Labissiere's Unique Talent Forcing Calipari to Adjust

Back-to-back scoreless first halves for Skal Labissiere in Kentucky’s final exhibition game and regular-season opener led to some logical concerns about his ability to get off to quick starts.

Go ahead and cast those worries aside, thanks in part to a pregame pep talk from John Calipari that waited until halftime in those last two games.

“Coach Cal obviously is a great coach,” Labissiere said. “He talked to me before the game, told me that they were going to go to me early before the game. So I just have to put myself in the right positions to catch the ball and score.”

He did just that repeatedly from the opening tip.

Labissiere exploded for 18 first-half points, helping UK (2-0) overcome an early deficit of six points in an 87-57 victory over NJIT (0-1) on Saturday night. He stuck around in the second half as well, finishing with 26 points on everything from turnaround jumpers to dunks.

“Whatever the defense gives me, wherever they make me go,” Labissiere said, trying to explain how he chooses from his arsenal of moves each time he touches the ball. "I’m just going to take whatever they give me.”

The Port-au-Prince, Haiti native almost always made the right choice, and nearly flawlessly to boot. Labissiere made all seven of his first-half field goals and both of his free throws, not missing the mark until after he had made one more shot in the second half.

“The kid’s unbelievable,” NJIT head coach Jim Engles said. “On tape, he’s got such a great tempo to his game and he’s so long and he’s got an unbelievable touch. And I literally thought we were contesting some of his shots, but he can just turn and shoot over you. He’s a special player”

All told, the true freshman shot 10 of 12 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line.

“That’s something we work on every single day,” he said. “Coach Kenny Payne, every single day we work on catching it and just scoring. And I get to play against Isaac (Humphries) and Marcus (Lee) every single day. So that helps a lot.”

At least on the offensive end, Labissiere seems to need less work than his predecessors to become a dominant force. His game has a polish that even future No. 1 NBA Draft picks Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns lacked, which has forced Coach Cal’s hand in a way.

“The thing is, I've got to figure him out,” Calipari said. “I haven't done a really good job.”

Calipari, with a couple regular-season games coaching Labissiere under his belt, has come to realize he has a unique talent on his hands. That demands a unique approach to molding his young pupil’s game.

“He's totally different than Karl,” Calipari said. “He's just a different player. He's totally different than Anthony. And I'm not comparing him to them two, as far as he's as good as them, he's different. So, now you want to play him like Shaq (O’Neal). He's not Shaq. He's never going to be Shaq. So when you get him the ball in seven, eight feet from the basket and he can turn and shoot, I don't know how you guard him.”

The answer to that might be that you don’t, which means Calipari knows he needs to put the ball in Labissiere’s hands in position to hit that shot often.

“He’s going to try to figure out a way to play me to make me more comfortable out there,” Labissiere said. “We are still working on that.”

Hold on, Labissiere wasn’t comfortable on a night when he scored 26 points? Apparently not.

“I’m still trying to get more comfortable,” Labissiere said. “I think as the year goes on I’m going to get more comfortable. Still trying to get used to playing with the guys and playing against that level of competition every single day.”

And in addition to developing his offensive game, Labissiere is simultaneously working to grow as a physical presence on defense and the glass to capitalize on his 6-foot-11 frame. That doesn’t come quite as naturally as deft touch around the basket.

“He's got to rebound more,” Calipari said. “And I told him the one thing that I can't do for him is teach him fight and grit. He's going to have to do that. But he made strides, he did good today.”

Labissiere agreed he has work ahead of him, saying that aggressiveness is the most important factor in improving. He’ll get an immediate test of that on Tuesday, as UK heads to Chicago to take on defending national champion Duke in the Champions Classic.

“I think it’s going to be a challenging game because obviously they are good too,” Labissiere said. “It’s Duke. We have practice tomorrow, we’re going to get ready for them and see if we can slow them down.”