LEXINGTON, Ky. — While Kentucky fans have been focused on the NBA draft declarations of Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and salivating over the recent commitments of 5-star recruits E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans, there’s another important decision brewing that will affect just how experienced the Wildcats will actually be next season.
Rising junior forward Wenyen Gabriel is pondering a professional basketball career, sources tell SEC Country, despite the fact that he is unlikely to be picked in the 2018 NBA Draft. He could take the Isaiah Briscoe route: a former 5-star recruit who declared for the draft after his sophomore season at UK, tried to impress at the combine but was content beginning his pro career in the G League or overseas if it came to that.
Some guys just want to be done with school and start getting paid — even if it’s in the tens of thousands and not millions — to play the game.
While his stock is lower than the other two (he isn’t even listed in ESPN’s top 100 prospects for the 60-pick NBA draft), Gabriel apparently has the same mindset as 5-star Kentucky freshmen PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt: “All three want to go,” one source said, “but can they?”
It isn’t about being in a hurry to leave the program but rather to chase NBA dreams. Whether they stay or go, though, that is likely to be a dream deferred.
Washington is ranked by ESPN as the 49th-best prospect eligible for this draft, while Vanderbilt is ranked 63rd, putting the former deep in the second round and the latter just outside of being drafted. Washington has declared for the draft but won’t yet hire an agent — testing the waters, as they say — while Vanderbilt and Gabriel have yet to publicly announce their intentions.
Of those three, one source close to the program predicts (without specifying) that two return to school and one leaves.
Both Washington and Vanderbilt’s fathers have told SEC Country they’d prefer their sons have some first-round assurances before leaving school, which seems unlikely. Vanderbilt missed the beginning and end of UK’s season with injuries and played only 14 games, while Washington was just scratching the surface of his talent late in the season and could become the Cats’ go-to guy as a sophomore.
Gabriel came off the bench for the Wildcats this season and averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, but his role grew when it mattered most: He averaged 27.5 minutes, 10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in six postseason games. He scored 23 points in the SEC Tournament semifinals — setting a record by going 7 of 7 from 3-point range — and delivered 16 points and 12 rebounds in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 6-foot-9 Gabriel finished the season as Kentucky’s most dangerous outside shooter, hitting 19 of 35 threes (54.2 percent) over the final 10 games.
“It was really cool for us to see the success that he had, to be able to sit back and watch a guy that had such a great impact here and now, on a national stage, he has a really good month of March,” Gabriel’s high school coach Mike Mannix told SEC Country on Tuesday. “To see the minutes he got, especially in March, I thought that was great and I’m hoping for big things to come for his junior year.”
Mannix, who has stayed in regular contact with Gabriel since high school, has not spoken to him since UK’s season ended. He was unaware of any talk about leaving Lexington. (One source close to the Wildcats’ program does not believe a transfer is on the table, by the way — just a decision between pro basketball and another year of college.)
“I can’t even put any context to that. We’ve never even talked about it,” Mannix said.
But he does believe Gabriel could be a major factor if he comes back.
“Even though I know all the talk all the time about Kentucky and its players is about the one-and-done thing — that’s all good, but at the same time, guys like Willie Cauley-Stein and others who’ve come back have had really great careers.”
Cauley-Stein improved in each of his three seasons at UK and was drafted No. 6 overall after his junior season, when a veteran core and talented crop of freshmen combined to form a super team that nearly went undefeated in 2015.
So, what if Gabriel or Washington or Vanderbilt — or more than one, maybe even all — do in fact leave? The Wildcats would most likely pursue a graduate-transfer option to add experience to the front court.
One source confirms that Stanford’s Reid Travis would be on the short list if that becomes necessary. Travis is a 6-8, 245-pound former McDonald’s All-American who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds as a redshirt junior this season.
The two-time All-Pac-12 selection has declared for the NBA draft but has not hired an agent and could return to college, which seems likely considering he is also not on ESPN’s list of the top 100 prospects. If so, Travis will be one of the most coveted transfer candidates in the country.
And stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The battle for his services could come down to Kentucky and Duke. Stay tuned. We’re told Gabriel, Washington and Vanderbilt aren’t likely to make final decisions any time soon.