to a lack of physical strength, inability to make plays for others, and poor defensive posture, including a tendency to stay back on his heels and commit reaching fouls.
For the first half of last season, his flashes of promise were doused by turnovers, fouls, missed assignments, confusion. Yet after the All-Star break, Labissiere, who spent time with the Kings’ development-league affiliate Reno Bighorns, closed with a flourish. He averaged 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds over the final 26 games, was a more aggressive, engaged presence as both a starter and reserve.
So here is the issue. The updated book on Skal turns back to those previous chapters. That learning curve has flat-lined. His stats are almost identical to those at this point last season, though with a notable decline in field-goal percentage (53.7 percent to 46.3) and 3-point efficiency (37.5 to 33.3). Factor in nine games missed due to a left shoulder injury, and both the Kings and Labissiere are placing heightened significance over these final 24 games.
“We want to see from Skal what we saw at the end of last year,” said general manager Vlade Divac, “and that is for him to be more aggressive as a scorer, and on defense, he has to be stronger. He is always active. He has to make smarter, quicker decisions, and be stronger. Make the defense pay. One play last night (vs. Oklahoma City), he already knew what he was going to do, but there were three guys on him. He has to read the defense. And once he starts hitting his threes, that’s when he can be a stretch four.”
Divac and Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive say the final weeks of the season will be devoted to playing and developing the younger players, because, frankly, how else to evaluate and ascertain their value to a rebuilding process?
With the upcoming NBA draft heavy on power forwards and centers, the Kings will have some interesting decisions given their already crowded frontcourt. Willie Cauley-Stein enters his fourth season next year. Harry Giles, last summer’s 20th overall pick who has been sidelined all year in the team’s ultra-cautious approach to his recovery following multiple knee surgeries, continues to earn positive reviews from Kings coaches and executives who see him during practices and scrimmages. Reserve Kosta Koufos has a player option next season for $8 million, and with the free-agent market expected to be extremely tight economically, very likely could decide to return.
What if the Kings land a top-three pick and have the opportunity to draft Deandre Ayton, the dominating Arizona center that Bill Walton, among others, projects as an ideal fit for Dave Joerger’s roster and desire for a faster style of play?
Labissiere, who returned to active Thursday, readily acknowledges that his performance have been uneven and is mindful of the challenges ahead. But he seems unfazed by the pressure. He describes himself as a late bloomer whose experiences in organized basketball are limited compared with most of his peers, and reminds that his perspective is undeniably unique. His background has been well chronicled and includes being trapped for several hours after the devastating earthquake in Haiti; the wrenching decision to leave his family in Port-au-Prince and attend high school in Memphis; a lower back injury that sidelined him his junior year. Even his one season at Kentucky – John Calipari’s NBA basketball factory – was a major disappointment considering his rating as one of the nation’s top-two college prospects by the most reputable scouting services.
Asked his thoughts on his inconsistency, Labissiere nods, thoughtfully. He is a warm, engaging personality whose smile lights up a room. He has his theories, among them the trials of adapting to the often treacherous NBA lifestyle.
“I said at the beginning of the year, this is going to be a year of growth for me professionally, mentally, spiritually,” he said. “Spirituality has been the biggest thing. Things that I was doing I had to stop, had to change my life. During the break (nine-game absence and All-Star break), I tried to just sit back and look at a lot of things. Little things. Like people I had to stop talking to, things like that. I was able to regroup a little bit, and I think I’m figuring things out.”
While being sidelined, Labissiere said he spent most nights watching game tapes and borrowing from his peers. He is particularly impressed, for instance, with Cauley-Stein’s improvement as a passer, and offers a self-critique very similar to that of Divac: not aggressive enough, thinks too much, needs to read defenses better, needs to play with confidence.
“When I watch myself, I was second-guessing everything,” he said. “Just play, just play! If I have an open three, don’t hesitate. Learn to move my feet faster. I have to get my timing back, but I’ll get there. I’ll get there.”
For now, the Kings are planning on it.