Wenyen Gabriel has been up and down this winter.
And last Saturday night wasn’t that good of a night for him when the Cats faced Arkansas. Even though Gabriel (pictured) was seen shooting numerous downtown jumpers from the three-point arc on the Rupp Arena Floor nearly two hours before the tipoff, he only saw 12 minutes of action during Kentucky’s 97-71 win over the Razorbacks.
The 6-9, 213-pound forward had gotten himself in foul trouble (three fouls in 12 minutes) and missed an uncontested three-pointer along with a couple of turnovers. And coach John Calipari wasn’t very pleased, ordering the youngster to practice after the matchup. The Wildcat mentor told him to “go back in the gym by yourself and you’re there till 1 in the morning and you’re working on shooting. That’s how you get better.”
Calipari added Gabriel still is improving overall, though.
While Gabriel’s performance against Arkansas wasn’t something that you can brag about, he nevertheless has been a productive player this season for the most part. While he hasn’t grabbed big headlines like some of his freshman teammates, he is an energetic rookie who plays hard.
And we know the likeable Gabriel, who has started most of UK’s games, certainly has room for improvement and he is doing better defensively.
“I think I’ve been making a lot of good strides,” Gabriel said last Friday. “I think Camp Cal (during the long holiday break) has been really good for me. I’ve been able to trust my teammates more. I know Cal has talked a lot about that. I think I’ve been getting a lot better and by the end of the year I’m going to show a big improvement.”
When the classes are not in session on UK campus, the Wildcats spend lots of time concentrating on basketball. Gabriel, whose family escaped from a civil war in Sudan in Africa many years ago, feels having Camp Cal during the break is very helpful.
“We’re with each other all day, all three meals a day, practice in the morning, shooting free throws, practice at dinner, movie at night,” he said. “It’s all good. Camp Cal has been really good for us as a team. I feel like it makes this young team really mature more.”
Going into this week’s action, Gabriel is averaging 5.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 19.1 minutes. He also has blocked 15 shots, behind Derek Willis’ 16 and Bam Adebayo’s team-leading 27. Gabriel’s season-highs so far include 15 points against UT Martin, 10 rebounds vs. Cleveland State and three blocked shots vs. Valparaiso.
After scoring nine points against Clarion in an exhibition game over two months ago, Gabriel got some attention from the opposing coach.
“I love that kid,” said Clarion head coach Marcess Williams of Gabriel. “That kid, he might be the best one of them all.”
In his UK debut, Gabriel, coming off the bench, scored 10 points in 18 minutes against Stephen F. Austin.
Before arriving at Kentucky, Gabriel – a five-star recruit from Manchester, N.H., who played at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts – also considered Duke, Connecticut, and Maryland during the recruiting battles. He was ranked No. 8 overall in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index last season.
With the long-armed Gabriel playing very active on the hardwood floor, it isn’t easy for him to slow down and stay away from foul trouble (with team-high 43 fouls), but he is learning and getting some valuable experience.
“It showed in the game I was worried too much (about defense), thinking too much, but a lot of that is settling down, getting the freshman nerves out of the way and just playing basketball,” said Gabriel. “Playing a little bit more free. That’s what I’ve seen the big change in.
“I think it (improvement) comes from playing more games, becoming more comfortable, playing against big teams. Everything kind of slowed down in my mind, so it’s getting a little easier for me.”
Gabriel admits his foul problems is due to his active motor.
“Yeah, I found that it’s a byproduct of my motor, but I have to learn how to play smarter still if I want to stay in the game.”
Calipari has said Gabriel is sometimes tough on himself.
“I try to put in a lot of work,” agreed Gabriel. “I’m trying to become the best player I can be, so every day the goal is to get better. When I see myself messing up, sometimes I’m kind of hard on myself.”
Where does he get his work ethic or attitude from?
“I think a lot of it (comes) through my family. I got a big family and coming over from South Sudan, coming here with nothing. I feel like I’m earning everything that I’m working for. I feel like that’s how I get it, by how I play so hard.
“Every time I step on the court I’m trying to win. I kind of feel like I play like my life’s on the line every game that I’m in. Just trying to get better every time.”
Assistant coach Tony Barbee — a former Calipari player at UMass now in his second year at Kentucky — likes what he has seen of Gabriel. Barbee also wants the kid to build up his skinny frame.
“He’s playing against some older, strong, veteran players, so he gets moved out of the way physically from time to time,” said Barbee, who was the head coach at Auburn for four seasons, compiling an overall mark of 131-127. “But for Wenyen, it’s not (a matter of) a want to; he’s got a motor that just won’t stop, and sometimes physically he can’t get to where he wants to be.
“But he’s improving every single day. I mean, he’s improved night and day from when he stepped on campus, so you project him out and he continues at this rate, he’s going to be a fantastic player.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught