INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not an ideal strategy in most situations, but Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel is trying to think less.
“When your mind’s racing like that it’s kinda hard to go out there and compete,” he said.
Gabriel’s game has gone astray and his minutes have been minimal for the last month. The freshman forward got a steady diet of 20 minutes or more in 13 of Kentucky’s first 22 games, but he hasn’t played more than 20 minutes since Feb. 21.
A gradual decrease in minutes has been matched with a sharper decline in scoring. Gabriel poured in a career-high 23 points on February 7 against LSU. In the 11 games since then? Just 20 combined points.
“I haven’t been taking good shots,” Gabriel said. “I haven’t been taking as many 3-pointers. I think I’ve been playing to not make a mistake rather than just playing the game.”
And that’s where Gabriel’s “think less” mentality comes into play. It’s affecting his scoring, but his bigger concern is on the other side of the floor.
“He’s just gotta focus in more on defense because he breaks down a lot,” senior guard Dominique Hawkins said. “Other than that he’s been terrific. With a player like him he can go for 20 any night. He’s a difference maker on defense because of his length.”
That athleticism helps Gabriel naturally compensate for botched assignments. “Motor” is the word coach John Calipari and Gabriel’s teammates often use to describe him. Fellow freshman Malik Monk said Gabriel’s feet can be slow, but that he never stops hustling.
Seniors Hawkins and Mychal Mulder agreed that the biggest adjustment for freshmen is on the defensive end. Mulder said he enjoys seeing the progression Kentucky’s freshman, like Gabriel, make during the course of the season. But in Gabriel’s case, he’s still not a finished product.
“It’s all mental,” Mulder said. “I feel like as soon as his mind’s right, he’s a great player. It’s gonna be fine for him.”
Gabriel played 9 minutes Friday night in Kentucky’s first round win over Northern Kentucky and will look to keep his place in Calipari’s rotation when the Cats take on Wichita State Sunday afternoon.
“I just need to get my feel for the game back again,” Gabriel said. “I get my chances and I need to capitalize on them.”