Following a difficult season at Kentucky, Skal Labissiere is getting ready for the draft workouts at IMG Academy in Florida. The personable Haitian forward spoke with HoopsHype about life in his home country, his experience in the States and his hopes for the future in the NBA.
I saw on Twitter how excited you were about Kobe Bryant’s final game. Did you get to watch him play much growing up in Haiti?
Skal Labissiere: Kobe was always playing when basketball was on TV. When I started watching him play basketball, that’s when I fell in love with it.
How big is basketball in Haiti?
SL: It’s not. It’s about soccer there. Basketball is just starting to grow now a little bit, soccer is the first thing for people. I grew up playing soccer myself. It was my favorite sport and then when I got to 11 or 12 years old I realized I was too tall for it and that’s when I tried basketball. My mom told me I should give it a try and I did that. But soccer was my first love. I played forward, although most of my soccer happened just outside playing with friends. I wasn’t on a team and it was not organized or anything. But yeah, I played forward because I like to score (laughs).
When was the last time you went to Haiti?
SL: I have not been back yet. I left almost six years ago. I have to go back. I might go back this year.
Do you miss it?
SL: I do. I have friends down there and I want to catch up with them, see what’s going on. I can’t wait to go back.
I guess the situation is a little better than it was six years ago.
SL: I’m not sure! I think they are still trying to fix things out there. I’m not sure how the country is looking now.
Is the earthquake something you think about much?
SL: I think about it all the time and also about how far I’ve come and the different experiences I’ve been through in my life. When you survive an earthquake, you definitely have to think about that.
How was life for you in the weeks after the earthquake?
SL: It was good, I would say. I was hurt a little bit, but my family managed to survive and we had food. My family made it, so I was mostly thankful for that. I was able to able to go back to school two months after the earthquake. The feeling at that moment is… you’re thankful to be alive. My perspective about life changed a lot. I saw everything can be taken away from you in a matter of seconds. It all changed quite a bit.
So you move to the States after that. Can you talk about how the transition was?
SL: The first few months were hard, I would say. Thankfully, I had a good family who welcomed me and took me in. They really treated me like one of theirs. At school, they treated me like I had been there for a while. It was hard because I didn’t know English at all, so I had to learn English. I didn’t know what the teachers were saying in the classroom. I didn’t know what was going on around me a lot of times. The food was different. It was a big adjustment for me. I had to be more patient and learn to do things on my own.
Did you learn English quickly?
SL: I learned it quicky. At my school that I went to, they were not used to having international students who didn’t speak English at all. We didn’t even really have a French teacher in middle school, so basically everything I had to do it was me trying to figure out things on my own. That really forced me to learn English and I think that was a big thing for me. It was hard, but I made it through it.
Was there any eye-opening moment once in the States or something that really surprised you about life in America?
SL: As far as basketball, it was the speed of the game and how seriously the people here take the game. It was pretty cool and it was different. Off the court, I would say… I think in Haiti kids are more thankful for what they have. We don’t have much (laughs), we don’t have much to worry about. Here in the States, kids worry a little bit more about things and life because they have a lot more options than we do (in Haiti). It’s pretty different.
How well was your family doing financially compared to the regular Haitian folk?
SL: Oh, my family was doing pretty good, I would say. My mom and dad worked really, really hard every single day. They had enough to get a house and put food on the table. We were doing pretty good.
What do you think is the key part for you during the draft process? The combine, the individual workouts with NBA teams, the interviews with executives?
SL: I would say the workouts with the teams, being able to showcase my skillset and show what I can do in the future. I think I have one of the highest upsides in the draft. In two or three years, I think I can be the best player in this draft. I’m still working. I think the workouts are going to be key for me. But also the interviews, just to get the chance to talk to the GMs so they get to know me a little better.
What things in particular do you want to show them about your game and about your personality?
SL: On the court, I think the scouts know how skilled I am. I want to show them a little bit more, that I can be physical too. I want to show that I can play basketball at the next level, want to show my basketball IQ. As for the interviews, I want to show them how confident I am in my abilities.
Was that confidence affected by the struggles of your year in college at any point?
SL: I would say yes somewhere in the middle of the season, but I learned I had to fight through it. By the end of the year, the game became easier. But definitely in the middle of the season, my confidence was tested and a little bit shaken. I definitely had to keep working and at the end of the season everything was better.
How different do you think the coaching in the NBA is going to be compared to what you saw at Kentucky?
SL: Coach Cal did a really good job at getting us ready for the next level. His coaching style, I think, is going to make it easier for us for whatever we find the NBA next.
In which areas do you think you can help a team right away?
SL: On the court, I think my outside shooting is going to be an asset. I think I can guard smaller guys. I’m going to be physical in the post too. I can run the court really well, so I think I can definitely help a team. Off the court, I think I can be a guy who leads by his actions. I’m not such a vocal person who’s going to talk a lot off the court. That would be tough at that level for a young guy, anyways (laughs). But definitely I think I can lead by my actions, plus I’m going to be coachable.
You know guys like you who enter the draft are often compared to current NBA players. In your case, it’s often Anthony Davis. Thoughts on that?
SL: I don’t know. Some of the things we do are kind of different. I think I’m a different type of player. I think I can really shoot the basketball. Anthony Davis is super long and super athletic… I don’t know about that comparison (laughs).