Five-star basketball recruit Wenyen Gabriel is one of four University of Kentucky signees in Brooklyn for Friday night’s Jordan Brand Classic, one final national all-star game a couple of months before the future Wildcats arrive in Lexington.
Gabriel — a 6-foot-10 small forward from Wilbraham & Monson Academy (Mass.) — averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and seven blocked shots per game this past season, but his high school squad finished with a losing record.
Wilbraham & Monson Academy Coach Mike Mannix spoke to the Herald-Leader on Thursday about Gabriel’s development as a player, his attitude during the ups and downs of his senior season and his future at UK.
Here are some highlights from that conversation:
Wenyen spent last week at the Nike Hoop Summit and has been at the Jordan Brand Classic this week. How much can events like these help a player with his development?
“It’s pretty rare that you see that level of a collection of talent in one place, so to be able to get out there and do that for three, four, five days, I think it gives him a glimpse into what next year will look like for him in practice. 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. And when you have that, which he does, it just means that anywhere he goes, he’s ready to compete.”
How do you think Wenyen played and progressed during his junior season?
“I thought he was great. I think he had a lot of challenges thrown at him. We used to joke that it will be really interesting next year when he catches the ball, he won’t have the whole student section guarding him anymore. We kind of joked about that as the year went on, because really any time he touched the ball with us offensively, there were two, sometimes two and a half guys guarding him. And when I say ‘two and a half guys,’ he would see double teams, and then a third guy helping off into a position where it would kind of limit what he might be able to do, in terms of driving. So he saw a lot of those double teams, and he still averaged 22 points a game. He still did his thing.
“And I think the other thing that you certainly can’t discount is, when you have tough seasons like we did, that’s when they say your real character and ability to lead comes out. And he was tremendous. We had a rough stretch in the month of January, and he was as consistent as you could ask for a leader. And I think that’s really hard. When times get tough, can you be consistent? You can be positive, but can you be consistently positive? And can you be consistent in terms of your competition and your expectations of your teammates and yourself? And he was. He held himself to a high standard throughout the whole season. He held others to a high standard while still being really positive and supportive with his younger teammates. When the season ended, the coaching staff and I were talking about how he and our other captain developed as leaders. And we were just blown away by how great those guys were and how Wenyen kept leading by example. And, when other guys were going through tough times, he was the first guy to put his arm around guys and pull them through, but really encourage them to keep working harder.”
How much has he talked about next season, looking forward to playing at UK?
“We would talk about those guys. Every once in a while, if we were in the car or having a meeting or something, we would talk about normal stuff outside of our own team. And he would mention about how he had been talking to this guy or that guy for next year that would be his teammate, and he’d talk about each of the guys. He really understands the importance of what one collective group having the same mission and getting to know each other, and feeling like a family — he understands that that’s really important in terms of trying to accomplish a goal.”
There are often overblown expectations for incoming recruits. What expectations should fans have for Wenyen next season?
“Just expect to see a kid that, any time he’s out on the floor — if he’s going to start and play a major role right away, or whatever his role might end up being — just know that whenever he gets on the court, you’re going to always be able to say that he competed every second of every minute that he was out on the floor. And he’s going to do everything and anything it takes to win a game. He’ll go against a guy that might be a little bit quicker, but he’ll figure out how to guard him. He’ll go against a guy that might be a little bit bigger, but he’s going to figure out how to block him out and how to go get balls. And he’s going to figure out ways to score, because he’s scored it in every way imaginable this year. He knocked down deep shots. He drove the ball extremely well. And then he knew when he could go down and catch a guy on his back and use his size and length that way, too. He really just developed his offensive game in terms of understanding: ‘Who’s guarding me, and how can I score on this guy?’”
What areas of his game was he concentrating on throughout the season? Where did he want to improve?
“He was looking to try and improve his ability to drive the ball any time there was someone smaller and quicker guarding him, and he did that. I kind of flash back to our first game of the year, and when I watched the replay later that night on TV, he drove to the lane and he drew two or three defenders. And it didn’t look like he was going to be able to get to the rim close enough to get a layup or a dunk, and he did. And even when he got close enough, it was like, ‘How’s he going to get over these three guys?’ And I just remember (recruiting analyst) Adam Finkelstein from ESPN saying, ‘Go, go gadget arms.’ And that’s what it was.
“When he got into what we call the forest — where there’s a 6-10 and 6-11 guy waiting for him — somehow he raised it up above him and kind of scooped his arm under a couple of guys and he’s able to finish up at the rim and get fouled. And it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t even know how that happened.’”
That length and motor you talk about really help Wenyen as a defender. What’s his potential there right away next season, especially defending on the perimeter?
“Oh, man, defensively. Coach Cal’s already seen a whole bunch of it, but he’s going to absolutely love it, because you can tell him to go out and guard anybody at any time in any situation and he gets fired up to do it. He is excited to guard guys. If I can give you a really quick example: We were playing a game in the last week of the season, and we were in a close game with a team and it was a league game, an important game for both teams. And it’s like a four-point game, kind of going back and forth. Basically, they had one guy that was lighting us up. The kid had like seven or eight points in the first half and was OK, and then midway through the second half he had like 25, 26 points. And he’s the only kid keeping them in the game. He was a 6-6 wing, lefty, pretty quick, pretty strong and he could really shoot it. And we could not figure out how to stop him from scoring.
“So, in the huddle, I said we’re going to go with a triangle and two. And we had one of our guards guard the point guard, and I looked at Wenyen and I said, ‘You know who you got.’ And so when they came out on the floor, the kid sees Wenyen’s guarding him and looks at his coach and actually says to his coach, ‘Give me the ball.’ And Wenyen’s eyes just got as big as could be. 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. He guarded the kid for the last 10 minutes of the game, and the kid had two points. He just completely shut the kid down and took him out of his game. He couldn’t drive it, he couldn’t post, he couldn’t shoot it. He couldn’t do anything. It was like Wenyen was living inside his clothes. It was incredible.”
I know playing on the perimeter was a selling point when Wenyen picked Kentucky, but is he prepared to play some in the post if that’s what they need him to do next season?
“I think if Coach wants him to do that, he is prepared to do that. If Coach really wants him to do that and that’s going to be a role he’s going to play, then Wenyen will do whatever is necessary to make sure he’s extremely prepared to do that, in the fall and in the summer. He’s been lifting in the offseason. He’s following the Kentucky strength and conditioning program, and he’s continued to work on his strength all through the spring. And he’s looking better and better every week. People are really going to like what they see when he gets out there for the summer. And he’s obviously going to take his work ethic right to campus with him in June. And then by the end of the summer, I think you’ll see a body that’s going to look really, really good. He’s totally ready to do everything that he needs to do.”