UK Men's Basketball

Next Cats notes: Calipari already impressed with UK signee Gabriel’s team-first attitude

UK signee Wenyen Gabriel of Wilbraham & Monson Academy dunked Saturday night against Athlete Institute during the Bluegrass Showcase at Paul Laurence Dunbar.
UK signee Wenyen Gabriel of Wilbraham & Monson Academy dunked Saturday night against Athlete Institute during the Bluegrass Showcase at Paul Laurence Dunbar. Herald-Leader

Though he’s never been shy about praising his players — past, present and future — John Calipari seems to already have a particular affinity for Wenyen Gabriel.

On Saturday morning, the UK coach tweeted a picture of himself and Gabriel — one of the program’s five signees for next year — with the accompanying message: “Look who’s in town, #BBN. Wenyen Gariel is as good as a kid as we’ve had. Looking forward to coaching him.”

Gabriel was in Lexington for this weekend’s Bluegrass Showcase, where Calipari watched him score 24 points and grab 10 rebounds to lead Wilbraham & Monson Academy (Mass.) to a comeback victory over Athlete Institute (Ont.) on Saturday night.

Connections to other recruits in UK’s class have told the Herald-Leader that Calipari was calling Gabriel one of the five best players in the country during the fall. The UK coach thought enough of the 6-foot-10 small forward to personally take charge of his recruitment early in the process.

WMA Coach Mike Mannix told the Herald-Leader that Calipari has remarked on multiple occasions that UK fans don’t yet realize “the great kid that we’re getting” next season.

Mannix already knows.

“I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “The kid — he’s just really something else. To have a good group of guys that’s kind of young — who could they look up to? Wenyen’s the perfect guy. It’s great.”

Mannix offered an example from just a few days ago, when Gabriel texted him after a loss — WMA’s only one so far this season — to express how proud he was of a younger teammate who was emerging as a team leader off the bench.

“If he ever gets down, he only gets down on himself,” Mannix said. “And that’s natural. He’s hard on himself, but he doesn’t get down on his teammates. He picks guys up.”

Gabriel’s demeanor was on display Saturday night, when he struggled to get going but never got discouraged before unleashing a scoring flurry in the final minutes. The respect he has among his teammates was also apparent.

After the game, as Gabriel was talking to reporters, one of the other WMA players emerged from the locker room and walked over to excitedly slap the future Wildcat on the back.

“No. 1 player in the country!” Gabriel’s teammate exclaimed.

‘Silky’ smooth game

Five-star recruit Thon Maker was Wenyen Gabriel’s main matchup in Saturday night’s game, and the 7-footer acknowledged playing a physical brand of basketball with the UK signee.

Maker had nothing but respect for Gabriel after the game.

“He’s good with length,” Maker said. “He’s very silky with his moves. ... I don’t know his wingspan, but it’s something ugly — in a good way.”

Gabriel’s wingspan was last measured over the summer at 7-1, and he’s grown since then.

No rush for Ayton

DeAndre Ayton — the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2017 — said he’s not in any hurry to make a college decision, though he did call Kentucky, Duke and Kansas the top three schools at this point in his recruitment.

The 7-footer for Hillcrest (Ariz.) said he’s been watching more college basketball this season in anticipation of that important choice.

“I watch how their big men (play),” Ayton said. “Are they mobile or do they just stay in the post? Do they come out and shoot the jump shot or do they just stay in the post the whole game?”

Ayton would prefer a program that allows him to drift away from the basket at times. He made three three-pointers in Saturday’s game and spent much of the weekend playing on the perimeter.

“It’s been there,” Ayton said of his outside shot. “This year, I just wanted to bring it out to show people I can really shoot the ball. ... I know I can dominate in the post. I just wanted to try something new.”

Ayton said he was pleased that UK Coach John Calipari was in the gym to see him play Saturday.

“He saw me shooting the ball pretty good,” he said with a smile.

Statement game

Five-star shooting guard Rawle Alkins turned in the performance of the weekend Sunday, going for 51 points to lead Word of God Academy (N.C.) to a 121-101 victory over Victory Prep (Texas).

Alkins — a 6-4 prospect from Brooklyn — scored 33 points in the second half alone, connecting on six three-pointers in the period. The game was played in two 20-minute halves, but Alkins spent some time on the bench in the first half and missed several minutes in the second half with a cut in his mouth.

He listed UK, Louisville, Indiana, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Kansas, St. John’s and UNLV as the schools still active in his recruitment and said he’s recently heard from Wildcats assistant coach Tony Barbee.

Indiana Coach Tom Crean was in the gym to see him play Sunday.

Alkins will not make a college decision until the spring.

Ben Roberts: 859-231-3216, @NextCats