LEXINGTON, Ky. — The 2018 NBA Combine begins today in Chicago, and Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel will not be there. He wasn’t invited, which is his first clue about what pro scouts are thinking about his readiness for the next level.
He did get a workout with the Utah Jazz over the weekend, alongside five other hopefuls, and he’ll likely get in front of a few other teams before the May 30 deadline to decide whether he’s staying in the draft or returning to school. But early returns are pretty clear.
“Where we have him ranked is what we think about him,” said ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony, who then belted out a long laugh. Gabriel is not ranked among Givony’s top 100 prospects. “So there you go. There’s 60 spots in the draft. If you’re not in the top 100, you don’t need to be a mathematician to calculate that one, right?”
Gabriel, a 6-foot-9 forward and former 5-star recruit, has been a solid contributor for two seasons at Kentucky. He averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds off the bench last season, but those numbers spiked in the postseason. He set an SEC Tournament record by sinking 7 of 7 3-pointers in the semifinals and delivered 16 points and 12 rebounds in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m not down on him in general,” Givony said. “I think he definitely has some good attributes. He’s really tough, plays super hard, seems like a great teammate. He has shown the ability to make a three, which is important at his position, and he’s a competitor. NBA teams want those kinds of guys, but the question is how far away is he from helping someone and what’s the best route for him to get there.”
Gabriel, a stick figure when he arrived in Lexington two summers ago, still needs to get stronger and be a more consistent defender. While his energy and shooting ability are intriguing — he hit 19 of 35 threes (54.2 percent) over the final 10 games as a sophomore — he’s still not a polished player.
One NBA scout told SEC Country he believes Gabriel could eventually play in that league, but that day is still fairly far away.
“I like him as a four-year guy, so I hope he does go back to school,” the scout said. “I feel like if he hadn’t come in with all of the hype of a [5-star recruit], people would be more realistic with him. He needs to go back. He could be a four-year player and actually end up being something [in the NBA], like a three-and-D guy.”
Gabriel’s high school coach compares his situation to that of Willie Cauley-Stein, who played a little as a freshman at Kentucky, more as a sophomore and then became the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and No. 6 overall pick as a junior.
“All the talk all the time about Kentucky and its players is about the one-and-done thing,” said Wilbraham & Monson Academy coach Mike Mannix said. “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. To see the minutes [Gabriel] got, especially in March, I thought that was great and I’m hoping for big things to come for his junior year.”
Kentucky and coach John Calipari are hoping for the same. However, sources have told SEC Country for the last two months — even before he declared for a draft that almost certainly will not include him — Gabriel hasn’t ruled out the idea of taking the long road to the NBA, whether that be in the developmental G League or overseas.
“A lot of these guys are going to work their way through the G League, even first-round picks,” Givony said. “I can tell you for sure he’s not going to be with any NBA team at the start of the year. He’s in a huge boat with a billion other players who would have to work their way through the G League. So the question for him is just: Where do you want to develop? Do you want to do it in college or do you want to do it in the NBA’s development league?”
We’ll know the answer to that question for Gabriel and Kentucky teammates PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are also testing the waters without hiring agents, in no more than 14 days.