At this ultra-early stage, Kentucky freshman Wenyen Gabriel fits the classic role of a sixth man: Improve the lineup with that first substitution.
Gabriel provided a telling boost during Kentucky’s first three games. Judging from the reaction of coaches on both sides, he succeeded in improving UK’s performance.
“I’m watching to see what we need,” he said of the time he spends on the bench as the games begin. “If we’re missing out on rebounds, I’m going to try to go in the game and get rebounds. If we need to pick up the intensity on the defensive end, I’m going to try pick up the intensity. If (UK needs) scoring, I try to get to the basket and score.”
In Kentucky’s victory over Michigan State on Tuesday, Gabriel was a one-man smorgasbord of contributions: four points, six rebounds, two assists, three steals and a block.
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This led associate coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for UK head coach John Calipari at a Friday news conference, to salute “the major strides” Gabriel has made since arriving on campus this summer.
“We are a defensive team historically with Coach Cal’s teams,” Payne said. “Defense is a premium here. This kid has learned. The kid has picked up. He still makes mistakes, but he’s trying. His energy and effort is really, really good.”
In current sporting parlance, Gabriel has a good “motor,” which Payne attributed to “being in shape. Playing with energy. Being active with your hands and active with your feet. Keeping your feet moving. Helping and stunting off the ball.
“A lot of it is a will to fight, and he has that.”
When asked what drove him to play hard, Gabriel cited his family’s story of perseverance. He was born in Sudan. Then the family moved to Egypt for about two years before moving to New Hampshire. “We came here with nothing,” he said in answering the question about personal motivation.
Gabriel embraced the role of providing energy. Starting the game on the floor or coming off the floor didn’t matter, he said.
“I think that’s how I found my way on the floor,” he said, “and how I’m earning more minutes. I’ll continue to do that.”
Gabriel described his preparation as beginning well before he reports to the scorer’s table, before the opening tip-off.
“I warm up really hard,” he said. “In the shoot-around, I go really hard. I’m just ready for when my moment when I go in the game.”
Gabriel said he’s growing more comfortable on the college level. The game in New York was a thrill.
“A lot of my family was there, which is one of the big things for me,” he said. “Just having fun. Like that whole New York stage is a big thing for me. I really appreciated that.”
Looking ahead, Gabriel wants to continue to get better. Of course, as a multi-faceted contributor, he wants to be versatile in his improvement.
“Work on my offensive game a little more,” he said. “Try to find out where I fit in there.
“But defensively, be more alert on the defensive end. There’s more things I can do.”
Duquesne at No. 2 Kentucky
9 p.m. (ESPNU)