It was a senior season full of disappointment for Wenyen Gabriel, but it wasn’t enough to shake his spirit.
The University of Kentucky basketball signee was faced with defeat after defeat against teams that constantly double (and triple) teamed him in what amounted to a rebuilding year for Wilbraham & Monson Academy (Mass.).
Gabriel — a 6-foot-10 forward — was one of only two returning players from a team that had been within a possession of playing for a league championship the season before, and it became clear as the season progressed that WMA probably wouldn’t be getting back to that point in his final year with the squad.
During one stretch in January, they lost eight games in a row.
Still, he stayed positive.
It’s just awesome knowing that, no matter where he goes, no matter who he’s matched up against, his motor never turns off. Anywhere he goes, he’s ready to compete.
Mike Mannix, Wilbraham & Monson Academy coach
WMA Coach Mike Mannix recalled one discussion he had with his star player toward the end of the season. Gabriel, who had been a constant source of encouragement for his teammates, told Mannix that his senior season was a test of sorts. “And I just have to make sure that I keep going the way I’m going and continue to do the right thing,” Gabriel said.
“After that, I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Mannix told the Herald-Leader. “He has really gotten it. He has such a grasp on what it takes and what it means to lead. It’s just unbelievable. It’s incredible, and Coach Cal’s going to see it, and he’s going to see it next year, probably earlier than we expect.”
John Calipari gets him on campus this summer, but Gabriel has spent the past couple of weeks measuring his game up against the best in the country at the Nike Hoop Summit and Jordan Brand Classic.
Last week, the future Wildcat earned a starring spot on the victorious U.S. squad in the Hoop Summit.
On Friday night in Brooklyn, he’ll play in the nationally televised Jordan Classic (8 p.m. on ESPN2) alongside future teammates Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
The all-star games are fun, but it’s the competitive environment of the practice weeks that has benefited Gabriel most.
“I think it gives him a glimpse into what next year will look like for him in practice,” Mannix said. “Those guys at that level are going and competing against each other every day, both ends of the floor. So I think it’s a great step toward showing him what next year will bring. It’s just awesome knowing that, no matter where he goes, no matter who he’s matched up against, his motor never turns off.
“Anywhere he goes, he’s ready to compete.”
Gabriel averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks per game this past season, despite the constant attention of opposing teams.
Scout.com ranks him as the No. 10 overall prospect in the loaded class of 2016, and Calipari recruited him to be a perimeter player, which is not exactly normal for a 6-10 guy.
“I think the most important thing is that he can guard the position, for sure at the college level,” said Scout.com national analyst Evan Daniels. “So he’s going to spend a lot of time on the perimeter. But one of Wenyen’s strengths is his versatility. You can use him in a face-up four role. You can stick him on the perimeter.
“You can use him in a variety of ways.”
His defense has been a subject of praise from the scouts and analysts who have seen him play over the past couple of weeks.
His ceiling is through the roof. When you have that kind of size, fluidity, athleticism and you’re playing out on the perimeter and have shot-making ability and can impact the game in a variety of ways, you have serious talent.
Evan Daniels, Scout.com recruiting analyst
Mannix tells the story of an opposing player who was lighting his team up late in the season. The player went off early in the second half and was up to about 25 points by the midway point of that period.
“We could not figure out how to stop him from scoring,” Mannix said.
He ended up implementing a triangle-and-two defense, put one of his guards on the opposing point guard and looked at Gabriel in the huddle. “You know who you got,” the coach told him.
When the red-hot scorer on the other team saw that the UK signee would be guarding him, he turned to his own coach and, with Gabriel watching, demanded the ball.
“And Wenyen’s eyes just got as big as could be,” Mannix said. “He was like, ‘This kid wants the ball?’ Basically, I thought someone should have told the kid, ‘Don’t tug on Superman’s cape.’ He went out and he shut the kid down.”
The kid scored just two points the rest of the game.
Daniels is a big fan of Gabriel’s game, but he acknowledged that the UK signee still has plenty of room to grow on the court. He needs to work more on his ball handling if he’s going to play on the perimeter. He needs to get stronger. And he might need a little more time to realize his potential than some of Calipari’s previous top-10 recruits.
But, in this class full of five-star prospects, Gabriel’s upside might be the highest.
“That’s not a stretch,” Daniels said. “His ceiling is through the roof. When you have that kind of size, fluidity, athleticism and you’re playing out on the perimeter and have shot-making ability and can impact the game in a variety of ways, you have serious talent.
“Obviously, all of the guys coming into Kentucky next season have serious talent, but I think his upside is up there as high as anyone’s.”
Jordan Brand Classic
When: 8 p.m.
UK signees in the game: Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Wenyen Gabriel, Malik Monk