Following two seasons at the University of Kentucky, Wenyen Gabriel decided it was time to test the NBA waters and officially declare for the 2018 NBA draft.
Gabriel had a much-improved sophomore season and while he won’t go into the draft as a top-tier prospect like most Kentucky underclassman, there is more than enough potential for him to build a successful NBA career. He’s still a long way away from where he needs to be in order to thrive at the next level, but he has a solid foundation and specializes in enough areas to make him worth taking a chance on in the late second round.
Since Gabriel arrived at Kentucky, he continuously improved in practically every aspect of his game. Whether it be defensive awareness, perimeter shooting, or fighting for every loose ball, Gabriel’s value to Kentucky and his overall potential increased with every game. I’ve long believed that Gabriel will have a long NBA career – although I expected to him to stay at least three years in college, more on that in a minute – and he showed enough in his second season to back that up, but he’s going to be a “work in progress” type prospect.
Current mock draft projections have Gabriel going undrafted, despite showing out at a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers, and odds are he ultimately will be passed over by the end of the draft. He’ll likely still be picked up by an NBA team and start his career in the G League, which will allow him to focus solely on basketball instead of both hoops and school but lowers his chances of making a smoother transition to the NBA. Let’s dive into what I’ve seen from Gabriel and how his skills on both offense and defense can translate to the NBA and how he can develop himself into a more versatile player.
In his sophomore season at Kentucky, Gabriel wasn’t a high usage player (He had the eighth highest usage percentage among Kentucky players last season at 14.9 percent. For comparison, Nick Richards usage percentage was 16.9). There were incredibly few – if any – plays designed specifically for him and he had to make his presence felt by either knocking down threes or hustling for loose balls and earning extra possessions.
Gabriel was Kentucky’s second-best three-point shooter behind Kevin Knox. He attempted 106 threes last season, third-most on the team, and connected on 42 of them (39.6 percent). His three-point percentage was bested by only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (40.4 percent), who made 19 fewer threes than Gabriel. Gabriel’s 7-7 three-point shooting clinic against Alabama in the SEC Tournament was a nice indicator of what he can do when he’s confident with his shot, something that he seemingly became more and more aware of as the season went along. In the last six games of the season (SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament), Gabriel shot 14-23 from deep (60.9 percent).
We’ll talk more about his defense in the next section, but Gabriel’s immediate impact at the next level will have to be as a “3-and-D” threat. The main reason I believe he could have benefited vastly from another season at Kentucky is that his individual offensive impact is strictly from the three-point line. Rarely did Gabriel attack and try to create shots for himself. He was never confident in his ability to take defender’s one-on-one and his lack of aggressiveness/strength limited how much he could actually do in that aspect.
At 6-foot-9, he weighs only 205 pounds. He can somewhat make up for his lack of strength due to his seven-foot wingspan and surprising impact on the boards despite how often he appeared to be knocked around on the block and in the paint. But when put into situations where he had to create the offense himself, he’s essentially a nonfactor. The absence of being a physical threat is currently his most outstanding downfall.
For someone his size, Gabriel shoots an incredibly easy ball. His length allows him to get off his shot with ease and there is a continuous flow and follow through that makes for a quite beautiful looking jump shot.
Shooting nearly 40 percent from three at the college level is typically a good number that can translate to the mean in the NBA. He’s shown he can hit threes from a couple feet beyond the college line and being able to do so as a pro will be critical to him finding playing time while he builds his body.
In the NBA, Gabriel will be able to play the 3, 4, and 5 position. He’s quick enough to play the wing and long enough to hold his own in the paint, but it all comes back to the matter of building his frame.
He’s an underrated passer, although nothing too special and averaged only 0.6 assists per game last season. He can make the safe pass and usually has his head up, but was never asked to build the offense besides simple handoffs and passes to the paint while Knox/Hamidou Diallo/whoever were shifting around screens on the block.
Something he’s desperately going to need to improve is his free-throw shooting. In his two seasons at Kentucky, Gabriel shot 62.2 percent from the charity stripe and with a low free-throw rate of 28.4 (27.6 percentile) during his sophomore year. Not being adept at getting to the line and missing the attempts he does get is concerning but could be something he amends the bigger he gets.
For Gabriel, rebounding needs it’s own section. If we count Jarred Vanderbilt, Gabriel was Kentucky’s fourth-best rebounder, averaging 5.4 boards per game in only 23.1 minutes per game of playing time. However, Knox also averaged 5.4 rebounds per game while playing 32.4 minutes per game and PJ Washington averaged 5.7 rebounds per game in 27.4 minutes (Vanderbilt averaged 7.9 rebounds per game in only 17 minutes per game across 14 total games).
Fundamentally, Gabriel was Kentucky’s best rebounder outside of Vanderbilt. His awareness is what allowed him to gain the inside position, even when having to hold back much more physically imposing big men, and he pulled down his fair share of rebounds that he had no business winning. A part of that speaks about his willingness to never give up on plays. He iss always the first player to dive for 50/50 balls and has spectacular natural instincts in regards to setting himself up to be in the right place at the right time.
In the very last sequence of the clip above, Gabriel elects to fade away from the basket after pulling down the rebound with a face-to-face look at the basket. This is where the lack of physicality cost him two points. Instead of falling away from the basket, he needs to go up strong every time and either dunk the ball or go straight into his defender and draw a foul. At this time in his career, he simply can’t accomplish that just yet. The weight room should be where he eats, drinks, and sleeps over the course of the next several offseasons. He has the natural ability to become an above average rebounder – something a lot of big men don’t have – but he’ll never be able to maximize his rebounding potential until he can bulk up and compete with the NBA brutes.
Gabriel’s defensive rebounding percentage of 16.2 was third highest on the team (behind Vanderbilt and Richards), ranking in the 78.6 percentile. His offensive rebounding percentage of 9.1 was even more impressive and ranked in the 84.9 percentile.
His potential as a multi-dimensional player who can do a little bit of everything is what will earn him a spot on an NBA team. He doesn’t have to be great in just one area, being good in every area is much more important.
As we talked about earlier, being a “3 and D” prospect is Gabriel’s best label as he enters the pro ranks. He has the “3” part down, although defense might be his most tantalizing feature.
Last season, Gabriel was – in my opinion – Kentucky’s most reliable overall defender. Individually, SGA was a better defender, but Gabriel made a larger impact whenever he was on that side of the floor.
Something I’m going to continue to harp on is his lack of having a big frame. It’s going to be vitally important that he puts on muscle because he already has such good instincts on defense. He’s not the quickest player moving laterally, but his length allows him to recover and he can shift quickly enough from side-to-side to keep much smaller guards in front of him.
One of the best examples we can pull from last season to justify Gabriel’s defensive potential is the game against Georgia on Dec. 31. Kentucky edged out Georgia 66-61 and Gabriel was tasked with guarding Yante Maten for the majority of the game. Maten was a midseason Wooden Award finalist and finished on the All-SEC first team. In this game, Maten scored 17 points, but on 5-15 shooting and Gabriel was displaying some excellent patience and fundamental defense on a much bigger and better player.
Of Maten’s five made field goals, Gabriel was the primary defender for three of them and defended practically every one of his misses. This game was one of Gabriel’s better overall defensive performances all season as he showed off his versatility to guard every position.
The last sequence against Maten is the one that should be highlighted. Gabriel has incredibly quick hands but, most importantly, he knows when to strike instead of risking fouls. He rips the ball from Maten and helps run the fastbreak which ultimately leads to a layup by Gabriel that was (incorrectly) called off because of a charge.
Here are a couple more clips from the Vanderbilt game on Jan. 13 showcasing his undeniable hustle and ability to unexpectedly disrupt plays.
He’s nowhere near a perfect defender. He had a habit of missing rotations (something that comes with playing around a bunch of freshmen) and he was inconsistent when working around screens, which he’ll be asked to do constantly as he could be a fantastic option for switch everything defensive schemes.
If he can fill out his body, Serge Ibaka is a solid comparison for Gabriel and should be the ceiling he shoots for. I could also see Gabriel really fulfilling his potential as an all-around versatile player and turning into someone such as Thaddeus Young. It’s really just a matter of how time he spends in the weight room. If he decides to bulk up, he can work all areas of the court. Or he can embrace his stretch-four potential and work at becoming an elite level shooter. There are different paths that Gabriel can take, and while I still believe another season at Kentucky would have done him more good than bad, he still has the base to build a successful NBA career. I wouldn’t expect him to get drafted, but you’ll be hearing Gabriel’s name on an NBA team sooner than you might think.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan