Gabriel Earning Respect, Playing Time with Relentless Energy

The national headlines go to his more high-profile teammates, but the hearts of opposing coaches belong to Wenyen Gabriel.

Take Kentucky’s exhibition opener against Clarion as an example, when Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo both posted double-doubles. Gabriel, meanwhile, had only nine points and two rebounds in 17 minutes, but also the undivided attention of Marcess Williams.

“My favorite is Gabriel,” the Clarion head coach said. “I love that kid. That kid, he might be the best one of them all.”

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo sang a similar tune, in spite of the fact that Malik Monk torched the Spartans for 23 points and De’Aaron Fox had 12 points and six assists while Gabriel managed only four points, three rebounds and three steals.

"The kid I like is Gabriel," Izzo said.

Three games in, Gabriel is tied for fifth on his UK team in scoring average (5.7 points), three players have more rebounds than his 11 and he’s sixth on the team in minutes. There’s no column in the box score for heart though, and in that category no one matches the 6-foot-9 freshman.

“I think that’s kind of how I found my way onto the floor and earning more minutes,” Gabriel said. “I’m going to continue to do that.”

It’s that attitude that’s earned him the admiration of opposing coaches and his own as well. 

“His energy and effort is really, really good and we love that about him,” said associate head coach Kenny Payne, filling in for John Calipari in UK’s press conference ahead of a matchup with Duquesne (2-1) on Sunday at 9 p.m.

In UK’s biggest game of the season so far – that win over Michigan State – Gabriel played a career-high 24 minutes. Unfazed by a high-profile opponent and the big stage of Madison Square Garden, Gabriel came off the bench and simply did what he does: whatever his team needs.

“If we’re missing out on rebounding, I’m going to try to go in the game and get rebounds,” Gabriel said. “If we need to pick up the intensity on the defensive end, I’m going to try to pick up the intensity. If we need to score some more, I’m going to try to get to the basket and score.”

Statistics matter little to Gabriel, other than the final score. Since UK is 3-0 so far this season, he’s happy.

“Every time I step on the court, I’m trying to win,” Gabriel said. “I kind of feel like I play like my life’s on the line every game that I’m in.”

Gabriel says that mentality comes from his upbringing.

“I got a big family and coming over from South Sudan, coming here with nothing is kind of like—I feel like I’m earning everything that I’m working for,” Gabriel said. “I feel like that’s how I get it, by how I play so hard.”

With the way he plays, Gabriel seems intent on making it harder and harder for his coach to keep him off the floor. That was certainly the case against Michigan State.

“He was proud of me, happy that I picked it up,” Gabriel said. “I know he was looking for someone to pick it up during that spot for the four-man position. I think I kind of picked up filling that role then. I’m just hoping to build off of that and continue on for my next game and so on.”

If his time at UK to this point is any indication, it seems a given Gabriel will do exactly that.

“I think from the day Wenyen Gabriel has walked into this program to today, he’s made major strides,” Payne said. “We are a defensive team historically with Coach Cal’s teams. Defense is a premium here. The kid has learned. He still makes some mistakes but he’s trying.”

Talk to coaches who play against him, UK’s coaches or Gabriel himself and you’ll realize he’s not going to stop doing that.

“I can work on my offensive game a little more, trying to find where I fit in there,” Gabriel said. “But definitely still being more alert on the defensive end. I can get some more rebounds. There’s more things I can do on the court that I’m still working on.”