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Keith Taylor: Calipari, Cats have faith in Labissiere, not worried about recent lack of production

John Calipari hasn’t lost faith in Skal Labissiere.

“I love Skal,” the Kentucky coach said. “Skal is going to be good.”

 Skal Labissiere connects on a slam dunk in a win over EKU earlier this month (Darrell Jordan Photo)

Skal Labissiere connects on a slam dunk in a win over EKU earlier this month (Darrell Jordan Photo)

Although he arrived with lofty expectations, Labissiere’s growth has taken more time than expected to develop.

When he arrived at Kentucky, the 6-foot-11 forward was being counted on to pick up where top NBA Draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns left off last season. In four of his first six games, Labissiere recorded double figures, including a career-high 26 points in an 87-57 rout of NJIT on Nov. 14. He posted three consecutive double-figure games in wins over Wright State, Boston and South Florida.

Since then, Labissiere has scored double figures just once. He was held scoreless in Kentucky’s 72-58 win over Arizona State last Saturday and has scored just 18 points in the past four games.

Despite the regression in point production, Calipari isn’t worried and added it’s part of the growth process.

“This is all a great thing that he’s got to work through and it’s the first time in his life,” Calipari said. “You understand he came from Haiti. He played basketball for a year and a half and then he played church league for two years. He’s never been through any of this. This is all new to him.”

Calipari said the level of competition has played a role in Labissiere’s slow adjustment to the faster pace of the college game.

“He played a couple games that were more like pickup games,” Calipari said. “He made some jumpers. He ran up and down. And now there were no men. See, he’s playing against men now. The kid he went against (in the win over Arizona State) was a senior and just bulldozed him and he couldn’t play against a man. This is all part of it.”

Kentucky junior Marcus Lee went through the same process during his first two seasons with the Wildcats and added it even took time for Towns to get adjusted in the post.

“Even (Towns) wasn’t ready (on) Day 1,” Lee said. “Cal says it over and over. It takes time. Even though we’re on a shorter time limit because we’re at Kentucky, it still takes the same amount of time.”

Derek Willis, also a junior, said Labissiere has reached a turning point and said it’s a choice whether or not the freshman center decides to take the next step.

“You either adapt or you die,” Willis said. “You come back another year or you figure it out. You’re going to have to fight wherever you go. If you don’t learn here, he’s going to have to. He’s a young kid. He’s never had to do any of this stuff before. It’s all new to him. He’ll get it down.”

In addition to his struggles on offense, especially in game situations, Labissiere has managed just 11 rebounds in the last five games. Like Calipari, Murray isn’t concerned about Labissiere’s offensive woes and said rebounding is a higher priority.

“He’s just has to focus on rebounding and not worry about his offensive skills because he’s one of a kind on offense,” Murray said. “That’s uncoachable. He just has to fight, get in the paint and get rebounds for us.”

Until Labissiere figures it out, he will continue to receive support from Calipari and the rest of his teammates.

“(We) just encourage him,” Murray said. “Everyone has their different style of coaching. Skal just has to get used to it and figure out a way to outrebound and fight. But he knows we’ll always have his back.”

Game tracker: Kentucky vs. Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS Sports, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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