Note: The piece is intended as a general argument and is not a "hot takey" reaction to Skal's performance Tuesday night in Gainesville. I compiled the Draft-related research and first drafted this piece on Monday, obviously ahead of the UF game, for inclusion in my Friday Quickies. Then it transformed into 2,000 words. The only substantive changes I've made to it since Monday are updates of Skal's season stats.
One of the recurring talking points among UK fans in 2016 has been Skal Labissiere's NBA Draft outlook. Should he stay? Should he go? No one is in a position to answer those questions for Skal, to be sure. But, if Skal does declare himself eligible for the 2016 NBA Draft, he would be a first round pick.
Skal's college statistical performance and contributions to the '15-'16 Kentucky Wildcats are logically more supportive of an argument against Skal as a 2016 first rounder than for it. But there is significantly more to a prospect's prospects than just those two aspects of his resume.
The 2015 Nike Hoop Summit to Now
As the star of the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit, Skal scored 21 points on 9-15 (60%) shooting to go along with 6 rebounds and 6 blocks. This performance was the catalyst for his rise to #1 in several reputable mock drafts. He was also ranked the #2 player in the class of 2015 by ESPN. Unsurprisingly, expectations were high, primarily based on the Haitian's massive potential and rare synthesis of size and skill.
Eleven months later, the former 5* prospect is barely playing 16 minutes a game and has slid to a mid- to late-teens spot in the well-thought-of mocks. He's averaging 6.4 points per game on 50% shooting (and 67% from the free throw line), to go along with 3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
When he does play, Skal's size and athleticism are apparent and a few of the skills that we knew he had coming into Lexington are occasionally spotlighted, as well. Skal can shoot the ball (gorgeously) as far as fifteen feet out with great accuracy (50%; also, this shot chart, though it hasn't been updated since late January) and he shows flashes of potential as a rim protector (1.5 blocks per game while playing just 16 minutes is noteworthy). Although he frequently displays clumsiness with the ball closer to the rim on offense, Skal often moves smoothly away from the ball on that end and on defense.
Skal's most noticeable difficulties stem from a lack of strength, which bleeds into several parts of his game and negatively affects his toughness. This is a hurdle that Skal has been unable to overcome during his short time in Lexington. Among other things, Skal's slight 225 pound frame prevents him from consistently establishing position on both ends of the floor, which hinders his ability to rebound, as well as effectively post up.
The Nature of the NBA Draft, Generally
Upside. Potential. These may seem platitudinous -- and they are -- but they do, as basketball attributes, govern the mechanics of scouting and player selection in the modern NBA Draft.
The prizes of each and every Draft are to be found in the Lottery, or the first 14 selections. Of the 2016 NBA All-Stars, 77% (20 out of 26) were lottery picks and one (Kawhi Leonard) was drafted 15th, just outside of the Lottery.
Since the institution of the "One-and-Done" Rule, part of the NBA's 2005 collective bargaining agreement, the Lottery has been primarily comprised of college freshmen and younger international players. Especially of late. In the 2015 Draft Lottery, 8 freshmen were selected, in addition to 3 international prospects who were aged 20 or younger at the time. That amounts to 79% of total prospects selected. In 2014, the numbers were 7 and 2, or 64%.
Conversely, in 2015 and 2014, only 1 senior and 1 junior were selected in the Lottery.
Therefore, teams are obviously favoring younger and somewhat undefined players who ooze with upside over older, "proven" or "finished product" college upperclassmen in the part of the Draft in which superstars are almost exclusively found.
It should also be noted that underclassmen and younger international prospects dominated the non-Lottery portion of the 2014 and 2015 first rounds, as well -- these classifications of prospects made up 11 of 16 choices (69%) in 2014 and 10 of 16 picks (63%) in 2015.
The Quality and Depth of the 2016 NBA Draft, Specifically
The experts appear to believe that the 2016 NBA Draft is a one-tier affair. Further, there is only one player in that lone tier -- LSU freshman F Ben Simmons.
There are some "nice" players elsewhere, including Duke's Brandon Ingram (who could turn out to be a star, in my opinion), UK's Jamal Murray (a potentially solid starter), and international prospects such as Timothe Luwawu and (barely 18 year old) Dragan Bender, but prospectively, the 2016 crop is viewed as generally anemic. So, unless he has a top 5 pick, a GM is facing risk no matter which direction he looks.
I want to avoid projecting where Skal will be selected, but humor me by putting yourself in a General Manager's shoes. You oversee personnel for a team that picks anywhere between, let's say, 12 and 30 in this dim Draft. Ignoring your initial desire to trade the pick, you realize that there probably isn't a difference maker available to you.
Do you want to spend your selection on an average-sized 22 year old SG (such as Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon and 10+ others)? How about a 22 year old undersized PF "tweener" (Brice Johnson and 10+ others)? Maybe a completely inoffensive 22 year old SF (Baylor's Taurean Prince and 10+ others)?
If you're in the market for a 7 footer, and assuming Maryland's Diamond Stone and Utah's Jakob Poeltl are off the board (if they declare, they would be), do you look at 24 year old Purdue C A.J. Hammons? How about unpolished Chinese prospect Zhou Qi, who is 2 inches taller and 15 pounds lighter than Skal?
Or do you want to use it to select Skal, the raw 20 year old 7 footer who possesses elite athleticism, rim protection potential, as well as the shooting touch and stroke of a polished shooting guard? A prototypical stretch 4 who just needs to eat a little bit more and spend some time in the weight room. Of which, in this Draft, there are...zero others. In fact, some recent Drafts haven't had even one player with that scarce combination of size and skill set. Simply put, Skal's size, skills and potential are just too uncommon to pass up.
I know what I'd do and, based on precedent, we have a fairly good idea of what an actual NBA GM will do if faced with the decision.
Player Development -- NCAA vs. NBA
NBA teams spend millions of dollars for payroll and programs in their player development departments. The goal and mission of these departments are to make good players great players. They primarily work with younger players, especially those that the team has placed a Lottery investment in, in order to tap into their potential as efficiently as possible and fix or mitigate any deficiencies that player possesses.
The Philadelphia 76ers, for instance, employee four coaches and assistants who focus solely on player development, though one (Billy Lange, who formerly assisted Jay Wright at Villanova) is also designated as an Assistant Coach. The entire basketball (not administrative) staff exceeds 25 people, in fact. John Calipari's staff at Kentucky, including himself, is comprised of six actual basketball people total (the four coaches, plus analytics guy Joel Justus and video guy Tim Asher).
For another comparison, the 76ers' strength and conditioning team is five individuals strong, while UK's consists of just Chris Simmons (who I always think is former 'Cat Brandon Stockton when I see him on the bench) and Robert Harris.
Skal's most glaring problems -- which are mostly frame-related -- are curable, especially given the significant amount of resources a NBA franchise has at its disposal. Further, Skal will likely be provided with more time to develop because of the previously-described distinct skills that he possesses, in combination with his size.
Comparable Draft Selections
Skal will not be the first or last prospect to be chosen in the first round despite questionable or murky pre-Draft competitive basketball performance.
Below is a sampling of recent examples. Some disclaimers: 1) they are not presented as "apples to apples" comparisons to Skal; 2) it is not a comprehensive list; and 3) I offer it only to support the premise presented immediately above. These players' eventual NBA performances are irrelevant for the purposes of their mention here.
All statistics are taken from Basketball Reference.
Kelly Oubre, Kansas, 15th pick in 2015 (Atlanta)
Viewed as a disappointment by most Jayhawk fans, Oubre was a top 10 player in the class of 2014 who only logged about 20 minutes and offered 9.3 points and 5 rebounds per game.
Mitch McGary, Michigan, 21st pick in 2014 (Oklahoma City)
McGary, a former 5*, had a promising freshman season in Ann Arbor, but his second go-round only saw him log minutes (24.8 per) in 8 games and he ultimately declared for the '14 Draft when he learned that he was facing a year-long suspension due to a failed drug test during the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Bruno Caboclo, Brazil, 20th pick in 2014 (Toronto)
No one but Fran Fraschilla had any genuine notion of who this 18 year-old Brazilian project was then Toronto selected him. The year prior to the Draft, Caboclo averaged 4.8 points and 3.1 rebounds for a team in Brazil's NBB.
Zach LaVine, UCLA, 13th pick in 2014 (Minnesota)
LaVine did little more than score (9.4 points per game) while averaging 24.4 minutes per game at UCLA during his freshman season.
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA, 14th pick in 2013 (Utah)
Ranked either #1 or #2 by all the major recruiting services, Muhammad was a selfish, inefficient, lazy and defense-averse in his one disappointing season in Los Angeles.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut, 9th pick in 2012 (Detroit)
In Drummond's final game in a Huskies jersey, he scored just two points and fouled out in a NCAAT loss. Drummond had a decent, but mostly forgettable season in Storrs, averaging 10 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game.
Fab Melo, Syracuse, 22nd pick in 2012 (Boston)
Melo was (in)famously ruled ineligible for the 2012 NCAAT due to academic reasons. His explanation? He couldn't understand English. Melo averaged 25.4 minutes per game during his sophomore campaign, notching 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game.
Daniel Orton, UK, 29th pick in 2010 (Orlando)
You know...13.2 minutes, 3.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in one season in Lexington.
What This Means for Big Blue Nation
Skal's tenure in Lexington, if it turns out to last just one season, will not be all bad for Big Blue Nation, especially if one is willing to take the long view.
While Skal may have disappointed UK fans this season, he will certainly do his part in adding to the number of first round NBA draft picks that the school has produced in the John Calipari era. As we've learned over the past seven years or so, that is an invaluable recruiting tool. At the very least, BBN should appreciate Skal for that.