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Kentucky Basketball Roster Review: Wenyen Gabriel growing into his own

Gabriel showed marked improvement, but he’s got more progressing to do if he’s to make the NBA.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Alabama Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

I think often times we expect two things from a returning sophomore: They have a night-and-day transformation and exceed expectations, or they get lost in the shuffle and fall out of the rotation entirely.

Wenyen Gabriel was neither of those things, and that’s probably a good thing. What we saw instead was a steady improvement that didn’t jump off the page but also didn’t really disappoint.

Gabriel’s freshman year didn’t end well at all. He averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, and he logged fewer than 10 minutes in each of the Wildcats’ last five games.

His role had diminished, and he was frustrated. But it didn’t keep him down. He kept a high level of energy from the bench, and came back for a sophomore season in which he expected more of himself.

And in the end, you can’t deny that Gabriel gave the Cats more in Year 2.

His per game averages jumped up in year two: he averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, and he bumped his 3-point shooting up from 32 percent to 40 percent. He also showed minor improvements in free-throw percentage, blocks per game and steals per game while playing an extra four-plus minutes per game compared to his freshman year. It was nothing jaw-dropping, but it was improvement.

But the major difference in his sophomore season was that rather than fading out of the picture altogether when it came crunch-time, Gabriel instead jumped directly into the spotlight.

That started with an immaculate 23-point game from the 6-9 wing against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Tournament, a game in which he went 7 for 7 from 3-point range. He followed that up with a 12-point, six-rebound performance against the Tennessee Volunteers in the SEC Tournament Championship.

He wasn’t done yet. Gabriel put up his first double-double of the season against the Buffalo Bulls in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, dropping 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. It was his fourth double-digit rebounding performance of the year.

That’s not to say that Gabriel was perfect when Kentucky needed it, though. He still had his struggles. He scored just one point in the Round of 64 against the Davidson Wildcats, and recorded only three points and three rebounds in the Wildcats’ loss to the Kansas State Wildcats.

But nonetheless, Gabriel did what you like to see from a returning sophomore: he got better. Nothing less, nothing more. He was able to reach a point where he thought he was ready for NBA Draft evaluation.

Speaking of that...

Looking ahead

To me it’s pretty clear that Wenyen Gabriel isn’t ready for the NBA. A lot of times I think that once guys go this far into the process, they should just stay in it and take their money. But Gabriel clearly showed steady improvement in his sophomore season, and he has a legitimate chance to continue trending upward if he stays at Kentucky.

If he did stay, it’d be big for a Kentucky team that could use a veteran wing to help guide incoming superstar Keldon Johnson. More versatility always helps, and Gabriel’s strong rebounding plus competent shooting could bring more versatility to next year’s Wildcats.

However, it seems like Gabriel won’t return if both Jarred Vanderbilt and PJ Washington return to Kentucky. Those two are also testing the NBA waters and are more talented than Gabriel at this stage. If they both return, that makes it a lot harder for Gabriel to even have the same role as a sophomore.

Gabriel obviously wants to have a bigger role going forward, so if the frontcourt becomes too crowded, he may go ahead and opt to begin his pro career now, even if it ends up being overseas for several years.

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