Social media started buzzing almost the second Wenyen Gabriel stepped on the basketball court Sunday evening.
Gabriel — a 6-foot-10 forward and one of Kentucky’s five highly touted signees in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class of 2016 — delivered 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots for Wilbraham & Monson (Mass.) in a 59-56, season-opening loss to Spain-based Canarias at the National Prep Showcase in Connecticut.
His squad didn’t get the victory, but Gabriel looked every bit the part of a five-star recruit.
“It was a pretty eye-opening performance, honestly,” said Scout.com’s Evan Daniels, one of several recruiting analysts in attendance. “The first half he did a little of everything. And I think maybe his biggest strength is his versatility.
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“He just looked crisper. This summer he showed he could do things like block shots and defend ‘3s,’ and take rebounds and start the break. He just looked a little bit better (Sunday). I don’t know if there’s one particular thing he improved at. It was just his all-around performance.”
During and after the game, analysts from several recruiting services questioned their own rankings for Gabriel, who entered the spring outside of the Top 100 but ended the summer as a unanimous five-star prospect.
Scout.com currently has him ranked the highest of all the major recruiting services — No. 10 overall — but Daniels said that ranking might not be high enough after what he saw Sunday.
In the first half alone, Gabriel connected on a catch-and-shoot three-pointer, a two-dribble pull-up jumper from 18 feet, an and-one dunk in transition and regularly attacked the basket from the perimeter out of the halfcourt offense. He also showed the ability to be a solid perimeter defender.
John Calipari told Gabriel throughout the recruiting process that he envisioned him as a “3” at Kentucky. The UK coach echoed that last week when announcing that Gabriel had officially signed with the Cats.
“I see him as a 6-10 guard in the sense that, if we’re playing three guards, he’s one of them,” Calipari said. “He can really shoot it, he’s got a great shot and he’s a shot blocker defensively. He’s an energy guy who can guard multiple positions and is getting better by the day.”
At the time of Gabriel’s commitment to UK, the recruiting services and some of the other schools pursuing him saw Gabriel as more of a power forward.
Daniels said he was one of those who had questioned the UK signee’s ability to play the “3” full time. That’s no longer the case.
“I don’t have any questions about it now,” Daniels said. “He’s fluid enough. Offensively, he handles the ball well enough. Defensively, he moves his feet laterally well enough to defend that position.
“I’m harder on that, because I think a lot of bigs want to spend time on the perimeter and say they’re ‘3s’ when they’re usually not.”
One (very) early projection for UK’s 2016-17 starting lineup would feature No. 1 point guard De’Aaron Fox, No. 1 shooting guard Malik Monk and Gabriel in an all-freshman backcourt. That’s two 6-4 guards and a 6-10 wing with off-the-charts athleticism at each position.
“I can’t imagine there’d be three athletes better than that at the 1, 2 and 3 in the country,” Daniels said. “That’s legitimate size at each position, but tremendous athleticism. That would be — man, if they wanted to press, that would be some serious length, too.
“That’s pretty ridiculous. And I’m sure Calipari’s going to try to do that, too.”
In the lead-up to the early signing period, Calipari apparently was telling people behind the scenes that he viewed Gabriel as one of the top five players in the class of 2016, which would be a mighty distinction in a group that has as much talent as any in recent years.
After Sunday’s performance — and seeing the continued growth Gabriel has shown over the past year — Daniels said he wouldn’t be surprised if the UK signee has that type of ranking by the end of the season.
“He is that caliber of prospect, yes,” he said. “He’s one of the elite players in this class, and this class is the best class that I’ve evaluated.
“I don’t think it’s crazy to say he’s a top five player in the country.”