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Kentucky Basketball Roster Review: Wenyen Gabriel looks to become star he could’ve been last season

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Wenyen Gabriel will get another chance to be that second-unit spark plug he was at times last season.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida
Wenyen Gabriel had a few promising flashes last season for Kentucky, but not enough consistency.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout Kentucky’s run to the Elite Eight last season, there were countless times I kept thinking to myself, “This would be a really good time for Wenyen Gabriel to provide a spark for the ‘Cats here.”

At times, Gabriel looked like a first-round pick last season. His perfect 5-for-5 shooting night (3-for-3 from 3) in Starkville against Mississippi State — a nightmare place to play for the ‘Cats every year — saved the post-Louisville loss win streak for Kentucky. His 23-point, eight-rebound performance against LSU in February had him looking like someone that could join the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo in the draft lottery a few months later.

The main issues with Gabriel came with two important C’s: confidence and consistency. I mentioned two of Gabriel’s star-studded nights on the floor last season.

Here’s what Gabriel did after that performance against LSU: he played just 12.4 minutes per game, along with shooting a woeful 16.1 percent from the field on just over two attempts per game. He was a complete non-factor in Kentucky’s run to back-to-back-to-back SEC Tournament titles and their run that just fell short of Phoenix. The intensity was gone.

The spark wasn’t there, he hardly played, but lucky for Gabriel, Kentucky’s loaded again and he’ll have another chance to be a second-unit stud for John Calipari this season.

In this breakdown of Gabriel, it’s a mix of what he showed promise in last season, along with what he can provide and work on for this season with the likes of Kevin Knox, Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo officially in the fold this year.

Gabriel can almost take a Derek Willis-like role as a returner on both ends of the floor

A big reason why Kentucky went as far as they did last season was the play of Derek Willis on both ends of the floor. His numbers may not have been as prominent discussion points as Fox’s or Monk’s were, but his impact was seen, especially defensively. Willis shot 37.7 percent from 3 last season, but his defensive (particularly protecting the basket) presence really sparked the ‘Cats in some games down the stretch of the year.

Gabriel has that versatility in him. He’s listed around 6-foot-10 and 213 pounds and has those long strides and good lateral quickness that could make him a problem for attacking offenses next season with his ability to guard multiple positions and switch off screens. Calipari prefers when his guys can effectively switch off screens defensively, so if Gabriel can be a Willis-like player next season, that’d be a big boost for the ‘Cats.

(Plays like this one in his big game against the Bulldogs doesn’t hurt either.)

Plus, it would also help Gabriel if he could continue to hit these kinds of shots. With shot creators and attackers like Green, Knox and Diallo, it’ll be on guys like Gabriel to make the most of their shot opportunities when defenses focus on Kentucky’s primary scorers. Before he faded last season, Gabriel shot 34.7 percent from 3, which isn’t bad for a young big man.

Willis went from a rare Calipari senior that was looked to in terms of producing off the bench to becoming a glue guy in the starting lineup virtually all season. There’s always fresh faces in Lexington, but guys like Willis and Dominique Hawkins helped lead the way when the ‘Cats needed a jolt in some situations last year. Gabriel can be that guy this year, even as a sophomore. (Hi, Isaiah Briscoe.)

Gabriel’s rebounding can be such an asset for Kentucky next season

I’m probably a bit higher on Gabriel than most, but something I love from a big man who is still trying to find his game and make an impact: getting extra possessions for his teammates.

There were times where Gabriel really provided the spark for Kentucky in a tight spot last season with his rebounding on both ends, but more so on the offensive end. Take for example the Auburn game in January when he missed six of his eight shot attempts. He had 16 (!) rebounds and five of them came on the offensive end. If you rebound the ball, Calipari will play you.

This is a faucet of the game where Gabriel can find his confidence and place in the 2017-18 rotation. He’s got the length and speed to beat other bigs to the ball off a miss. The more possessions for Knox and Diallo, the better. Kentucky has so much talent up front with the addition of Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard (who has been ballin’ in the U19 Championships for New Zealand), so this is where Gabriel can stand out from the pack.

Finding a balance of not getting too high and not getting too low for Gabriel will be key in his development

When I say the names Isaac Humphries and Marcus Lee, what are the two things that immediately come to your mind? The heroic performance out of nowhere from Humphries that almost led to Kentucky being in the Final Four and Lee’s dunkfest against Michigan in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, right?

Those are tapes that Wenyen Gabriel should watch over and over again. Why? Because those guys, both talented in their own rights, were seen as afterthoughts in Kentucky’s rotation and when their teams needed a wake-up call, they provided them and became folk heroes in the process.

The point is, Gabriel probably won’t play a lot of minutes. At least not right away. The ‘Cats have plenty of talent up front and there’s only so many minutes to go around. He really struggled down the stretch of last season and just looked totally lost. But, there’s going to be a time or two in Gainesville or Starkville once more where the ‘Cats need a boost. Maybe it’s an offensive rebound that leads to a 3 or a cutting dunk from Diallo that seals the game. Gabriel can be that guy.

That means listening to the coaching staff, staying ready and avoiding situations like this one from early in the season last year.

ESPN caught this moment in a Monk video package last season with Gabriel shaking his head in a conversation with Calipari after being pulled from the game against Hofstra. This stuck with me personally because I think it showed Calipari’s frustrations with Gabriel and Gabriel’s own frustrations with his game.

It’s always tough for a young player to find that emotional and mental balance on the floor with the pressures of playing at a big-time school like Kentucky, but with those ups and downs from last year, Gabriel can learn a lot for those highs and lows of last year and carry them into a strong sophomore campaign for the ‘Cats.

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