Deep into the second half of Kentucky’s 88-54 thumping of Missouri on Wednesday night, the No. 2 recruit in this season’s freshman class dribbled into the paint, gingerly pivoted to his right, recoiled and sank a 12-foot jump shot as his 6-foot-11 frame leaned back while the ball fell off his fingertips. Skal Labissiere’s movement seemed natural and instinctive.
He didn’t think. He just acted.
And if that persists, if Labissiere just plays, perhaps he’ll grow and finish the final chapter of a tumultuous season by displaying the abilities that started this hoopla.
There’s still time for Labissiere to shine.
It’s that pivot-fadeaway combo, and other moves like it, that impressed talent evaluators and elevated Labissiere to the top of the prep rankings and mock drafts.
And then, he played his first game. After that, his second, third and fourth. He did not come close to justifying the hype, only diminishing it. Each lackluster performance muzzled the NBA buzz and even yielded questions about his ability to compete at the collegiate level. He’s not yet a starter in John Calipari’s rotation.
Following Wednesday’s game, Calipari did not focus on Labissiere’s 6-for-8 performance (12 points) and five blocks. He mentioned his problems on the boards. Labissiere didn’t record a rebound.
“If he doesn’t rebound and defend,” Calipari said in his postgame interview, “I’m not playing him to take jump shots.”
That’s the constant knock against Labissiere. Skilled. Promising. But, right now, limited, inconsistent and ineffective.
He’s not measured by a fair standard. His predecessors in Lexington include the future face of the NBA (Anthony Davis), an NBA All-Star who just recorded 104 points in two games (DeMarcus Cousins), a talented, young power forward who is nearly averaging a double-double for the Los Angeles Lakers (Julius Randle) and the favorite for NBA rookie of the year (Karl-Anthony Towns).
But that’s the deal at Kentucky. Still, 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game (with 1.5 blocks) are pedestrian numbers for any elite recruit. So the criticism makes sense.
On Wednesday night, however, Labissiere resembled the promising freshman who signed to play for Calipari. He dove on the floor for loose balls. He swatted shots. And he started the game by making his first four shots.
All against Missouri, a team that will dwell in the SEC’s cellar for the next six weeks.
Last week, however, he finished with 11 points, three rebounds and three blocks in a win at Arkansas -- an effort that preceded his zero points and two fouls in four minutes during Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt.
Perhaps he’s evolving.
Texas A&M’s loss to Arkansas on the same night that Kentucky ruined Missouri only made the SEC race more interesting. Kentucky and LSU are tied for second place at 6-2, while South Carolina is 5-2. The Aggies still command first place with a 7-1 record, but it seems a fight will soon ensue at the top.
The Wildcats have won three in a row. No opponent has registered more than a point per possession in that stretch. Kentucky also recorded a 25 percent block rate in the win over Missouri.
The insertion of Derek Willis (18 points, 12 rebounds) into the starting rotation has energized the Wildcats, who will face the other contenders in the SEC but only after they play Kansas in Lawrence on Saturday.
And Calipari will demand more from Labissiere. He should. Because he has more to give. Tapping into that remains the coach’s greatest challenge this season.
Forget the NBA talk. Labissiere still is not a formidable college player.
But the guy who showed up Wednesday against Missouri, last week against Arkansas and on a smattering of nights earlier this season has something.
He’s just charged with unveiling it -- now.
The season isn’t over. He still has time to prove that the rankings and projections weren’t as misguided as they seem.
In the meantime, enjoy the inklings while we all wonder if we’ll ever witness everything that Labissiere has to offer at this point in his career.