LAS VEGAS -- When I first wrote about Skal Labissiere, around this time a little more than two years ago, he was a 6-foot-9, 16-year-old still adjusting to life and basketball in the United States after moving here eight months following an earthquake that devastated Haiti and literally left him trapped under his home for hours. Now, he's a 6-foot-11, 18-year-old at the center of a recruiting battle involving Georgetown, Kentucky, Memphis, North Carolina and, yes, even Ole Miss. And on Thursday, he became the first Class of 2015 prospect to publicly acknowledge that he's interested in maybe skipping college altogether and playing a year overseas before, presumably, entering the 2016 NBA Draft.
"Overseas is an option," Labissiere told CBSSports.com after another nice performance here at the Las Vegas Classic, one of many NCAA-sanctioned events that bookend the July Evaluation Period. "I don't know yet for sure. We'll see. But that is a lot of money."
The money Labissiere referenced is the $1.2 million contract Emmanuel Mudiay agreed to earlier this week with a pro franchise in China, and there's no denying that development has been a topic of conversation the past few days. Some think it could represent the beginning of a trend while others insist it's merely another example of a prospect bouncing overseas to escape eligibility concerns, which is what Brandon Jennings did in 2008. Time will tell, I guess. But Labissiere, outside of Spring Valley High while standing in the Nevada sun, told CBSSports.com on Thursday that the overseas option is an intriguing one for obvious reasons, and a source added that Labissiere's guardian, Gerald Hamilton, has made inquiries in an attempt to determine if there might be a market overseas for a prototypical pick-and-pop forward who is listed as the 19th-best rising senior in 247Sports' composite rankings (and in the top 10 of various other rankings).
Meantime, John Thompson III (Georgetown), John Calipari (Kentucky), Josh Pastner (Memphis), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss) remain locked in one of the more complex recruitments going. All five coaches are here in Las Vegas watching Labissiere, and, at this point, sources close to the recruitment believe Memphis, Kentucky and Ole Miss are the programs best positioned to gain his commitment.
Because Labissiere attends Evangelical Christian School in Memphis and plays summer ball with M33M, a program based in Memphis and funded by NBA veteran Mike Miller. Labissiere is routinely on the Memphis campus and a fixture at Tigers games. So in lots of ways, for lots of reasons, Memphis makes lots of sense.
Because it's Kentucky. (Duh!) Nobody has a better record than Calipari in recent years of enrolling elite prospects and transitioning them into the NBA, and Labissiere understands as much. So in lots of ways, for lots of reasons, Kentucky makes lots of sense.
Why Ole Miss?
This is the option that's most interesting and, on the surface, surprising because, let's be real, there aren't many recruiting battles that come down to Memphis, UK, UNC, Georgetown and Ole Miss. But Kennedy and his staff -- most notably assistant Tony Madlock, a Memphis native -- have done a tremendous job of framing an option that could prove to be a nice alternative to both Memphis and Kentucky, and that option is rooted in the widely accepted theory that Hamilton would prefer Labissiere not attend college too far from home for a number of reasons -- one of which, multiple sources have told CBSSports.com, is because Hamilton would rather not risk "losing control" of a prospect he brought to this country, brought into his home and has, for several years, raised as his own.
Truth be told, Ole Miss and Memphis are both playing that card -- that Labissiere enrolling at UK would separate him from Hamilton and open the way for William Wesley or Jay Z (or any number of folks, really) to swoop in and create a divide that could cost Hamilton what one industry source described as his "meal ticket" for a 501 (c) (3) organization he founded called Reach Your Dream. If avoiding such is important to Hamilton, the argument goes, then he better try to guide Labissiere away from Kentucky -- not to mention UNC and Georgetown.
Forever, this is at least partly why Memphis has been considered a likely landing spot.
And it still is, frankly.
But what Ole Miss recognized is that there might be an opening here because Labissiere isn't a typical "Memphis" kid, and he isn't that for two reasons:
- He was raised in Haiti, not Memphis.
- He actually lives in a town called Olive Branch, which is a suburb of Memphis but technically in the state of Mississippi.
Olive Branch is a 25-minute drive from the Memphis campus -- that's close, clearly. But it's only a 55-minute drive from the Ole Miss campus, point being that if Hamilton really wants to remain near Labissiere, Ole Miss qualifies as a reasonable choice. Beyond that, Labissiere's freshman season, barring a surprise, will coincide with Shaq Goodwin's senior season at Memphis and Austin Nichols' junior season at Memphis, meaning Labissiere could theoretically get caught in a numbers game at Memphis trying to supplant two forwards who both started for the Tigers last season and will start again for the Tigers this season. Beyond that, Ole Miss will replace Tad Smith Coliseum with a brand new on-campus arena in the 2015-16 season -- all of which means Labissiere could enroll in Oxford, be the focal point from the start, play in the nation's premier athletic conference, in a brand new arena, and he can do all this only 55 minutes from his home in Olive Branch. And, oh yeah, it's probably worth noting that Kennedy still has an opening on his staff, and a source told CBSSports.com that Kennedy is willing to go so far as to hire Hamilton to secure Labissiere's commitment if that's what it takes to secure Labissiere's commitment.
"All of that is why you can't dismiss Ole Miss here," one source told CBSSports.com. "At the end of the day, will the kid really pick Ole Miss over Kentucky and North Carolina and Memphis? I don't know. But Ole Miss is in this thing. AK has done a great job getting in there, and the whole thing is going to be wild to watch unfold."
Wild might be an understatement.
"I'm wide open right now," Labissiere said Thursday. "I'm going to look at all options."
Those options, again, include Memphis.
And Ole Miss.
And, I learned Thursday, skipping college completely.
With a big smile on his face, Labissiere said he's still amazed that he has, in a span of four years, transformed from a kid who barely survived an earthquake in Haiti to one of the most sought-after prospects in the United States, and, for that reason, he swore he's genuinely enjoying the recruiting process, and he promised to just take it "step by step." But there are so many steps to take, and so many moving parts and things in play, that it's hard to imagine a scenario where the process doesn't become overwhelming at some point because it's not a stretch to suggest Labissiere could eventually be asked to choose between his hometown Tigers, Calipari's NBA factory, another SEC school offering a job to his guardian, and a lucrative contract to play one year overseas before entering the NBA Draft.
That's a lot for an 18-year-old to digest.
Ultimately, I'm confident Labissiere will figure it out.
He's a smart kid.
But, man, this sure does sound like a lot for any kid to try to figure out.