No. 4 Kentucky working to get Labissiere out of recent slump

The early reviews on 6-foot-11 Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere has gone something like this: He doesn't like physical contact. Plays too straight up. Won't play near the basket.

Some or all of those observations have been evident at one time or another during a four-game slump in which Labissiere has scored a total of 18 points and pulled down just seven rebounds. One of his more forgettable performances was against Arizona State last week: no points, no rebounds before fouling out in 13 minutes.

John Calipari expected some growing pains for the Haitian native who moved to the U.S. following the devastating 2010 earthquake on the island nation. The coach even warned it might take time for him to develop the physical and mental skills needed to become a low-post presence for the Wildcats.

Labissiere has put in some extra training this week, and Calipari is looking to see how his freshman responds when No. 4 Kentucky (9-1) faces Ohio State (5-5) Saturday in New York.

His struggles aren't anything Calipari hasn't seen with other big men, including Marcus Camby at Massachusetts. Camby developed and became the national player of the year and No. 2 overall NBA pick in 1996.

''He will probably take that step back before he starts taking those steps forward, similar to Josh'' Harrellson,'' said Calipari, who hosted Labissiere overnight at his house to reassure him that everything will work out. ''He's going to do fine.

''He wasn't been in the kind of condition you need to be in to perform at a high level. It's hard. A lot of it is mental, so you do things to make it tough where he has to convince himself I can do this.''

Labissiere arrived in Lexington as the most praised of Kentucky's latest class of prized recruits, one who was expected to roam the middle and protect the rim like Karl-Anthony Towns, who was selected No. 1 overall in last summer's NBA draft and was one of three Kentucky big men selected in the first 12 picks.

Former Kentucky forward Kenny ''Sky'' Walker believes that success at Kentucky has created unfair expectations for Labissiere, who has been compared to past Wildcats such as Anthony Davis.

''Some people have even said he might be a No. 1 pick, but this season is showing it's not that easy,'' Walker said. ''You've also got social media out there and a lot of voices telling kids what they should do. The only voice he needs to hear right now is his coach's.''

Indeed, trainers have worked to bulk up Labissiere's 225-pound frame, and Calipari has had assistants swatting at him while he holds the ball in practice. Labissiere's high school coach, Terry Tippett, sees progress but believes bulking up is one step toward him transitioning to low-post play.

But Tippett said Labissiere is not soft.

''I didn't need him in the low post because we needed points and let him shoot from the perimeter,'' Tippett said. ''He's just in a new position. Some teams would put four guys on him and push him around, but one-on-one, he'd play better against other big men.''

Walker said the Wildcats' lack of other big men for Labissiere to practice against - such as Towns, 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson and 6-10 Trey Lyles, all drafted last June - hasn't helped. That's no disrespect to 7-foot freshman teammate Isaac Humphries or 6-9 junior forward Marcus Lee, whose inside game has blossomed this season.

For his part Humphries, an Australian transitioning to the more physical American game himself, said they ''bang all the time anyways.''

But before anyone can help Labissiere, he first has to develop that willingness to battle inside with opponents preparing to throw bodies at him, Walker said.

''The key word is willing,'' Walker said. ''He's got to use his size, length and quickness to his advantage, but he's got to be willing to fight when he needs to and be tough when he needs to be.''

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