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Jamie Vaught: Versatile UK freshman Labissiere hard to compare to other Wildcat big men

Even though he didn’t play well against a tough Duke team in Chicago Tuesday night because of foul trouble, getting only seven points and four rebounds in 13 minutes, UK’s Skal Labissiere is still going to be one of the nation’s most exciting big men in college basketball this season.

After watching the 6-foot-11, 225-pound freshman from Haiti play a couple of games in person at Rupp Arena, he is definitely going to be fun to watch.

Labissiere, projected by some folks as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, is not your typical big man. Unlike many tall players, he is mobile and fluid with his polished moves around the basket, and he can shoot like a guard.

“He’s totally different than Karl [Anthony Towns],” said coach John Calipari Saturday night after Labissiere’s 26 points (along with five rebounds and team-leading three blocks) in only 21 minutes helped the Cats to a 30-point win over New Jersey Institute of Technology. “He’s just a different player. He’s totally different than Anthony [Davis]. And I’m not comparing him to them two as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.

“So, now you want to play him like Shaq [O’Neal]. He’s not Shaq. He’s never going to be Shaq. So when you get him the ball in seven, eight feet from the basket and he can turn and shoot, I don’t know how you guard him. He’s 7-foot and he raises that thing up.”

Skal Labissiere, projected as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, is not your typical big man.  Unlike many tall players, he is mobile and fluid with  polished moves around the basket, and shoots like a guard (UK Athletics Photo)

Skal Labissiere, projected as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, is not your typical big man. Unlike many tall players, he is mobile and fluid with polished moves around the basket, and shoots like a guard (UK Athletics Photo)

Wildcat senior Alex Poythress — who has played with big men Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns — was asked about Labissiere.

“He’s different,” added Poythress, who also had a solid game against NJIT, getting nine points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. “All of the big men have been different. “They’re all different and all really good.”

Despite his great performance against NJIT, Labissiere understandably still isn’t real comfortable on the hardwood floor. And Coach Cal said he has to do a better job in developing the youngster who now calls Memphis, Tennessee, home.

“The thing is, I’ve got to figure him out,” said the coach. “I haven’t done a really good job. And this is what happens.”

Said Labissiere, who has a friendly personality with an infectious smile, “We talked after the (NJIT) game and he said the same thing. He is going to figure out a way to play me to make me more comfortable out there and we are still working on that. I’m still trying to get more comfortable. I’m still trying to get used to playing with the guys and playing against that level of competition every single day. I think as the year goes on I’ll get more comfortable.”

The Wildcat rookie, who was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week earlier this week, said he tries to put himself in the right position to catch the ball and score.

“Whatever the defense gives me, wherever they make me go, I’m just going to decode whatever they give me,” said Labissiere, who was the No. 1-ranked center in the 2015 high school class by both Rivals and Scout.

Labissiere, who didn’t speak English before moving to the U.S. after the 2010 devastating earthquake in his home country, likes the idea of playing Calipari’s position-less basketball style.

“It means a lot,” he told reporters during the annual UK Media Day festivities in October. “I feel like every day I get better at something. He teaches versatility here. He wants me to do a lot more and not just sitting in the post or blocking shots. He wants me to defend on the perimeter and on offense, do a little bit more from the elbow, drive to the basket and pass. He teaches us how to play basketball, not just be in a certain spot at a certain time.”

Going into the Duke game, Labissiere was averaging a team-leading 17.5 points, five rebounds and 26 minutes.

For Labissiere, only the sky is the limit of what he can do on the floor. And I can hardly wait to see him explode in a future game against Duke, perhaps in
the Final Four.

Needless to say, it’s going to be a fun winter in the Big Blue Nation.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Next week when Kentucky travels to Miami for a holiday date with South Florida on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Calipari will have a reunion of sorts at the first-ever “Hoophall Miami Invitational,” a doubleheader featuring four teams.

He will be facing his former UK/Memphis assistant and current South Florida coach Orlando Antigua, who is beginning his second year at the Tampa school after an initial (and rebuilding) campaign with a 9-23 mark.

Also on the USF staff is assistant Rod Strickland, the former 17-year NBA guard who spent six years with Antigua at Memphis and UK.

That’s not all. There is also USF video coordinator Dominic Lombardi, who spent two seasons as the assistant video coordinator at UK.

Anyhow, South Florida recently was selected 10th in the 11-team American Athletic Conference preseason poll.

In addition to the Kentucky-South Florida 5 p.m. matchup on ESPN, the other contest will feature Memphis and Ohio State at approximately 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

As you may recall, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner has close Calipari ties as well. He spent one year as an assistant for Coach Cal (along with current UK assistant John Robic and Antigua) at Memphis before he was promoted.

Pastner, a former Lute Olson assistant at Arizona who is now entering his seventh year as the Memphis boss, is the ninth-winningest head coach for first six seasons in NCAA Division I hoops history.

Calipari has said it was an easy decision to play in sunny Miami during Thanksgiving. In addition to giving the Kentucky fans who live in Florida a chance to watch the Cats in person, the Wildcats have the opportunity to face against Antigua and his Bulls, who will make a return visit to Rupp Arena during the 2016-17 season.

South Florida, by the way, had a home game against NJIT Monday night, losing 60-57 after blowing a 11-point advantage in the second half, including a five-point lead with less than two minutes remaining. Damon Lynn, a 5-11 guard, scored a game-high 27 points for an NJIT squad that returned eight players, including all five starters, from last season’s 21-win squad, which knocked off then-No. 17 Michigan. (Lynn scored 19 points against the Wildcats.)

The Bulls, 0-2, will face George Washington, Boston University and Albany in the next three games, all in Tampa, before meeting Kentucky.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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