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A Blueprint for Big Men

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Does the past explain the present?

Charlotte Hornets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

This year, Skal Labissiere has been a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but as Winston Churchill said, perhaps there is a key. Our young big man has shown flashes of the potential we witnessed last March and April, but the irregularity of his play has prevented him from regular appearances on the hardwood, leading to frustration among the fan base.

After a strong close to his rookie season, Labissiere was projected as a key cog in the Kings rebuilding efforts. Everyone believed he would walk into his second Summer League stint and dominate the competition, while also battling Zach Randolph for the starting power forward position once October rolled around.

Neither of those things happened.

Instead, Skal struggled mightily in Las Vegas, drove a fanbase from incredibly hopeful to moderately concerned, and he has not been able to establish himself in the rotation. The struggles have been mostly mental rather than talent-driven, and his inability to consistently overcome that roadblock has caused Dave Joerger’s confidence in him to falter. A fog has slowly blanketed Labissiere's future as a building block for the franchise.

Oddly enough, an incredibly similar situation developed early last season.

Back in the 2015-2016 campaign, Kings' rookie Willie Cauley-Stein had an encouraging end to his first season in the pros. He averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds in the post All-Star world, and was expected to walk into Summer League and dominate lesser competition. There was debate as to whether established veteran Kosta Koufos could be moved, with Willie claiming his place as a backup to DeMarcus Cousins.

Neither of those things happened.

Instead, he struggled mightily in Las Vegas, drove a fanbase from incredibly hopeful to moderately concerned, and was unable to establish himself in the rotation. The struggles seemed to be mostly mental rather than talent-driven, and his inablity to stay focused during games caused Dave Joerger’s confidence in him to falter.

About halfway through the season, many, myself included, were unsure of his place as a building block for the future of the franchise.

The flashes of brilliance, atrocious Summer Leagues, mental struggles, battles to steal minutes from a veteran counterpart, and sophomore slumps have been almost identical in connecting between Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere. And just as their trials seem to be incredibly alike, Dave Joerger's treatment of the two players has also been eerily similar.

Over the past three months, Labissiere’s minutes have fluctuated heavily, confounding fans and media alike. He’s drifted from regular starter to bench contributor to zero opportunity given, and has managed to cycle through those different scenarios a couple of times through just half of a season. Skal has received 5 DNP-CDs, including a short stint in Reno; but he’s also started 15 games and played at least 12 minutes in 26 contests. The inconsistency is a bit maddening at times, especially when not considering Joerger's past approach.

As annoyed as some have been with Coach’s proclivity toward pulling Skal early and often, he was actually much harsher with Willie last season.

While the minutes aren't an exact match each and every game, the ups and downs on a nightly basis are replicated quite often. There are massive peaks followed by depressing valleys, and seemingly random shifts in opportunities presented.

In his first 37 games of the 2016-2017 season, Cauley-Stein averaged just 11.6 minutes per game compared to Labissiere’s 16.4. Willie didn’t play a single second in seven games, while Skal hasn’t seen action in five. Labissiere also owns the top eight games in total minutes played when looking at their sophomore seasons. There’s no question that Labissiere has been given a bit more of an opportunity than Willie was in their second year of professional basketball:

Opportunities Compared

Minutes Cauley-Stein Labissiere
Minutes Cauley-Stein Labissiere
1-9 11 5
10-19 17 19
20+ 3 8

It’s clear that Joerger employs a baby-steps blueprint when developing a struggling young big man. He tends to offer minutes in small bites as opportunities come along, and if the player handles that opportunity well, he feeds them a bit more. If there is a struggle, especially on defense, Coach is going to pull back a bit and restart the process.

An intense level of caution is also bundled with the small bites, demonstrated by the set amount of court time that Labissiere has been allowed on a per-game basis, even when he plays well. The method being utilized is more akin to starting a small fire with kindling, and building that up from a warm blaze to a roaring bonfire, rather than pouring gasoline on a pile of wood and striking a match.

And that approach seemed to work for Willie Cauley-Stein. In the first half of last season, he averaged just 10.9 minutes per game, and as previously mentioned, sat for seven full contests. In the latter 41 games, his time on the floor more than doubled, as that number jumped all the way to 25.2 minutes per game.

It would be foolish to attribute that increase in chances to impress solely to planning. DeMarcus Cousins was traded after the 57th game, however there was a significant uptick in time on the court even before the acquisition of Buddy Hield:

In his first 41 games, Cauley-Stein averaged about 11 minutes per game. After the first half of the year, but prior to the All-Star break, that number increased to 18 minutes. After the Omri Casspi blockbuster trade, there was another jump to a team-leading 30.9 minutes per game.

The spoon-fed game plan for our seven-footer with concentration issues has seemed to pay off. He's now second on the team in minutes, and has justified his quotes about being a better offensive player than was projected. The improvement in his game hasn't been linear, as is never the case in basketball, but the steady growth on both ends of the floor is absolutely real.

Of course, a short leash over the course of half of a season isn't the only reason for Cauley-Stein's increase in production. He's the one who spent time in the gym, developed his game in the offseason, and worked with the coaching staff to establish his role on the team. However, if we are going to assign blame when Dave Joerger seems to fail in development by whatever tool we use to assess his success, we must also acknowledge when something we may disagree with leads to growth.

The advantage of studying Dave Joerger's approach with Cauley-Stein last season helps to decipher the seemingly random plan for Labissiere's minutes dispersal over the past few months. The plan may work. The plan may not work. But if you are unwilling to acknowledge the correlation between the short leash that Dave Joerger held for Willie Cauley-Stein last season, and his intense growth this season, with Joerger's minutes plan for Skal during the current campaign, you may have chosen to don intentional blinders.

It’s not that there isn’t a plan. Or that the plan doesn’t make sense. It’s simply a different approach from what we would do if we were at the helm.