Second in a series.
Less than a year from now, University of Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere will walk across a stage mere seconds after being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The fact that Labissiere can even walk at all is nothing short of a miracle.
On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale devastated the city of Port-au-Price, Haiti. According to conservative estimates, more than 100,000 people lost their lives that afternoon, and approximately a quarter of a million homes were destroyed.
One of those homes belonged to the Labissiere family. Shortly before 5:00 PM on that fateful day, Skal (who was 13 at the time) returned home from school and went inside to get something to eat while his father, Lesly, stayed outside to fix the basketball hoop in the backyard.
Without warning, the ground began to lurch and buckle, and Labissiere and his younger brother Elliot had just enough time to find their mother before the walls started to crumble around them. Less than a minute later, the trio found themselves trapped in the only room in the family's second story duplex that didn't collapse, thanks in large part to a computer desk supporting the wall of the home.
Lesly Labissiere spent the next three hours digging his family out of the rubble, and when his oldest son emerged, Skal Labissiere wasn't able to walk. The teenage basketball star had crouched over his family to protect them from the falling debris, and as a result of being forced in that position for such a lengthy period of time, Labissiere's legs went numb.
It took two months for him to fully recover, and the earthquake only served to accelerate Labissiere's plans to move to the United States in order to pursue a basketball career. In the fall of 2010, Labissiere left Haiti and made the trip to Olive Branch, Mississippi to attend 8th grade at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova, Tennessee.
The Memphis suburb was a completely different world - literally and figuratively - from Labissiere's home in Port-au-Prince. For starters, he was 1,500 miles away from everything and everyone that he had ever known. American food was so foreign to him that he used to throw away half-eaten hamburgers because he didn't like the way that they tasted. And with French and Creole as his native languages, Labissiere initially had trouble grasping the nuances of English, but soon became fluent thanks to a steady diet of "Hardwood Classics" episodes on NBA TV.
Labissiere's move to the States was engineered by Gerald Hamilton, Labissiere's guardian and the founder of Reach Your Dream - a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to provide educational opportunities for foreign students. However, you don't have to scratch too far below the surface to see that the foundation is a thinly-veiled pipeline for international basketball talent.
For years, Labissiere and fellow Haitian (and former Evangelical Christian School teammate) Samuel Jean-Gilles were the only two players ever linked to Reach Your Dream. As soon as it became apparent that Jean-Gilles wasn't a potential Division I athlete, Hamilton (who also served as his legal guardian) sent him away for good on a 29-hour bus ride to Boston.
Meanwhile, a dispute between Labissiere (or, more likely, Hamilton) and Evangelical Christian's coaching staff led the 6'11" basketball star to transfer to Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis for his senior year. But after the Tennessee School Secondary Athletic Association denied his request for a hardship waiver, Labissiere was ruled ineligible for the 2014-15 season.
Last October, Labissiere posted on Twitter that he would finish up his high school career with the Reach Your Dream Prep Academy. There was only one problem: At the time of Labissiere's announcement, the school didn't exist.
In an effort to get Labissiere back on the court, Hamilton formed a separate entity known as Reach Your Dream Prep Academy: A hybrid home school association/travel team that allowed Labissiere to play basketball while still attending classes at Lausanne. To no one's surprise, the hastily-assembled Reach Your Dream Archangels were horribly overmatched, but the team was competitive enough to allow Labissiere to show out against high-level competition (26.0 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 4.5 BPG).
While the circumstances surrounding his prep career are a bit ambiguous, his performance on the court has been anything but. In 2011, Labissiere was named the "Top Prospect" at the 2011 Fab Frosh Camp, a high-profile gathering of rising high school freshmen that included Allonzo Trier and P.J. Watson, both of whom finished in the top 20 of ESPN's Class of 2015 rankings. Labissiere was generally considered the best talent at the 2013 Nike Elite 100 camp, and he has spent most of the past two seasons dominating the AAU circuit.
Calipari on Skal Labissiere: "By the end of the year, you're going to say, ‘This kid's ridiculous.'" http://t.co/TbG8a6oaEF— Ben Roberts (@NextCats) July 28, 2015
Labissiere's rapid ascension up the ranks is a testament to his work ethic, a trait that he explained in greater detail in an interview last week with CoachCal.com:
"I just love working. It might be painful at the time, but at the end of the day I know I'm going to get better. It's just temporary, like the pain I'm going through when I'm working out. But after workouts I just feel like I got better. I just like to take it a day at a time, step-by-step, and it's just a process. I really enjoy it."
The Lausanne/RYD Prep controversy prevented Labissiere from playing in the McDonald's All-American Game, but the 7-footer solidified his status as a top-3 prospect with his showing at April's Nike Hoop Summit in Portland (21 points, six rebounds and six blocks). In the wake of Labissiere's performance, Evan Daniels of Scout.com said that the Kentucky freshman is the "best long-term prospect" in the Class of 2015. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead wrote that Labissiere is a "more offensive-minded Karl-Anthony Towns", and ESPN.com director of recruiting Paul Biancardi was effusive in his praise of the Haitian star:
He's a very talented offensive player for his size in terms of shooting ability, facing the basket, a low-post jump hook, and he's an extremely good passer. And he's a developing shot-blocker... But the great thing about Skal is his teachable spirit. He really absorbs what you tell him and wants to be coached and wants to be better.
Just as fellow freshman Ben Simmons has been tabbed as LeBron James 2.0, many have drawn parallels between Labissiere and New Orleans Pelicans' standout Anthony Davis. The two have similar builds, both can handle the ball in transition, and both are dangerous from mid-range. Labissiere doesn't have elite measurables for a player his size (his wingspan is just 7'1" and change), but when you're a 7-footer with the shooting stroke of a wing player, chances are that your strengths far outpace your weaknesses.
When and where we'll next get a glimpse of those strengths and weaknesses is another matter entirely. With roughly two months until Kentucky's season-opening game against Albany, the NCAA has still yet to rule on Labissiere's eligibility for the 2015-16 campaign. Wildcats' coach John Calipari - who has been scouting Labissiere since the latter's days at Evangelical Christian - is confident that things will work out in Kentucky's favor, but that didn't prevent him from bringing in 7-foot Australian center Isaac Humphries as something of an insurance policy.
During an interview with CBS Sports last summer, Labissiere kicked around the idea of foregoing college altogether in favor of playing overseas. Big Blue Nation hopes that their prized recruit isn't forced to leave Lexington, but regardless of how the NCAA rules, it won't be long before we see Labissiere in an NBA uniform. And regardless of what happens, Labissiere will be grateful for the opportunity - an opportunity he wasn't sure that he would ever see.
"I understand that [life] can be taken away from me at any moment, at any second," said Labissiere when asked about the earthquake. "It was a terrible thing that happened, but I think I learned a lot from it and it made me into the person I am today."