Portland Trail Blazer forward Skal Labissiere was supposed to be a star. He was the second-highest ranked recruit coming out of high school and was projected in the top five of the 2016 NBA draft. The Haitian sensation was supposed to thrive at the University of Kentucky, becoming yet another one-and-done stud for John Calipari.
But then the struggles began. Labissiere had a great start with a 26-point outing in only his second game as a Wildcat. But soon he would be plagued by an inability to rebound or defend. He lost his starting job to former three-star recruit Derek Willis. “I probably screwed this guy up trying to make him Karl Towns,” Calipari said later.
Labissiere fell to the Sacramento Kings at 28th in the 2016 draft, struggling to find consistent minutes and eventually getting glued to the bench for most of the 2018-19 season. But at the 2019 trade deadline, Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey flipped Caleb Swanigan for Skal in a trade that has proved this season to be one that has prevented an already decimated Blazers frontcourt from getting even thinner.
Skal has seen a significant increase in playing time thanks in no small part to a rash of injuries to Portland’s frontcourt. With players like Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins injured and Hassan Whiteside dealing with his fair share of nagging injuries, Labissiere has shined in a limited yet important role. Labissiere has shown that he can be a valuable player to this Blazer squad moving forward.
Damian Lillard had high praise for Labissiere for his play before the season, noting that he was the MVP of training camp.
“I know he’s ready to play,” Lillard told The Oregonian back in October. “If we had to pick an MVP from camp, it’s him, 100 percent, in my mind... I think that’s how good he was in camp on both ends. I think we’ve always known Skal is a really talented player, but you can tell he came into this camp with a purpose, trying to prove himself.”
He’s shown why in his 22 games played. He’s done a lot of the little things well. The numbers aren’t eye-popping. A little over six points and five boards in 17 minutes a game isn’t exactly All-Star level. But Labissiere passes the eye test from a hustle standpoint. He’s consistently set hard screens, averaging the third-most screen assists on the team (3.2) behind only Whiteside (4.0) and Collins (5.3), the latter of the two only playing three games. He’s active on defense, contesting 9.3 shots per game. He’s tied for the best +/- of any bench player with Nassir Little, which makes sense considering they both play with the highest amount of energy on the team.
Labissiere provides a different kind of offense than the usual Blazer big man. Whereas Whiteside’s only offensive value is in paint, Labissiere is a face-up threat. He’s made 29-of-52 shots from mid-range, good for 58.3% and 1.12 points per possession.
His shooting overall has been better and more efficient than in years past. He’s shooting 57.3% from the field and 28.6% from three (though he’s averaging less than half an attempt per game). It’s his best shooting percentage since his rookie year, when he only played 33 games before being relegated to a G-League assignment.
Shooting big men are always a premium in the NBA. When teams fail to respect his mid-range game, Labissiere has the potential to take advantage. In a game earlier this year against Milwaukee he did just that, while also hitting his only two threes of the season for his first two buckets.
Adding a three point shot to his game could be the next step. The Milwaukee game was the only one where he attempted more than one three and he hit 50% of them. The three-pointer isn’t really a part of his game and never has been, but he has a smooth shooting stroke and is only 23. If that becomes a fixture for him, he becomes a more potent threat offensively.
Where his value has really climbed, however, is on the defensive end. Labissiere has gone from a notably bad defender to a solid contributor in that respect. He’s averaging one block a game and has two or more blocks in a game six times already this season. His season high for games of two or more blocks is 10. He’s averaging 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes, a career high and almost as many as Whiteside per 36 (Whiteside’s record-breaking 10-block game separated him a little bit). He’s averaging a career-high block rate of 5.1%, good for 15th in the league currently.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story with Labissiere’s defense. He’s extremely active on that end, using his length to disrupt shots. His biggest disadvantage on this end is his propensity for fouling. He’s averaging about 5.9 fouls per 36 minutes. Fouling out every game is certainly less than ideal from one of your big men. Still, he hasn’t been a net-negative on that end, with a DBPM of 2.0 and 0.3 defensive win shares. It’s an improvement over what he has been in the past, becoming a legitamate threat on that end.
Labissiere most likely will never be the superstar he was once tapped to be. Once Nurkic and Collins come back from injury, Labissiere will more than likely be shoved back to the end of the bench. He might even be added on as a part of a trade package before February. But Labissiere has done fine stepping into what has been a depleted frontcourt. Coach Cal couldn’t make Skal a superstar, but the kid isn’t totally screwed up.