For a Kentucky basketball fan stuck in the middle of a hot, hoops-less summer, the tweet came like an invigorating breeze.
It was a pair of tweets, actually, from Jon Rothstein, college basketball insider for CBS Sports as well as host of the College Hoops Today podcast. A basketball junkie with coast-to-coast connections, Rothstein begins each morning with a Twitter torrent of roundball news.
On July 22, Rothstein tweeted: “Hearing Wenyen Gabriel has been Kentucky’s best player this summer. Averaged 4.6 PPG and 4.8 RPG as a freshman. Two words — breakout guy.”
On Aug. 4, Rothstein tweeted: “Hearing while Wenyen Gabriel has been Kentucky’s best player this summer, program’s biggest surprise has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.”
Consider Big Blue Nation’s appetite whetted.
Not to rain on the parade, but we should take such proclamations with a healthy dose of salt. Summer workouts aren’t real workouts and summer games aren’t real games. Too often, those reportedly drawing offseason raves fail to validate the optimism when the weather changes.
This time last year, Isaac Humphries was earning all the praise. The sophomore was said to be in much better shape than his rookie season. He was more athletic, more confident. A completely different player, whispered those in the know.
During the season, however, Humphries was much the same player as the year before, averaging 2.8 points and 2.8 rebounds. Great kid, but aside from his surprise 12-point, five-rebound effort in 21 minutes against North Carolina in the South Region finals, the predictions of drastic improvement proved wishful thinking.
Still, the reports on Gabriel and Gilgeous-Alexander are intriguing, especially for a 2017-18 Kentucky basketball team John Calipari can call the youngest ever and you think, hey, this time Cal might just be right.
If you remember, the 6-foot-9, 205-pound Gabriel was considered one of the better prospects in Calipari’s star-studded 2017 class, one that produced NBA Draft lottery picks in De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.
Ranked as high as No. 12 by Scout, Gabriel didn’t quite match the hype. As Rothstein tweeted, he averaged less than five points and five rebounds. His motor was as advertised, but after sharing a starting spot with senior Derek Willis, his playing time tailed off by season’s end. Gabriel played just 34 minutes over last season’s last five games.
Truth be told, Gabriel just didn’t have the body for the college game. Not as a pencil-thin freshman, anyway. He was too often elbowed out of the way on drives, pushed under the basket on rebounds. And if there is one thing we know about Calipari, if you want to play, you have to rebound.
To Gabriel’s credit, he realized his limitations and went to work on a fix. Spending time with T1 Training in Massachusetts, he reportedly improved his bench press by 15 pounds, his pull-ups by 17 and his vertical leap by 2 inches. The company posted an Instagram picture comparing the Gabriel of May 5 with the Gabriel of May 26. The difference was striking.
Then there’s Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the less-heralded members of Calipari’s 2018 signees. That’s no knock on the combo guard from Canada. After all, of the eight freshmen on the upcoming season’s roster, six are five-star prospects.
Gilgeous-Alexander was a four-star, ranked 31st by Rivals after averaging 20.2 points and 4.8 assists at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga last year. That put him behind Kevin Knox (9), Jarred Vanderbilt (13), PJ Washington (14), Nick Richards (16) and Quade Green (21).
Ah, but then the 6-5 swingman turned heads at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, won the three-point shooting contest at the Derby Classic and emitted some don’t-sleep-on-this-guy raves from recent graduates in town for some pickup ball.
“He surprised me,” said Malik Monk, “because I had never seen him before.”
Kentucky fans hope, come October, they’ll like what they see as much as what they hear.
Kentucky basketball 2017-18 non-conference schedule