Freshman Gabriel looks to do everything for UK

Men’s basketball media day

Anthony Crawford

The shift to playing college basketball often means asking more from incoming freshmen, but Wenyen Gabriel is ready to continue his do-everything role from high school.

Gabriel comes to UK from Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire with no relative basketball pedigree, where he had to do everything for his team and now has to adjust to a new role and more capable teammates.

“He doesn’t trust anybody,” John Calipari told UK players during an open practice in October. “If you played on that team, you wouldn’t trust anybody.”

As a 6’10 lengthy, athletic forward Gabriel was able to impact the game all over the court in high school and it showed in his trip to Lexington last year to play in the Bluegrass Showcase. 

As the only high profile basketball prospect on his team, Gabriel led Wilbraham & Monson to a win over Athlete Institute Basketball Academy who fielded two coveted players in their lineup, one being 2016 NBA draftee Thon Maker and the other his younger brother Matur Maker. 

Even against a quality frontcourt, Gabriel overcame a halftime deficit to win the game while contributing 24 points. He thrived leaning on the inside-out game that makes him the perfect fit for Calipari’s “positionless basketball” philosophy.

“I think that’s one of the things that defines my game as well. I’ve never really had that set in stone position,” Gabriel said. “Whether I’m pushing the ball up the floor or I’m posting up on the block, it’s all the same to me. Whatever role comes to me that leads to us winning, that’s the role I’ll play.”

His motor and drive have shown in early practices and games. As Calipari said, Gabriel is especially effective at blocking shots and pulling down rebounds. Gabriel’s size and mobility could be the key to unlocking the team’s defensive potential, which Calipari wants to rank among the best in the country. 

As basketball shifts towards a style that requires big men to be able to hold their own when switched onto guards on the perimeter, Gabriel can keep up and then some. Calipari himself has even toyed with the idea of playing a zone that features Gabriel at the top of the key, using his length to hound opposing guards. 

Playing in that type of system requires a lot of gambling and trust in teammates, which is something he will have to adjust to.

The freshmen class this season has already shown it is a tight-knit group and that helps players like Gabriel make the strides necessary in trusting other players on the court. 

Gabriel’s teammates have already taken notice of the player he can be. His motor and hustle surprised fellow freshman Malik Monk. 

“He just keeps going,” Monk said. “I didn’t know his motor was like that. He just keeps playing and playing.” 

It’s that type of effort and overall strive for perfection in his game that led Calipari to compare Gabriel to former UK basketball player and current Charlotte Hornet Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

While Kidd-Gilchrist expected a lot of himself when it came to making his return from an injured labrum, Gabriel has put immense pressure on himself when it comes to adjusting his offensive game to college basketball.

“Now, there are some areas he can improve, fine,” Calipari said of Gabriel. “You’re talking about a 6-10, inside, outside, stretch four-three, (that’s) good with the ball, but only touched where he’s going to be.”

Right now, Gabriel is confident in transition because of his athletic gifts, but is unsure of where exactly he fits in half-court sets. Gabriel is well rounded in being able to play many roles, but the coaching staff is still working to build his confidence the further away from the basket he gets.

“I like Wenyen right now because he’s kind of just coming into this thing trying to understand what he needs to do,” senior forward Derek Willis said of Gabriel. “And he kind of plays similarly to me, so I’ve been trying to help him out in different ways.”

Like many other gifted athletes, Gabriel has been able to count on his speed and quickness to beat his man and get to the rim in most cases. It’s for that reason he didn’t have to over rely on his jumpshot. 

Gabriel has shown some consistency in his midrange game, but his three-point shooting has been called streaky on numerous occasions. Willis is taking him under his wing and should be a valuable asset for the freshman. Willis is UK’s best sharpshooter and also puts in extra time shooting after practices.

The two are nice compliments to each other as well. Willis is more polished on offense and Gabriel is more comfortable on the defensive end. Going up against each other in practice will help bring out the best in each other but could also have some consequences in the starting lineup. 

Willis is a senior and has more experience, but Gabriel’s athleticism could be the difference in UK going from good to great defensively. 

Either way, both will play major roles this season and the competition should help Gabriel round out his versatile game that he developed before arriving in Lexington.