UK Recruiting

Growth spurt, work ethic vaulted Kentucky's new commitment Wenyen Gabriel into John Calipari's clutches

Wenyen Gabriel
is a 6-foot-10, 195-pound forward with perimeter skills.
Wenyen Gabriel is a 6-foot-10, 195-pound forward with perimeter skills.

There were still recruiting visits on his schedule and conversations with college coaches to be had, but five-star basketball prospect Wenyen Gabriel decided those wouldn't be necessary.

A day after a face-to-face meeting with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski — and a few days following an official visit to Kentucky — one of the best high school players in America decided he'd seen and heard enough.

On Wednesday night, Gabriel called Coach John Calipari and told him he wanted to be a Kentucky Wildcat. On Thursday afternoon, he told everyone else.

"I picked Kentucky because I really liked the way Cal was recruiting me," Gabriel said. "He took the recruitment into his own hands. ... That part really intrigued me.

"I liked his plan for me. Going there, I just need to be the best player I can be and go do what I always do best: Block shots, rebound, defend, play hard. And everything will work out."

Gabriel — a 6-foot-10, 195-pound forward — chose the Wildcats over fellow finalists Duke, Maryland, Providence and UConn. He was slated for official visits to Duke, Providence and UConn later this month but won't be taking those trips now that he's committed to UK.

Maryland, which he visited last month, had become the buzz school among many recruiting analysts, while Krzyzewski flew to Massachusetts on Tuesday to reassure Gabriel that the Blue Devils still badly wanted his commitment despite pledges from two other highly touted forwards in the class of 2016.

Instead, he chose Kentucky — partly because of Calipari's hands-on approach to the recruitment, and partly because the UK coach has said he wants to use Gabriel on the perimeter.

"He said I already have everything I need to be out there," Gabriel told the Herald-Leader. "The fact that he believes in me was very influential."

Gabriel will take a winding path to Lexington.

He was born in what is now South Sudan and fled the war-torn area with his family at the age of 3. After a brief stop in Egypt, Gabriel ended up in Manchester, N.H., and he was raised there until being provided with an opportunity to attend Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts.

He enrolled at the high school last year with zero Division I scholarship offers.

He kept growing, and he kept working, and during one weekend this summer he earned offers from Kentucky, Duke and Kansas.

"Wenyen's been a great story," his AAU coach, Vin Pastore, told the Herald-Leader. "He's a very skilled big who's been in the gym, and he hasn't been outworked by anybody. That's been his forte — his ability to outwork people. He decided that he wanted to be a perimeter player a long time ago, and he's been in the gym working on his handle and working on his jump shot. Every day. He doesn't miss a day.

"His dream was to put himself in a position where he could go to a school like Kentucky. And he's done just that."

Gabriel's development was so stark that he went from unranked in the spring to the No. 10 overall player in the class of 2016, according to the post-summer rankings from Scout.com.

The growth spurt didn't hurt — Gabriel was 6-1 when he entered high school — but the rise in his game wasn't based solely off of that.

Gabriel said one reason he went from unknown to five-star status was the increase in exposure after his move from New Hampshire, where he played with a local AAU team that was rarely, if ever, seen by college coaches.

Another, bigger reason: He simply got better.

"He was the breakout guy of the summer," said Scout.com's Evan Daniels. "He's long, he's mobile, he's got quick feet. He's skilled enough to take defensive rebounds and start the break. He's a good passer. He's a very capable shooter out to about 22 feet, He just has all the tools, and it's all coming together right now for him.

"The Wenyen Gabriel I saw at the beginning of July wasn't as good as the Wenyen Gabriel I saw at the end of July. ... And I'm excited about the next time I see him, because I have a feeling he's going to take another step."

Gabriel joins fellow 6-10 power forward Sacha Killeya-Jones as UK's second high school commitment for the class of 2016. (The Cats also have a pledge from New Zealand power forward Tai Wynyard, who is expected to enroll in the school this December).

Despite sharing a position, Gabriel says he and Killeya-Jones bring different skill sets and will be able to play alongside each other at UK.

Daniels agrees.

"Oh, they can 100-percent co-exist," he said. "Sacha is skilled, he's better around the basket, better with his back to the rim. He's got some post moves. And while he's skilled and he can face up, I think he spends the majority of his time around the basket.

"Wenyen — they're going to try to utilize in both situations. They'll play him in the high post. They'll use him to stretch the floor. He'll spend some time on the perimeter. He's going to play a lot of different spots and a lot of different ways for them."

There are several other frontcourt players on Calipari's radar for 2016, including five-star prospects Edrice Adebayo, Jarrett Allen, Marques Bolden and No. 1 overall recruit Harry Giles, who is scheduled to take an official visit to UK for Big Blue Madness on Oct. 16.

Calipari would ideally like to pick up one more player from that group, though Daniels said any more frontcourt additions for 2016 would be "icing on the cake," especially considering the Cats will also have Wynyard and 7-footer Isaac Humphries returning.

Gabriel is already looking forward to playing with those players and whoever else ends up on Kentucky's 2016-17 roster.

This time last year, he wasn't sure if he'd ever have an opportunity like it.

"It was in my mind, but I wouldn't have predicted it," Gabriel said. "I just knew eventually I was going to end up reaching my potential. I know I'm still really far from it now, but I showed some of it this summer.

"And I'm just going to keep on working."

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