CRAWFORD | Message to the Big Blue Nation: Don't sweat the Skal - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Message to the Big Blue Nation: Don't sweat the Skal stuff

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Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere, center, holds the ball as UCLA's Isaac Hamilton, left, Aaron Holiday, front, and Thomas Welsh, right. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo) Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere, center, holds the ball as UCLA's Isaac Hamilton, left, Aaron Holiday, front, and Thomas Welsh, right. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The phone lines have been wall-to-wall Skal since the University of Kentucky’s 7-foot freshman center contributed zero points, zero rebounds and five fouls in the Wildcats’ 14-point victory over a solid Arizona State team Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes, it seems Skal Labissiere escaped earthquake-ravaged Haiti only to arrive in Kentucky to a storm of criticism.

Skal (rhymes with scowl) is soft, the criticism goes. Skal (rhymes with Cal) isn’t as finished a big man as the Wildcats’ recent post lineage: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Karl-Anthony Towns or even Willie Cauley-Stein.

Those guys cast some long shadows. And not just on a sunny day.

To be fair, even Kentucky coach John Calipari has seemed less than convinced after Labissiere’s last several outings.

“You understand he came from Haiti,” Calipari said. “He played basketball for a year and a half and then he played church league for two years. He's never been through any of this. This is all new to him. Now, he played in a couple games that were more like pickup games. He made some jumpers. He ran up and down. And there were no men. See, he's playing against men now. The kid he went against was a senior and just bulldozed him, and he couldn't play against a man. Well, this is all part of it.”

With Towns, he just needed time to adjust and warm up. Early-season duds against Buffalo and Boston U. last season were just aberrations. By the end of the season, he was the best big man in college basketball.

By this time in his freshman year, Davis already had made an iconic play — a block to save the win over North Carolina in Rupp Arena. Cousins had eaten his first quivering opponent for breakfast. Noel had blocked 39 shots.

But he is not — and let’s all be clear on this — any of those other guys.

I’m not saying he isn’t as good as those other guys. I am saying he’s different. He’s more polished offensively than any of them. He has better range than any. He can knock down jumpers from distance better than any of them.

But he can’t rebound like Cousins. He can’t block shots like Davis. He doesn’t move like Jagger. Through 10 games, Labissiere is averaging 10.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He has 21 blocked shots. He’s shooting 58.2 percent from the field. But he's also scored in single-digits in three of the past four games. He's had more fouls in those four games (15) than blocks and rebounds combined (14).

And frankly, he doesn’t look very comfortable in the traditional post-up role that he has been given to this point.

Calipari knows that. While he needs Labissiere to get more physical on the defensive end, and there’s no short cut around that, expect to see him used a bit differently on offense after UK has the luxury of some extended practice time to make that happen.

“You know, I love Skal,” Calipari said. “Skal is going to be good. If you think it's tough on you to watch it, think about, I'm watching it, too. And I want so bad for him to play well. We were running plays for him to shoot jumpers later and he wouldn't shoot them.”

In some ways, Labissiere is tailor-made for the dribble-drive offense. It’s to Calipari’s credit that he didn’t force his signature offense on his Kentucky teams once elite post men started signing up in droves.

But Labissiere is a guy who can step out and make shots. He can put it on the floor and go by another big man. He’s more pick-and-pop than pick-and-roll. And if the Twitter masses get this, you should believe that Calipari gets it.

All of these things take time. But as Towns and others have shown, better to figure it out in February than December.

The biggest danger to Labissiere right now is negativity reaching him from the outside. Kentucky is a tough place for that, especially during the current run this program is on.

“This thing here is -- this is an animal, and so -- and I understand, you can tell me they're 18- and 19-year-olds and they're fragile and all this,” Calipari said. “This is a tough place to be fragile, as a player, as a coach, as an administrator, as a coach in any sport.”

In some ways, the worries about Labissiere obscure a bigger revelation that is being overlooked.

Kentucky has played one top-five team. Duke. It blew Duke’s doors off. Arizona State is a solid team. In fact, from a check of Sagarin, Kentucky will play only eight more games this season against anyone ranked as high in Ken Pomeroy’s index as the Sun Devils.

With Skal (rhymes with Pal) giving Kentucky nada, they still put Arizona State away 72-58.

He’s not going to give them nothing in many more games this season. Even with the arrival of Tai Wynyard, I expect him to be the focal point in the middle, though Wynyard should help take some of the pressure off him.

Labissiere does need to get better defensively. But so do Kentucky’s young wing players. One reason Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel and Karl-Anthony Towns blocked shots so well was that Kentucky’s perimeter players at least slowed drives in the lane well enough to allow their bigs to come over to make rejections in help roles. At the moment, Jamal Murray and even Isaiah Briscoe are letting people blow by them, turning Labissiere into a primary defender, and putting him in much more jeopardy of committing fouls.

These are all issues common to young teams less than a dozen games into the season. And other issues may arise as the season goes on.

It’s easy to forget — especially with the way Calipari has been recruiting — that with freshmen, often some assembly is required. So many UK players in recent years have been just about ready to play right out of the box that when one isn’t, it can seem like a problem.

In this case, at least give Labissiere a chance to get his batteries in the right way.

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