Labissiere's Confidence Budding after Big Game vs. LSU
Skal Labissiere was coming off a breakout game at Florida, but John Calipari sensed trouble with his freshman big man.
Kentucky’s final regular-season home game would come against LSU and Ben Simmons, the projected No. 1 draft pick to whom Labissiere has been tied since his arrival in Lexington.
Calipari saw Labissiere slog through practices the two days before the matchup, and he had a good idea why.
“I thought he was too worried about a matchup with him and Ben instead of just love that you're playing,” Calipari said. “Be excited you're playing now and you're an integral part of what we're doing. Be excited. That's what I got on him about after practice.”
Labissiere didn’t quite feel the same way as his coach about his preoccupation with Simmons, but he took his message to heart. What he heard was reassurance.
“Just showing me how much confidence and trust he has in me,” Labissiere said. “That was basically it.”
Calipari, with the way Labissiere played, was right to be confident.
“I just went out there and had fun,” Labissiere said. “The whole week, Coach Cal put me in really good position to be successful during practice and I went out there and Tyler (Ulis) did a really good job at getting me the ball. That was it.”
Days removed from a big game at Florida, Labissiere topped himself against LSU. Starting for the second straight game, he again played his best game of the season. Labissiere had 18 points and nine rebounds as UK clinched a share of its 47th regular-season Southeastern Conference championship with a 94-77 victory.
“He's beginning to be the best he can be,” Calipari said. “I'm really proud of him because it's been hard.”
Labissiere’s struggles have been well documented.
Coming in a consensus top-two prospect alongside Simmons, the Port-au-Prince, Haiti native was expected to be the latest dominant Calipari-coached big man from day one. Instead, he’s had an extended adjustment period to the college game, struggling to showcase his skill against physical play.
As a result, Labissiere has taken heat felt by few teenagers.
“It was tough, but you have to bounce back,” Labissiere said. “That’s what I did. I just kept working and that was basically what I did.”
The work is starting to pay off in a big way.
“Here's a kid that's taken a lot of grief and goes for 18 and 9 and six blocks,” Calipari said. “Like he looked really good in that game, and he's getting better.”
Confidence, no doubt, has a lot to do with that ongoing improvement. Labissiere said his confidence was still bubbling beneath the surface early in the season, but now it’s on display for everyone to see.
“Oh he’s confident,” said Ulis, who dished five of his career-high 14 assists to Labissiere. “Skal is a very skilled player. Everybody hasn’t seen everything he can do yet. Now he’s hitting shots, in the post making hook shots, and he’s helping us out a lot.”
Ulis and Labissiere continued to be deadly in the pick-and-roll, with Labissiere rarely missing from midrange. The impact Labissiere’s feathery touch has on offense is clear, but his significance might be even greater on defense.
Shot-blocking has been a hallmark of Calipari’s teams, but the Wildcats have the lowest block rate of any UK group since his arrival in Lexington. On Saturday, Labissiere provided exactly the kind of presence Kentucky has been missing. He had six blocks, most by a UK player this season.
“That’s one thing last year we had a lot of great shot blockers,” said Alex Poythress, who had 12 points on his Senior Day. “If he can do that, protect the rim, that makes our defense even better because we’re already pressuring the ball and everything like that.”
Labissiere’s two-way play was the talk of Saturday’s game, with some pointing out that he had outplayed the player Calipari said he’d been too worried about. That’s not what Labissiere is concerned with though.
He’s all about team.
“Right now I’m just focused on making a run to the tournament,” Labissiere said. “Right now our focus is still getting better as a team, getting guys more confident and hopefully make a run in the tournament.”