LEXINGTON, Ky. — Scan the box score from Kentucky’s opening night win against Utah Valley and Wenyen Gabriel’s name won’t stand out. The sophomore, an elder statesman by Kentucky’s standards, had a rough night scoring the ball: seven points on just 3 of 13 shooting.
But move over to the rebound column. Gabriel had 13 boards, six of them coming on the offensive end. The 6-foot-9 forward also had three blocks. There were other performances John Calipari could’ve pointed out, but Gabriel was the first player he mentioned in his postgame press conference.
“He missed layup, layup, wide open layup, and stuff happens,” Calipari said. “What I like is he kept playing. He didn’t act like, ‘Well I’m going to act like I don’t care right now.’ He kept playing.”
His teammates noticed it too.
“I think that’s the type of guy he is,” freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He’s really good defensively and he’s a leader on this team and he talks really well to us. Him just not pouting or not putting his head down showed us how we all need to be when things aren’t going our way.”
Gabriel grinded, as Kentucky had to do for much of the night, in a 73-63 win. Calipari would surely like to see him shoot the ball better, but it was a brand of basketball Kentucky needs from Gabriel. The offense might come, but scoring wasn’t his strong suit as a freshman when he averaged 4.6 points in 18 minutes per game.
Gabriel played 23 minutes against Utah Valley. He was the first man off the bench in the first half, but started the second half. After giving up three points to start the second half, Kentucky went on an 18-0 run.
The sophomore’s energy helped fuel the spurt. Gilgeous-Alexander said Gabriel has the “highest motor” of anyone he’s ever played with or seen.
“I mean he had the most energy on the court if you was to ask me,” redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo said. “He had 13 rebounds and 3 blocks. I mean, that’s tremendous and he’s having a bad offensive night. That’s tough to do, but he came out and competed and fought. That’s what we need him to do.”
Motor and leadership might be Gabriel’s biggest assets for this Kentucky team. Richards and Gilgeous-Alexander, both playing their first college game, said Gabriel was the guy who made sure they were in the right spots.
Calipari said he recruited Gabriel, a former 5-star prospect, as an “energy guy.” But now Calipari describes Gabriel as an energy guy who can shoot.
That shot wasn’t there on Friday night, but he managed to prove something. Whereas last year Gabriel might’ve not escaped the funk brought on by bad shooting, on Friday he managed to pull in 13 rebounds and contribute in other areas.
“When he went down that rabbit hole, he was down there,” Calipari said of the old version of Gabriel. “Now he pops back up and he keeps playing.”