Skal Labissiere looks to take next step for No. 2 Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Skal Labissiere has heeded Kentucky coach John Calipari's advice to be an offensive presence.
The 6-foot-11 freshman leads the second-ranked Wildcats in scoring at 17.5 points through two games. He's coming off a 26-point performance against NJIT, a game in which he floated jumpers, slammed home fierce dunks and generally had his way against the smaller Highlanders.
''I'm still trying to get more comfortable,'' Labissiere said after making 10 of 12 shots. ''I'm still trying to get used to playing with the guys and playing against that level of competition every single day.''
Statistically, Labissiere looks good; now the 225-pounder from Haiti must take his game to another level physically.
Kentucky (2-0) faces defending national champion and No. 5 Duke (2-0) Tuesday night in the Champions Classic in Chicago. Fourth-ranked Kansas (1-0) faces No. 13 Michigan State (1-0) in the other matchup.
Kentucky and Duke are more guard-heavy after the departure of low-post talent to the NBA. Though the Blue Devils lost 6-11 Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, they still feature big bodies, including 7-footers Marshall Plumlee and freshman Antonio Vrankovic.
Duke's frontcourt must try to contain the lanky Labissiere.
''This is going to be a challenge for Skal because Plumlee plays so physical,'' Calipari said Monday. ''This is a grit game, a grind-it game. They do a great job of wedging on rebounds. If you're not ready to fight, they're going to get offensive rebounds.''
Calipari has often used words such as grit and fight as things he wants to see from his made-over roster and Labissiere in particular. Though the coach has downplayed initial comparisons of Labissiere to recent Kentucky stars such as Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, he obviously wants his big man to show that same ferocity around the basket.
That will take time, but Labissiere's game has shown other things to feel good about.
Saturday's explosion followed a nine-point, five-rebound debut that was solid if unspectacular given the hype around him as one of the nation's top newcomers. Calipari told Labissiere before the NJIT game to expect the ball more, and the rest was easy as the big man relished shooting chances out to nine feet.
''I wouldn't say he was tentative,'' point guard Tyler Ulis said of Labissiere's debut, ''but it was his first game and he hadn't learned how to fight yet. But now he's doing what he has to do fighting in the low post, and when he gets the ball, he's scoring.''
Labissiere's next step is learning the dirty work of guarding the rim and rebounding. His shot-blocking potential seems there with him and junior Marcus Lee sharing the team lead with six rejections each, and he's just six behind him on the boards.
Challenged by his coach to take charge more with the ball, Labissiere now looks forward to the opportunity to develop that same edge defending the basket. Especially against a Duke squad featuring players he can also look in the eye.
''I just have to be more aggressive,'' Labissiere said. ''That's one of the things I'm still working on. I've gotten better and determined to get even better at it.''