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Kentucky Basketball Player Preview: Wenyen Gabriel must become leader for young Cats

The sophomore forward is headed into his second season as the leader of a young Wildcats squad.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Wenyen Gabriel has been one of the most talked-about players this offseason and through the exhibition slate. While he struggled to make an impact as a freshman, it was clear he had a world of potential just waiting to be harnessed.

It’s early, but it looks like Gabriel is doing just that and becoming a major impact player for a young group of Cats.

#32 Wenyen Gabriel

Height: 6’9”

Weight: 205 lbs

Minutes Per Game: 17.8

Points Per Game: 4.6

Rebounds Per Game: 4.8

Blocks Per Game: 0.9

Best Game of 2016/2017: vs. LSU (23 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists)

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Wenyen Gabriel came in his freshman year as a highly touted recruit from Massachusetts. He was rated the number 4 power forward and the number 12 overall recruit in the 2016 class by Scout.com. Gabriel’s freshman season started out strong and he seemed to improve from game to game. He started a majority of the games he played, but also served a valuable role as Calipari’s “spark plug” off the bench.

Gabriel still started 23 games and had several stretches of amazing game performances (including going 5-for-5 in the game at Mississippi State and hauling in 16 boards against Auburn); however, he peaked in the game against LSU in February. After that game, Gabriel only averaged 12.4 minutes per game and his scoring and game performance fell off dramatically.

Coming into his sophomore season, Gabriel is the most experienced player on the Kentucky roster. His leadership and game experience will be invaluable for the talented freshman joining him on the floor.

2017/2018 Outlook: There were times last year when Gabriel looked like a twig among oaks on the block. He fixed that this offseason when he embarked on a workout plan to bulk up and gain strength that will be valuable when he’s banging with opposing bigs in the post.

Gabriel has also worked on improving his shooting stroke from outside. He shot 31% from behind the arc on the season, but did have a 12-game stretch where he shot over 40% from three. His potential as a shooter is there and he’s already been seen in practices this season showcasing his new stroke:

Another day. Another opportunity to get better.

Publié par Kentucky Basketball sur mercredi 6 septembre 2017

Gabriel has the motor, he’s improved his physique and his shot, and he’s athletic. He plays strong defense on the floor and around the rim (he led the team in blocks in 11 games last season). The biggest improvement Gabriel can make this season is in his consistency. He fell off at the end of last season and I don’t think this team can afford to have that happen this year. His experience and his energy will be invaluable with so many talented, but inexperienced, players on the floor this year.

I think Gabriel has the potential to be a combination of Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins for the Cats this year. There were so many times when Hawkins got on the floor and provided a boost when the team needed it. And Willis didn’t load up the offensive box score every game, but he helped anchor UK’s defense down low and provided timely offense if the Cats were struggling.

With his new shot, and so many shot creators on this year’s team, Gabriel will be a valuable offensive presence on the floor. Defensively, we already know Gabriel has the athleticism, quickness, and, after his offseason work, the strength to hang with other bigs down low. Being able to play tenacious defense with his trademark high energy will be key to helping keep this young team calm in tough game situations.

There is a lot of talent on this year’s squad, even if it is mostly inexperienced. Gabriel’s leadership, energy, and skill will be key. If he can maintain consistent performance across the entire season, Wenyen Gabriel will be a key piece to helping this team play deep into March.

Here are some highlights to show just how high his ceiling can be:

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