Skal Labissiere has survived more adversity at age 20 than most people will experience in a lifetime.
If you're looking for reminder of everything that's great and mystifying about the NBA draft, it would be hard to be find a better example than Skal Labissiere. As a freshman at Kentucky, he averaged six points and three rebounds in SEC play, and yet, he may be a lottery pick in a matter of hours. He's got too many physical tools to ignore, especially in a draft that lacks many players with star potential. Even if he can't be the next LaMarcus Aldridge, he could be the next Channing Frye, and that makes him a perfect fit with the direction the NBA is going right now.
But that's only half of what makes Skal one of the best stories in Thursday night's draft. In high school he was one of the best players in America, but also a source of controversy as NCAA investigators and various college coaches scrutinized his living arrangements. At Kentucky, he entered as a Player of the Year candidate, before struggling to adjust physically and quickly becoming a nationwide target for scrutiny and criticism. And before any of this, he was in Haiti during the massive 2010 earthquake, saw his family's home destroyed, and turned to basketball as a way to get himself to a better situation.
At 20 years old, Skal has already survived more adversity than most of us will see in a lifetime. Our own Luke Winn covered his journey in depth before he got to Kentucky, and now Labissiere's in the middle of the busiest week of his life.
There is family from Haiti in town, new family from his adopted home in Memphis, a giant dinner planned with all of them, several required media appearances for the NBA, and before we were supposed to talk this week, there was a last-minute pre-draft dentist appointment that forced us to reschedule. Somehow, we found a way to catch up for about 10 minutes Wednesday to talk draft week, and how he got this far.
Andrew Sharp: So you a had dentist appointment yesterday afternoon?
Skal Labissiere: "I did, I did. I'm trying to get that smile right."
AS: Just a last-minute cleaning? Nothing major, right?
SL: "Nothing major, nothing major. I could've taken my wisdom teeth out yesterday, but that would not have been a good idea."
AS: Yeah, the swelling would not be a great draft night look. How are you feeling mentally right now? Excited? Nervous? Ready for this process to be over?
SL: "Oh, I'm excited. It still hasn't hit me yet. You know? I think I'll be nervous sitting at the table with my family tomorrow. But I'm excited overall. And at the same time I'm ready to get to work. Get to my new team and start working."
AS: How hectic is it in New York this week? How much family do you have there?
SL: "I have a big family. I have a lot of people. My family came from Haiti, they're all here. My family from Memphis, they're here. So... it's been busy. A lot of things going on."
AS: How many people are we talking about? 10-20?
SL: "As far as my immediate family, I would say it's about 15 people. But I have a super big family. Aunts, uncles. About 50 some people [are here]. Because they brought their kids, and my Memphis people came, too."
AS: Fifty! Wow, so you're hosting everybody this week.
AS: Well speaking of your family, let's go back to the beginning, because I'm not sure how many people really know your story. When did you start playing basketball?
SL:"I started around 8 just shooting the basketball, but 11-12 years old, that's when I really started playing competitively."
AS: Were there organized leagues in Haiti at that point?
SL: "We had the school leagues. Different levels, like JV, Varsity, but we had different names. It wasn't as competitive as here in the states. We didn't have as many games. You'd be lucky to play 10 games a year, 10 actual games a year."
AS: Were these games inside or outside?
AS: Did it ever occur to you that you could play in the NBA?
SL: "I've dreamed about the NBA forever. I started watching basketball around 10 or 11, and from that point on I wanted to be in the NBA. My favorite player was Kobe [Bryant] growing up. We only watched NBA games in Haiti, we didn't watching college basketball. Watching it, I fell in love with it. It's been on my mind ever since."
AS: But then in the middle of all this, the earthquake changed everything.
SL: "Before the earthquake, there was this guy, a former Haitian basketball player who used to come to Haiti and try to help young kids. He'd played in the states and played overseas. And he put me in contact with the guy who became my guardian over the past five years, Gerald Hamilton. But that was like five days before the earthquake happened."
AS: Right. How much did that change your path?
SL: "After the earthquake happened, we lost touch for a little bit. It was hard for anyone from the outside to get in touch with people on the inside, in Haiti."
AS: And while you were waiting, your family's apartment had been destroyed, right? Where were you living during all this?
SL: "Yeah, it was destroyed. So my mom, she was a kindergarten teacher, and her school was damaged, but it wasn't as bad. It was a one-level building. Some walls fell down, but it wasn't as bad. So we all went and lived there."
AS: And then what?
SL: "When Gerald finally got in touch with my Dad, they started working on getting me to the states. The process took about seven months. I got rejected twice at the embassy, because I didn't know English. So Gerald came to Haiti and came to the Embassy to speed up the process a little bit. Around the fifth or sixth month, I finally got my visa and came to the states. I lived in Memphis, Tennessee. Went to high school there. I played Varsity as an eighth grader and we won the state championship that year. And then I started getting recruited, and ended up at Kentucky."
AS: And then at Kentucky, and there were times when some of this season looked pretty rough. There were so many expectations, and you, in particular, became a target for all kinds of criticism. How did you deal with some of that?
SL: "I just didn't pay attention to it. I didn't read anything. I just kept working, trying to get used to the systems, the routines. It was a whole different team than the year before, so we had to get used to it. Everything became easier toward the end."
AS: Did you have to just cut yourself off from the internet?
SL: "Definitely. I wasn't on Instagram, Twitter, none of that stuff. I didn't read any articles. I had people who'd text me and stuff, tell me about some things, but I definitely stayed away from it."
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AS: That's probably a healthy choice. How much did Cal help you during all this?
SL: "He was a big help. He was pushing me every single day at practice. Always pushing me. He was always there to work me out, helping me through that time."
AS: A lot of people weren't sure whether you'd declare for the draft after this year. What went into the decision to leave?
SL: "I grew up dreaming about the NBA. When I got the opportunity, I took it. It wasn't a hard choice. I felt like I worked really hard all year long, and the thing about the NBA, you get to focus on basketball. That's what I want to do with my life."
AS: Has Cal stayed in touch since then?
SL: "Yeah, he's helped me a lot. We text, and he's been talking to teams. I'm going to see him today and tomorrow. He's been helping me through, telling teams what I can do, talking about my personality."
AS: Given everything your family went through with the earthquake, some of the investigations in high school, this year at Kentucky... You've been through A LOT for someone who's 20 years old. Do you think that all of this has made you stronger?
SL: "Definitely. It's preparing me for something great. Preparing me for greatness. I'm still working really hard and I have a lot to learn, but I definitely think all this will pay off in the future. And I'm looking forward to it."
AS: Have you rewarded yourself since turning pro? What's the most exciting you've bought yourself?
SL: "Not yet! I don't have money yet, man. Not yet. I'm very laid back right now. I think I'll still be like that [after the draft]."
AS: Come on. You gotta let yourself get something. What about after tomorrow night?
SL: "Just getting a home. A place to stay. And then I can get to work."
AS: Who do you pattern your game after? Who are your favorite players to watch?
SL: "Dirk Nowitzki... Tim Duncan... LaMarcus Aldridge. Guys that are very skilled, can shoot the ball, very versatile guys. I watch Carmelo Anthony's face-up game a lot, take some off that stuff, and try to add it to my game."
AS: Have you been checking mock drafts at all? Do you let yourself imagine life in Orlando, Toronto, Denver...
SL: "I don't really check mock drafts at all. I've just been working. Whatever happens, happens. I've just gotta make the most out of the situation. I'm just praying that I fall into the right system. That's all it is for me. I've been watching the draft for a long time, and there's always 3 or 4 guys that really make it out of every draft. I just want to be one of those guys."
AS: Have you gotten all set with a stylist before the draft? Do you have a suit ready to go?
SL: "I'm all set, I'm all set."
AS: When does that process start?
SL: "I met with them around the combine. Got my measurements all done... and the suit looks nice."
AS: Best suit in the draft?
SL: "I'm hoping so! I'm pretty competitive, so hopefully."
AS: Well you'll definitely have the cleanest teeth.