It hasn’t been easy this season for Skal Labissiere, the Kentucky freshman who arrived on campus ranked No. 1 in the 2015 recruiting class and with the expectations of a fan base used to winning with one-and-dones on his shoulders.
Things started well, with Labissiere scoring 26 points in his second collegiate game and reaching double figures in four of his first six. Those early games were mostly against lower competition, however, and after Thanksgiving the freshman appeared to hit a wall. In the meantime, the recruit ranked one spot below him, LSU’s Ben Simmons, looks every bit as advertised as he routinely racks up double doubles and fills the stat sheet.
Labissiere entered Thursday’s game against Arkansas having averaged 3.9 points over his last 11 games, his last double-digit effort coming when he scored 10 against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 9. In the Wildcats’ four losses this season, Labissiere has scored a total of 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
It’s not that his performance against Arkansas was world beating—a line of 11 points (on 4-of-10 shooting), three rebounds and three blocks is solid but nothing particularly special. But the biggest takeaways from Labissiere’s night were how aggressive he was and how comfortable he looked, particularly compared to recent games.
On Thursday, each of Labissiere’s four buckets on the floor showcased a different skill he’s capable of, offering a glimpse into why he was considered (and in many cases, still is considered) such a tantalizing NBA prospect.
Labissiere first got on the board with a putback dunk off a miss by Alex Poythress, showing the kind of aggression that Kentucky’s been looking for out of him.
Later in the first half, Labissiere showed off his range with a long jumper just inside the arc, catching and shooting off a pass from point guard Tyler Ulis.
A couple minutes later, Labissiere caught a pass at the top of the key, drove to his right, spun around Razorbacks defender Moses Kingsley and sunk a short jumper over the forward. It was perhaps his most encouraging move of the night, especially coming against a player like Kingsley.
Labissiere was quieter in the second half, but he had a highlight-reel play when he and Ulis ran a pick-and-roll to perfection. Labissiere slammed home a dunk through traffic in the paint that brought the Wildcats bench to its feet.
Labissiere still has a lot of growing to do, but Kentucky fans have to be encouraged by his effort in Fayetteville. He played 20 minutes against the Razorbacks, something he hadn’t done since Dec. 19, and his 10 shot attempts were more than he’d taken in a game since Nov. 24. Even on defense, his three blocks matched his block total from the last six games combined.
The next step for Labissiere is getting more consistent and proving the progress he made Thursday wasn’t an aberration. Arkansas doesn’t have a particularly strong defense, and games against Florida, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt (UK’s next opponent) and South Carolina will provide much stiffer tests in that regard. He needs to bring the same energy and attacking attitude every game, or else it will be a long SEC season of getting pushed around in the paint or sitting on John Calipari’s bench.