EDITOR’S NOTE: John Calipari is preparing to put his youngest team yet on the floor — and that is saying something — for the 2017-18 season. Among the 11 scholarship players on the Kentucky roster, eight are freshmen, three are sophomores and … that’s it.
There is enough talent for a deep postseason run, but also enough inexperience for Big Blue Nation to be concerned. So in our Final Fourcast series, we’re breaking down each of the Wildcats and what role they might play in pursuit of a fifth Final Four in nine seasons under Calipari. In this edition, it’s sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel.
Gabriel is a 6-foot-9, 205-pound power forward who was born in Sudan and played high school basketball in Massachusetts. He was rated the No. 4 power forward and No. 12 overall prospect in the Class of 2016 by Scout.com. The three players ranked ahead of him at his position — Harry Giles, Thon Maker and Bam Adebayo — have already become top-20 NBA draft picks. During his senior year in high school, Gabriel dominated Maker head-to-head in the second half of a come-from-behind victory. He is the most experienced player on Kentucky’s roster this season, having started 23 games as a freshman and averaging 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.8 minutes.
How he fits
Given the way last season ended, it’s easy to forget that Gabriel is a guy who averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds, 7 blocks and 6.3 assists as a senior in high school. And that he recorded a double-double for the Wildcats in his fifth college game — which began a three-game stretch in which he averaged 11.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists. And that he grabbed 16 rebounds in a game against Auburn and led the team in blocks 11 times. And that even at his size, Gabriel had a 12-game stretch for UK in which he sank 16 of 37 3-pointers (43.2 percent). And that he went off for 23 points and 8 rebounds against LSU on Feb. 7.
People forget all of that because of what happened after that breakout game against the Tigers. Gabriel promptly vanished. He scored a total of 20 points over the 14 games that followed, played single-digit minutes six times in the final seven games of the season and recorded one total point in the Cats’ four NCAA Tournament games. So what happened?
Basically, Gabriel hit a freshman wall. Most of Calipari’s 5-star newcomers arrive ready for the rigors of a 35- to 40-game college season, but Gabriel showed up with toothpick legs and twigs for arms, and his body broke down late in the year. He wasn’t ready for the physicality of the next level and he lost confidence quickly.
But based on pictures that have emerged of his transformed body and buzz around the program about how committed Gabriel was in the offseason, it appears he has addressed that problem. He knows there is a great opportunity to seize a leadership role on a baby-faced team, and if he can meet that great need, he’ll play a lot despite the logjam of forwards on this roster.
What they’re saying
“He looked stronger, played with more of a purpose, finished better, played better through contact. I thought he took a step forward. To me, the key to Wenyen is real simple: He was recruited as a high-energy guy, a guy that would be kind of electric and get after it. That’s when he’s at his very best, so he can’t lose track of who he is and how he wins. He looked confident — and he should be confident, hell, he’s one of the few returning guys. He understands what Cal expects of him, and that’s a big thing. It’s not overwhelming now; that can be overwhelming the first time around.” — ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who attended UK practices in August
Gabriel will have to fend off a long line of similar-sized forwards: former 5-stars Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington and Sacha Killeya-Jones. But each of those players is versatile enough to play multiple positions — Knox and Vanderbilt at the 3 or 4, Washington and Killeya-Jones at the 4 or 5 — and Gabriel’s energy and experience are too valuable to keep him on the bench.
He should contend for a starting job or, at the very least, be a top reserve who plays heavy minutes. If his 3-point shooting is more consistent this season and he continues to be a shot-blocking threat, that opens up more paths to playing time as Calipari mixes and matches all his talented and “positionless” forwards.
The series so far …
- SG Hamidou Diallo has something to prove
- Quade Green next in line at Point Guard U
- PF P.J. Washington aims to be positionless
- Former QB Kevin Knox could play anywhere for Cats
- Jarred Vanderbilt another interchangeable forward
Up next: freshman center Nick Richards (publishing Tuesday, Sept. 12)
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