BROOKLYN – Several teams in the NBA cellar had representatives on hand to watch Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray at the CBS Sports Classic. Suffice to say it was Murray whose stock rose the most despite Kentucky’s loss to Ohio State.
76ers GM Sam Hinkie, Pelicans GM Dell Demps and other NBA personnel were on hand at Barclays Center for the event.
Murray lit the scoreboard up like Times Square on New Year’s with 33 points. Murray was efficient from the field (13-23) and on fire from beyond the arc (7-9), scoring 27 of his points in the second half. Labissiere, on the other hand, struggled mightily with two points on 1-for-7 shooting.
After entering the season as a potential top overall pick, Labissiere has averaged a paltry 4.0 points and 2.4 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, playing one borough over, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl had 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks against No. 7 ranked Duke at Madison Square Garden. On the season, the 7-foot Austrian is averaging 19.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
“I’d take Poeltl over Skal right now,” one scout who has watched both players extensively told SheridanHoops. “(Poeltl) is more advanced skill-wise right now. I think Skal was a little bit overrated.”
While another scout didn’t go as far as picking Poeltl over Labissiere, he did acknowledge Poeltl’s stock has risen.
“(Poeltl) is definitely a lottery pick and he should go top 10,” another scout told SheridanHoops.
Not bad for a guy who was considered a fringe lottery prospect by some scouts before deciding to remain at Utah for his sophomore season.
At this point, Labissiere is reminiscent of Marcus Camby – a lanky shot blocker whose supreme length and timing allowed him to excel as a rim protector. Both players also can hit a jumper from the foul line extended if called upon.
Due to his slender frame, Labissiere primarily fronts the post if an opponent is on the block. Labissiere’s long arms and quick feet allowed him to deny all entry passes against Ohio State’s frontcourt.
Labissiere’s frontcourt partner, Marcus Lee, thinks the early season struggles are all part of the maturation process.
“You forget he’s a freshman,” Lee said. “He’s going to do freshman things, like all basketball players. Here at Kentucky, he has to speed things up and figure things out quicker. Once he starts figuring out the flow of Kentucky basketball and what he has to do for us to win, he’ll be fine.”
Labissiere showed brief flashes of the vast potential that had NBA personnel buzzing heading into the season. He blocked two shots and altered several others that became high arcing floaters outside the midway point of the foul line from penetrating guards. He also had a nice spin move in the post before a double team swarmed under the basket when he beat his defender.
However, those flashes weren’t enough for Kentucky coach John Calipari to consistently call upon Labissiere in crunch time with the game on the line. Instead, Calipari went with Lee and senior Alex Poythress.
“There were two plays, two rebounds and a missed lefty (shot) late, and we’re trying to win the game,” Calipari said. “We don’t have time. We’ll work on that later. But I thought he made strides today. He’s been pretty good in practice and he’s making strides now.”
If Kentucky wants to return to the Final Four, they’ll need Labissiere to become more consistent and play like a projected No. 1 pick.
“I would say I know this, we’re not as good as we were a year ago,” Calipari said. “It’s pretty obvious. I think we still have a good enough team to do some things.”
Just ask Buckeyes coach Thad Matta who had nightmares when preparing for Murray.
“He’s the one guy that we feared going in, in terms of him having the capability of getting hot,” Matta said. “Now, we had no idea he was going to get that hot, but that’s what great players do. He kind of put them on his back and got them back in the game.”
Murray went 7-for-8 from 3-point range in the second half and had the Wildcats on the brink of a comeback.
“I turned to the bench at one point and I said, ‘Is there anybody that can guard him right now?’” Matta said.
Murray has been hyped as the next big thing out of Canada since he was named MVP of the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic International Game.
As he proved against Ohio State, Murray is a scoring guard capable of lighting up the scoreboard creating off the dribble, off the catch and in pick-and-roll sets where he split two Buckeye defenders. When Kentucky seemed down and out, it was Murray who displayed the body language and facial expressions of a player determined to carry his team on his back.
Murray has solidified himself in the top 10 of the lottery after averaging 20 points per game over his last six contests.
“The way he started the game, I had to take him out twice because you’re not being aggressive,” Calipari said. “You’re just coming down and dribbling and throwing it. We’re throwing it ahead for you to score, and you’re throwing it to a point guard underneath the basket with a 7-footer on him. Excuse me?”
With Murray getting the green light, college coaches like Matta will loose more sleep preparing for the Wildcats as the season progresses.
NBA scouting departments will also lose sleep in the coming months trying to decide which of these prospects is best destined for stardom down the road.