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John Calipari is right: Wenyen Gabriel starting to get it

After a long, Skal Labissiere-like stretch of struggles, Wenyen Gabriel is starting to gain traction.

NCAA Basketball: Tenn-Martin at Kentucky
Gabriel has 19 points and 24 rebounds in the last two games for Kentucky.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats haven’t looked quite as dominant recently, but they’re still getting significantly better in one area: Wenyen Gabriel.

In the last two games for Kentucky, Gabriel had scored 19 points while making some clutch shots, but his biggest impact has been on the boards. He pulled down 24 rebounds in those two games; 16 of them coming in the win over Auburn on Jan. 14.

“Wenyen is starting to get it,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said at his post-game press conference after his team’s 88-81 victory over Mississippi State in Starkville on Tuesday night.

Gabriel, who hadn’t scored in double figures since Nov. 28 in the Bahamas, scored 13 points on all five shot attempts he took and pulled down eight rebounds, including three on the offensive glass alone.

If you factor in his three blocks against the Bulldogs on Tuesday, he’s had six blocks in the last three games after just nine in the previous seven games for the Wildcats.

Calipari hit the nail on the head with Gabriel. It’s starting to click for him and it’s coming a great time for the ‘Cats. Kentucky plays South Carolina, Tennessee, the big rematch with No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 28, Georgia and Florida in the next five games spanning from Saturday until Feb. 4. For the ‘Cats to run the table in that quintet of games, they’ll need this Gabriel as of late.

But, what’s made him so much more effective now?

It’s cliche, but confidence plays a huge role, especially for a freshman

With the ‘Cats clinging to a 69-66 lead in the second half on Tuesday night against the Bulldogs, they needed a chance to breathe a little after a Mississippi State triple cut the once 18-point lead down to three in the midst of a 17-3 run.

Kentucky ran some screen-the-screener action on the right side of the key with Gabriel and Malik Monk. Gabriel received a pass from Isaiah Briscoe and dropped it down to the right block for Bam Adebayo. The key was what happened next.

As Gabriel bounced the entry pass into Adebayo, he shifted towards the corner and kept his hands ready after the Bulldogs doubled Adebayo in the post. He was at the ready for the shot (like he was earlier in the night in a different set) and drained his third triple of the night for Kentucky during a perfect shooting night.

His reaction was great, too. A little flex towards the Kentucky bench shows that his confidence is higher than it has been in a while, which is great for the ‘Cats.

The rebounding has been massive for him and the Wildcats

Against Auburn, Kentucky rebounded 79.6 percent (!) of their defensive rebounding chances. By himself, Gabriel rebounded 44.6 percent (!!) of the chances he had while on the floor in 29 minutes of action. His offensive rebounding percentage was great too, as he grabbed 26.5 percent of those chances.

Against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Gabriel grabbed 30.3 percent of his defensive rebounding opportunities and 20 percent of his offensive rebounds chances.

This play in particular that led to one of his two assists on the night stood out:

His hustle and energy has been so key for Kentucky in the last couple of games. Both were needed on Tuesday with Adebayo in foul trouble for virtually the entire night. (Then again, who wasn’t for either team?)

His activity has been good on the other end, too

This play will probably be seen as a risk by some, but I personally thought this was good recognition by Gabriel on the blocked shot.

Tai Wynyard — who hardly plays meaningful minutes for the ‘Cats — was in a tough spot against MSU’s Aric Holman on the right block.

Holman looked like he was going to get to the bucket quickly on the baseline past Wynyard, but Gabriel recognized the situation and came to help at the rim. He not only saved a bucket, he blocked the up-and-under move by Holman and was fouled on the rebound attempt.

For me personally, that’s recognizing your personnel on the floor and understanding you can affect shots with your size and length.

It appears that Wenyen Gabriel is turning a corner. Many watching Kentucky games can see it (specifically ESPN’s color commentator for Tuesday’s game — Sean Farnham — was seeing it).

Before Tuesday’s struggles, Bam Adebayo had 10+ points in 14 straight games. Derek Willis looks like he’s starting to find his shot up front, too.

If Gabriel’s game is truly coming around, Kentucky won’t be “two months away” like Calipari says they might be.