NEW YORK – If former Kentucky teammate Jamal Murray’s NBA Draft night featured a miniature slide Thursday, only to No. 7 overall, Skal Labissiere experienced a full-blown free fall, almost completely out of the first round.
“I know God has a plan for me,” an exhausted Labissiere said when it was finally over. “It was tough at first, but one thing about all of us now: everything starts over for all of us. So I’m excited to get to work.”
Widely projected to be picked in the top 10 by the time the draft started at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Labissiere ended up among the last three prospects left in the “green room,” hearing his name called mercifully by the Sacramento Kings (via the Phoenix Suns) with the 28th pick.
“I’ve been there before with guys, later in the round. It’s hard. It’s hard to sit through it,” said UK coach John Calipari, who alternated verge-of-vomiting looks and encouraging words to Labissiere during the wait. “But you know what? It’s the greatest thing: doesn’t matter where you got picked. You’re in. You go prove that you should’ve been picked earlier, that you’re better than this guy, that guy.
“But you’re in. You can’t prove yourself if you’re not in, and that’s the great thing about our program: you’re going to get your opportunities.”
At one point, shortly before Labissiere was picked, Calipari shouted across the table to get his attention and lift his spirits. “Hey!” he the coach said. “You. Are. Good.”
Labissiere said Calipari told him he’d be fine, to “use that as fuel to get better; he told me how good I was.”
Based on performance, the slide made plenty of sense. He averaged just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in his lone, turbulent season with the Wildcats. But most analysts assumed his enormous potential would be irresistible to teams in the draft lottery (first 14 picks).
Instead, a parade of unknown foreign players (a record number for the first round) were picked ahead of him, many of them coming out of the stands to stride across the stage as Labissiere sat slumped and miserable-looking. He certainly hadn’t seen this coming.
“I want to be a Hall of Famer one day,” he said confidently, if curiously, on Wednesday. “I’m going to work really hard and I have the skill set to do it. I firmly believe that. I’m a 6-11 guy that can run the floor, shoot it really well, put it on the floor, be very versatile on defense. So I firmly believe that I have the skill set, and I have the mindset now, and I’m just going to be working.”
The Suns hope so, because even that far down in the draft, they’re betting on the raw tools that once made him a top-ranked high school prospect – who some even thought would become the No. 1 pick.
“I can’t think of an analog to him in a past draft, where a guy came in and he was expected to be top-two or top-three picks and the bottom fell out from under him after his freshman year – and then he came out anyway,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “I think he’s the most difficult prospect to figure out in this whole draft for me because he’s got some really solid selling points. He’s got an excellent shooting touch, his timing is good, he can block shots.
“But he didn’t do it in games, and he got pushed around by guys that got pushed around by other people. That was a little bit surprising to me, frankly.”
And yet, he still became Calipari’s 27th draft pick and 21st first-round selection since the coach was hired at UK in 2009. “He’s got brothers out there,” Calipari said, noting Labissiere will join former Wildcats Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein in Sacramento.
“He’s a gamble,” Bilas said. “I think he’s going one-on-none in all these workouts and you can see the talent, but he’s going to have to play in a crowd, and he hasn’t show really that he can do that yet. That’s where the game comes in. But in the middle of the first round, I think he’s worth taking a risk on.”
In addition to Calipari, Labissiere was joined on draft night by his mother, father and brother from Haiti, with whom he survived a deadly earthquake that collapsed their home in 2010. Even after plummeting, Labissiere is set to become a millionaire.
“It’s always been my dream to do this,” he said. “My family, they’ve supported me throughout this process. They’ve been doing a lot for me throughout my whole life. They took care of me. So I’m very happy to be able to help them now.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.