Kentucky basketball is no stranger to talented freshmen, so it only makes sense to include one of this year’s new players in my series “The Freshmen 15.” But who do I pick? With such a talented class, it was not an easy task to choose just one. Do I go with De’Aaron Fox, who was last week’s SEC Freshman of the Week? What about Malik Monk, who scored 23 points against Michigan State?
Ultimately, I chose Wenyen Gabriel. Here’s why:
Gabriel was born in Khartoum, Sudan, a country riddled with conflict. When he was just two weeks old, the Gabriel family relocated to Cairo, Egypt. A few years later, they moved again. This time, the transition was even tougher: Egypt to the United States. After appealing to the United Nations, the family was able to come to America, where they began their new life in Manchester, New Hampshire.
This history has clearly played a role in shaping Gabriel into the player — and person — that he is today.
“Coming over here with nothing is kind of like — I feel like I’m earning everything that I’m working for,” Gabriel said. “I feel like that’s how I get it, by how I play so hard.”
Gabriel entered high school as a 6-foot-one freshman who wasn’t close to breaking into ESPN’s Top 100. As a senior, he committed to Kentucky over Duke and UConn as the No. 14 player in the nation. He credits this remarkable transition to his years of hard work and dedication.
“Every time I step on the court, I’m trying to win,” Gabriel said. “I kind of feel like I play like my life’s on the line every game that I’m in.”
As the unanimous winner of his high school’s Phil Shaw Award, Gabriel exhibits extreme athletic and academic success while displaying high moral character. This well-rounded attitude is something he has already started showing at UK, especially on the basketball court.
“I can shoot the ball well, I can defend all positions, I’m comfortable playing any position,” Gabriel said. “It’s kind of putting all the pieces together now, trying to incorporate it into my game.”
On the roster, Gabriel is listed as a 6-foot-9 forward, but his versatility and ability to be wherever the team needs him is what will continue to get him minutes this season. Although he’s averaging just under six points per game, defense is where he’s showed his talents.
“I definitely take pride in [my defense],” said Gabriel in an interview with CoachCal.com. “That’s how I earn my way onto the court.”
This success is not going unnoticed, especially by opponent coaches. After the Cats defeated Clarion 108-51, head coach Marcess Williams praised Gabriel during the post-game press conference.
“My favorite is Gabriel,” Williams said. “I love that kid. That kid, he might be the best one of them all.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had similar feelings: “the kid I like is Gabriel.”
So what about Coach Cal?
“I see him as a 6-10 guard in the sense that, if we’re playing three guards, he’s one of them,” Calipari said. “He can really shoot it, and he’s a shot blocker defensively. He’s an energy guy who can guard multiple positions and is getting better by the day.”
Tune into ESPNU tonight at 9:00 to watch Wenyen Gabriel and the rest of the Wildcats take on the Duquesne Dukes.
Here are the other freshmen who have been highlighted so far: