After struggling to start the season and spending most of the year in the D-League, Skal Labissiere has been a revelation since the All-Star break.
When Skal Labissiere entered the 2016 NBA draft, his value was arguably at an all-time low. Labissiere was ranked as the second-best player in his high school class, only behind Ben Simmons, but he struggled in his one season at Kentucky and fell to the 28th overall pick and the Sacramento Kings. He was another project big man drafted by a team with two other project big men and an All-NBA center.
Labissiere played in just eight games for the Kings prior to the All-Star break, spending most of his time with the Reno Bighorns instead. This year was on track to be a development year for Labissiere as he prepared his body for the rigors of the NBA.
However, the DeMarcus Cousins trade created an opening for Labissiere to test his skills at the next level, and he jumped at the opportunity. Since the All-Star break, he has already played in more games than he had all season. While Lebissiere is nowhere near a finished product yet, his development over just this season is almost as encouraging as his strong play since he entered the regular rotation.
Behind the Scenes
The early returns on Labissiere appeared to be somewhat limited. With the Kings enamored by a chance at the playoffs and an All-NBA big man in the lineup, Labissiere was unlikely to get major minutes. Beyond this, he was likely to be behind both Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis in the rotation of young big men.
Instead, Labissiere spent most of the first half of the season with the Reno Bighorns. He showcased the athleticism and solid jump shot that made him such a tantalizing high school prospect. In 17 contests with the Bighorns, Labissiere averaged 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. Labissiere played mostly center in Reno, as opposing big men were less capable of taking advantage of his relative lack of strength, and he was thus able to use his speed against opposing big men, while simultaneously being able to rain in jumpers over shorter defenders:
While Labissiere had some shining moments with the Bighorns, his initial time in Sacramento was somewhat less active. Before the All-Star break, he played just 52 minutes with the Kings. He attempted 13 shots and made six of them; most of his time with the Kings was spent on the bench soaking in the moments and doing his best to learn from the veterans.
Luckily for Kings fans everywhere, Labissiere took the "learning from the veterans" part very seriously. Garrett Temple had particularly high praise for the young big man in a recent interview, noting that Labissiere "made it a point to sit next to me and ask me questions." Temple further praised Labissiere's ability to learn, saying that he is "a smart guy, he’s a pretty intelligent guy. He knows to ask questions and to listen. He’s very inquisitive so I think his basketball IQ is going to rise tremendously in the next year and half, two years."
In another recent interview, Darren Collison also had nothing but positive things to say about Labisssiere's work ethic, mentioning that he "wasn't surprised" by Labissiere's recent success because "Skal actually has been one of our better players in practice...I see that kid work after the games, in the gym by himself, before practice, after practice, before the games, after the games, so it's good to see that work finally paying off for him. He's a workaholic." (Both quotes courtesy of Sactown Royalty). Although Labissiere did not have much of a chance to show off his skills in game-time situations, his preparation and potential certainly did not go unnoticed.
Moments of Brilliance
Ever since Labissiere entered the rotation after the All-Stark break, he has been a revelation. In his first nine games since the break, he averaged 8.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in just 15.1 minutes per game. His True Shooting Percentage is a stellar 59.4 percent during his brief time on the floor. Dave Joerger has mostly played Labissiere at power forward — 83 percent of Labissiere's minutes this season have been at the four spot, per Basketball-Reference. Slotting him in with another big man on the floor gives Labissiere a chance to play against slightly less bulky players, which has helped him tremendously.
One of the most notable facets of Labissiere's game is his effort, which shows in his offensive rebounding. Despite his wiry frame, Labissiere has managed to grab 17 offensive rebounds in just the last nine games. His Offensive Rebound Rate (14.8 percent) would be third in the league if he met the minute requirement per Basketball-Reference. Although it would be misleading to extrapolate that number to a full season total, Labissiere's ability to bang on the offensive glass at this age is a very positive sign.
In addition to his high motor, Labissiere already has a diverse offensive repertoire to go with his elite speed for his position. He broke out almost all of the tools in his toolbox against the Spurs:
The turnaround jump shot is the kind of shot that takes most big men years to perfect, but Labissiere's already looks fantastic. He may be generating more of a following from his impressive repertoire of dunks, but his ability to space the floor will be key for him going forward. In the NBA this season, Labissiere has only attempted one 3-pointer, which he missed. He did try to work that shot into his game while in Reno, but his 5 for 30 from deep shows that he is not quite ready to move outside of the arc.
On defense, Labissiere has been able to overcome his relatively limited knowledge of NBA defense with his lateral quickness and length. Opponents average 0.901 points per possession when guarded by Labissiere, which puts him in the 56th percentile per Synergy Sports. Most of that efficacy comes from his ability to defend the rim — opponents shoot 51.5 percent within six feet of the rim when guarded by Labissiere, per NBA.com, which is 8.2 percent worse than their season average from that range. While Labissiere will occasionally get lost in pick-and-roll coverage and can be played off the floor against some larger big men, he makes life tough enough for opponents at the rim that he is a net positive on defense. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 0.23 (per ESPN) seems about right; his defensive benefits seem to slightly outweigh his defensive shortcomings, especially when he is put in the right situations.
Putting Labissiere in the right situations starts with working on his greatest weakness: his strength. His NBA profile lists him at 6 feet 11 inches and 225 pounds, but his D-League profile lists him at 216 pounds. That confusion alone underscores the issue of how Labissiere does not have the bulk to deal with some of the league's centers. His defensive benefits may outweigh his defensive shortcomings, but his biggest defensive shortcoming is that he does not outweigh anyone at this point. It took Brook Lopez about 45 seconds and two plays to show that Labissiere was not up to the task of stopping him:
Notice how Lopez is outside of the paint and at the foul line when the play starts, but he is still able to shove Labissiere far enough backward to get to the rim with ease. Joerger subbed Kosta Koufos in for Labissiere right after this play, and the sequence highlights how much progress Labissiere has to make in the weight room.
That being said, the Kings should be thankful that Labissiere's biggest issue is his need to bulk up. While his slender frame might prevent him from becoming the next David Robinson, a little more weight can go a long way. Kings fans have already seen how much Cauley-Stein has benefitted from an NBA training regime, and Labissiere will have plenty of time to put on weight in a healthy way before the start of next season.
Labissiere's diverse offensive skill set and athletic gifts are already beginning to show through, and his ceiling is still just as high as it was before his disappointing season in college when he was discussed as a potential top three draft pick. He has already shown quite a bit more than many of the players picked ahead of him. If he maintains the work ethic and inquisitive nature that earned him the respect of the team's veteran leaders, Labissiere will continue to make other teams regret letting him fall so far on draft night.