When Skal Labissiere announced his decision to come to Kentucky and was later deemed eligible to play by the NCAA, fans had visions of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel dancing in their heads.
Fair or not, the expectations for him were through the roof, and a Final Four this season was almost a given. Skal was the second-ranked recruit in the nation behind Ben Simmons in 2015. He also has been mentioned in the conversation about the top overall pick in the NBA draft in 2016. With his combination of size, skill, and shooting touch, Skal was a can't miss prospect and a huge recruiting coup for John Calipari.
But in recent weeks, Skal's production and minutes have dropped considerably. In the last two games, Skal has played a combined 32 minutes, scored a total of 8 points, has three blocks, and has a total of three rebounds. He hasn't shown much toughness under the basket, and even if the guards are not feeding him in the post, he hasn't been rebounding and creating his own shot on that end.
Things came to a head in the UCLA loss when point guard Tyler Ulis angrily shoved Skal under the basket after he failed to grab a rebound:
To be fair to Skal, outside of some high school All-Star games, he didn't play much competitive basketball his senior year due to the fact that he transferred schools and was not allowed to play.
Here are Skal's averages through eight games:
12 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, no double-doubles with four single-digit games.
That's not bad. Obviously, you want to see the blocks and the rebounds to increase, but 12 points a game with as much scoring this team has, that looks pretty good.
In comparison, what did the other freshman centers average in their first 8 games and how did they finish?
14.75 points, 8.13 rebounds, 2.38 blocks, 2 double-doubles, 2 single digit scoring games.
12.38 points, 9 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2 double-doubles, 2 single digit scoring games
11.63 points, 9 rebounds, 3.13 blocks, no double-doubles, 3 single digit games
5.13 points, 4.13, 0.25 blocks, no double-doubles, 7 single digit scoring games
8.25 points, 6.89 rebounds, 2.63 blocks, one double-double, 5 single digit games
These numbers should put things in perspective for us. Every one of those players ended the season with better numbers almost across the board. There is a learning curve for every freshmen in college basketball and Skal is no different.
Dakari Johnson did have to almost split time with Willie Cauley-Stein, but he averaged more minutes than he did in that stretch. And Karl-Anthony Towns was part of a platoon system that had him split time with Dakari Johnson. But Towns looked a lot like Ska early in the season: he was timid, he seemed lost, and he did not want to battle in the post.
John Calipari's favorite target to go after was Towns, much like Skal is right now. As the season progressed, Karl got better and became a player that would beat out Jahlil Okafor as the top pick in the draft.
The scoring for Skal is on par or better than the rest of the centers as is his blocked shots. The biggest discrepancy is in the rebounds category. He has the lowest average and the closest was Dakari Johnson's average. To me, that is the key area that Skal needs to improve in order for this team to reach it's potential.
I have all of the faith in the world in Kenny Payne and John Calipari as far as coaching big men is concerned. With Tyler Ulis pushing him, Skal will have motivation from the team leader. As long as Skal's attitude stays positive and he has a desire to get better, I think he will be just fine. He has said multiple times that he came to Kentucky because he wanted to be pushed by Cal to be his best. If he wanted to go somewhere and be coddled, he wouldn't have become a Wildcat.
Be patient. It's just December. Skal will have multiple games where he is challenged by talented big men and that means he has multiple opportunities to improve.