My Sophomore Crush: Skal Labissiere is the unicorn you don’t yet know about

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 29: Skal Labissiere #3 of the Sacramento Kings defends against the Utah Jazz. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 29: Skal Labissiere #3 of the Sacramento Kings defends against the Utah Jazz. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images) /

It’s summer — popsicles, beaches, campfires and summer love. As the heat rises, time slows and crushes develop. We’re leaning into that amorous mood this week at The Step Back, sharing our sophomore crushes. Last year may have given us an uninspiring rookie class, but we’re feeling pretty enamored with the future.

On March 15, 2017, Kings rookie forward Skal Labissiere scored 32 points on 15 shots in a win over the Suns. I was in love.

Labissiere is a long but nimble 21-year-old. At 6-foot-11, he moves with a sort of grace on the court, almost as if he’s floating an inch over the hardwood. His long arms put up soft floaters. His knees seemingly line up with smaller players’ waists.

Read More: Skal could be a special offensive player

At one point during the fourth quarter, Labissiere got the ball at the elbow and was guarded by 10-year veteran Jared Dudley. Labissiere faced the basket and sized him up. He head-faked left, dribbled to the right and immediately spun back the other way to force himself five feet closer to the rim. Keeping his pivot foot, he spun back. Now he had nearly five feet of space between him and his surprised defender. Labissiere rose up, taking full advantage of his 9-foot standing reach, and flicked the ball toward the basket. In Dudley’s haste to close out, he fouled Labissiere, who fell to the floor as the ball went through the net.

Labissiere was rated as one of the top recruits in the country when he committed to the University of Kentucky, where he played one season before declaring for the draft. His lone collegiate season was unimpressive. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. The Kings selected Labissiere No. 28 overall. If they re-did the 2016 NBA Draft today, he’d go much higher.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has compared Labissiere to Anthony Davis. Like Davis, he is long even for a big man, but moves like a guard. He’s comfortable navigating through traffic with the ball in his hands. You almost forget how big he is when he’s dribbling, but then he suddenly springs up for a hook shot and he grows like a sponge when you add water. His footwork is impeccable, and he has natural touch around the basket.

His 32-point game against Phoenix showed off his potential. He took fellow rookie Marquese Chriss — who was taken 21 spots higher (Chriss was actually selected by the Kings, then traded to the Suns for the pick that became Labissiere and other assets) — off the dribble, and his lunch.

Later in the game, he popped out beyond the 3-point line and nailed a sweet-looking jumper. Labissiere took just eight 3-pointers last season, and made three of them. He should take more next season. He has picture-perfect mechanics and his reach gives him launching space.

Next: Young players and who they can study to improve

Before Sacramento traded DeMarcus Cousins, Labissiere hardly played at all. After the trade, however, he appeared in each of the final 26 games of the season, and averaged 10 points and 5.8 rebounds a contest. The Kings will go into next season with several big men, but none of them more intriguing or enticing than Labissiere. A team searching for their next star may not have to look very far.