Skal Labissiere has quickly become a favorite among Sacramento Kings fans as his smooth shot and overall aggressiveness has helped provide a positive outlook on the future of the franchise.
The 6'11'' rookie out of Kentucky has been a pleasant surprise in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins trade to the New Orleans Pelicans, but his play hasn't been a surprise to his teammates.
Kings guard Darren Collison has seen what Labissiere does in practice.
"I wasn't surprised. Skal actually has been one of our better players in practice, believe it or not. He just hasn't had the opportunity. We see it all the time in the NBA, if a guy goes down, the next man up and usually sometimes that guy ends up stepping into that opportunity and having some success with it," Collison said. "Skal has been working since he got here. I see that kid work after the games, in the gym by himself, before practice, after practice, before the games, after the games, so it's good to see that work finally paying off for him. He's a workaholic."
Labissiere, who has averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game over the last four games, understands how fortunate he is to be in the NBA and is doing everything he can to take advantage of it.
"My whole thing is about getting better any way I can, every single day. I realize that basketball can be taken away from you at any moment so I'm very thankful and blessed to be even here today playing this game of basketball. Every day I get a chance to go out there and get to come in here and work – I try to seize the moment," Labissiere said.
Labissiere played in 17 games with the Reno Bighorns this season and was averaging 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 31 minutes per game. He started for the Kings on Wednesday in the game against the Brooklyn Nets, but only finished with 15 minutes. Some fans have questioned why the big man has not received more time in the rotation. Head coach Dave Joerger discussed Labissiere recently with Grant Napear and Doug Christie on Sports 1140 KHTK (at the 27-minute mark). Joerger echoed the sentiment about how hard Labissiere works every day. He also said he likes how versatile he is and how he has wanted to bring Labissiere along slowly, selecting matchups that work in his favor:
"With Skal what we've tried to do is look, learn one position, learn pro basketball, the speed, the size, the body-on-body-ness, and now he's coming along. What I've tried to do is pick matchups that are a little bit better for him. I'm not trying to trot Willie [Cauley-Stein] and Skal out there in their first extensive runs against frontline guys. Trying to catch them a matchup where they get the second unit guy, not to say those guys aren’t good players either. Get your feet wet, come along,” Joerger told Napear and Christie.
So when does he get more minutes? He elaborated on that as well.
“I want him to have some confidence and I want him to feel good ... I don't really worry if the ball goes in or not, whether you played a nice game or not. I think we talk about we want the ball caught at the elbow, you've got to catch the darn thing at the elbow and we've got to deliver it to guys when they are open and those kinds of things,” Joerger said. “Brook Lopez walked him down to four feet, turned around and said, ‘I would like the ball now.’ That's not a perfect matchup once or twice, but you've got to do your work early and you can't let him get it at four feet - you've got to figure out a way to fight him or front him."
Essentially, Joerger plans to continue to teach Labissiere various things about the game at a slow pace, and as he grasps new parts of the game move him on to new challenges.
And Labissiere isn't worried about his minutes, he's focused on getting better. One thing he will need to do to take it to the next level in the NBA is put on some muscle. Currently listed at 225 pounds, Labissiere may have trouble battling with the league’s power forwards and centers. He’s taking a slow, but steady approach to this as well.
"I'm working on it. It's going to take time, but it's going to come,” he said. "One thing I learned is that you don't have to get big too fast. As long I keep getting stronger every single day I think I can hold my own.”
The 28th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft certainly sounds like he is holding his own in practice and in his dedication to getting better.