NEW YORK — In the class of 2015, two prep prospects topped the rankings of just about every recruiting service. One was Australian-born, Florida-based playmaking forward Ben Simmons, whose do-everything point forward game elicited comparisons to LeBron James and Lamar Odom. The other was Haitian-born, Memphis-based 7-footer Skal Labissiere, a tantalizing toolkit projected as "the fever dream of the modern NBA GM, a big man who can both shoot from the perimeter and block shots."
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After an up-and-down year at LSU, Simmons' stock remained high enough that the Philadelphia 76ers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft on Thursday night. After an up-and-down year at Kentucky, Labissiere had to sit, stew and wait until near the end of the first round to hear his name called, going to the Sacramento Kings with the 28th pick, which Vlade Divac and company picked up in an earlier draft-night trade with the Phoenix Suns.
It was a somewhat stunning fall for a player who — despite averaging just 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 15.8 minutes per game during his lone year in Lexington, being dinged for struggling with contact and lacking the strength to bang with other 7-footers — was still pegged as a top-10 pick by Jonathan Givony of The Vertical, and invited with his family to the green room at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a spot typically reserved for players expected to go in the lottery. (It was not, however, the most precipitous such plummet; Michigan State big man Deyonta Davis, projected as the No. 10 pick by DraftExpress, fell all the way out of the first round, going to the Memphis Grizzlies with the 31st overall selection, the first of the second round.)
"It was tough at first," Labissiere told reporters during his post-draft press conference. "But one thing about the league — one thing about all of us now — everything starts over for all of us. We all start over once we get to [the NBA] level. I'm excited to get to work. I know I have a bright future ahead of me."
Throughout Labissiere's long, long night, his green-room companion and college coach, Hall of Famer John Calipari — whose Kentucky program produced two more first-rounders this year, bringing the total to 21 since he took over the Wildcats in 2009 — tried to keep the 20-year-old's spirits up.
"[He kept saying] just that, 'You're good. You're going to be fine. You should use that as fuel to get better,'" Labissiere said. "He told me how good I was."
It's a note Calipari sounded, loudly and at some length, during a pre-draft appearance on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" radio show, as transcribed by A Sea of Blue:
"Let me give you an example of Skal. People would look at Skal and say, ‘Well, he had a disappointing year.' No, he didn't. No, he didn't. We all had to look at where he started and then where he finished. The best thing that they like about Skal right now: He never gave up. He did not quit. It was extremely hard, and he finished at his best. They're working him out now and they're looking at Skal saying, ‘He's 7-foot tall. This kid is a good athlete. He can shoot.'
"It's huge in the NBA that you can make shots now. He can make perimeter shots. They are even calling me saying, ‘You know what? He's more physical around the basket than we even thought he was.' Now, you may say he didn't show a lot of that in the year.
"A lot of that's on me. I was trying to use the blueprint of Karl Towns and Anthony Davis. Guess what? That lesson plan didn't fit him. It took me three months to figure out exactly what he was. Understand that after the (Nike Hoops) Summit game last year he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. That's what he was.
"And now these teams are looking at Skal and saying, ‘You know what? He fought through Kentucky. He made it through. He didn't use it as an excuse. And now we're looking at a kid — maybe he could have gone back to college for another year, but if he did, we would've never got him. Now all of a sudden we're in a position to get a kid that, if he had gone back to school, would've been one of those [top] picks.'"
But despite Calipari's salesmanship and Labissiere's tantalizing measurables, the sheer lack of productivity during his freshman season — he scored fewer than 10 points in all but two games over a 2 1/2-month span from mid-December through late-February — ultimately seemed to scare prospective suitors away on Thursday.
“I think he’s the most difficult prospect to figure out in this whole draft for me because he’s got some really solid selling points," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, according to Kyle Tucker of SECCountry.com. "He’s got an excellent shooting touch, his timing is good, he can block shots. But he didn’t do it in games, and he got pushed around by guys that got pushed around by other people. That was a little bit surprising to me, frankly.”
His selection, then, is an upside play — a gamble that, eventually, Labissiere's soft touch and shot-blocking will pair with increased bulk and an improved understanding of the game to produce a player capable of fulfilling the promise of that five-star high-school rating. It's a bet that he's going to put in the work to see the results, and that the difficulty holding up against more physical competition doesn't belie a lack of toughness.
Of course, anyone familiar with Labissiere's backstory would likely feel pretty comfortable banking on that toughness. From SB Nation's Yaron Weitzman:
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."
How exactly Labissiere fits into the plans of the Kings — who, as we discussed earlier Thursday, already employ a robust big-man rotation featuring All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, 2015 lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein, 2015 free-agent signing Kosta Koufos and 2016's No. 13 overall pick, 7-foot-2 Greek teenager Giorgios Papagiannis — remains to be seen. For now, though, Labissiere seems content to take his slide in stride, to rely on his skills and work ethic to find a way to earn opportunities under new Kings head coach Dave Joerger, and to view his arrival in Sacramento — a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 10 years — as a blessing rather than a curse.
"At first, I was a little nervous, but after a while, it was just — I was excited about the whole thing," Labissiere said. "I know that God has a plan for me and that I was going to fall into the right place, right team."
Before the draft, he said he "firmly [believes] that two, three years from now, maybe five years from now, I can be the best player in this draft because of my skillset.” After a night that could've shaken any young man's self-confidence, Skal Labissiere remained resolute.
"I still believe it," he said Thursday night. "I'm about to go to work, and I'm going to control what I can control."
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