LEXINGTON, Ky. — On Dec. 12, 2015, two Sudanese refugees who also happened to be 5-star basketball recruits squared off in a high school gym in Lexington with John Calipari in the audience. The Kentucky basketball coach learned all he needed to know about one of them that night.
Thon Maker, a chiseled 7-foot-1 center, was bigger than Wenyen Gabriel, a wispy 6-9 forward. Maker, who would go straight from prep school to the NBA a few months later and be drafted 10th overall, was also better.
He bullied Gabriel in the first half and Maker’s team led by six points late in the second. Reminded of this recently, Gabriel interrupted: “You watched the whole game, right?” He grinned, knowing how this story ends.
Gabriel reeled off 11 consecutive points — matching Maker’s 24 for the game — and led his team to a dramatic come-from-behind victory. He conducted a postgame interview through two split lips that could not hide his joy.
“I can just remember him being at the free-throw line at the end and looking over at me and smiling,” said Mike Mannix, Gabriel’s former coach at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts. “He’s got blood all over his teeth and he’s smiling. It was like, ‘Don’t worry, I got you.’”
Gabriel loves that story, because it perfectly captures who he wants to be: You might push me down — a few times even. You might bloody my lip — or even both. But you’ll never keep me down.
He draws on that story now, after a disappointing freshman season at Kentucky and on the cusp of his sophomore year, as he hopes to recreate it on a much larger scale and stage. The Wildcats need him to, because Gabriel is the team’s only player with more than 40 total points in his college basketball career.
Consider Calipari’s opening sentence in an all-encompassing preseason Q&A session with reporters: “First of all, Wenyen is playing way better, thank God. He’s not the same guy he was a year ago.”
While Gabriel started 23 games for Kentucky last season and hit some real high notes — 16 rebounds against Auburn, 23 points against LSU, a 12-game stretch during which he shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range — he fizzled at the end. He scored a total of 20 points in the final 14 games, including just a single point in four NCAA Tournament games.
“My body gave up on me,” Gabriel told SEC Country. “So, when the season ended, I focused on my body. Confidence is a big thing for me, too, so I’ve been focusing on that, remaining positive. I’m coming into this year with a different plan. I feel like a lot of people don’t know what type of player I really am.”
He would like to direct any doubters to the second half of his showdown with Maker.
“That is basically what you guys are going to see,” said Gabriel, whose muscled-up offseason workout photos went viral this summer. “You saw me get pushed down at the end of last year, but now you’re going to see the second half this year.”
He will pick himself up and press on — fight back — because he must. Gabriel was born in war-torn Sudan in 1997 and his family fled to Egypt when he was a baby, then the United States when he was a toddler. He helped his mother learn English and study to become a nursing assistant.
“I think my conversation with my mom [after last season] was one of the biggest change-makers,” Gabriel said. “She just really reminded me who I was. She spoke about where we are from. And she told me not to worry about what was happening last year. She just reminded me, ‘You’re still my son. I love you.’ And just reminded me about the family, what she’s doing, how she’s working and how she never gave up — so I have no reason to give up.”
One of Calipari’s favorite ways to get to know a recruit and form a connection is to ask, “What’s your why?” In other words: What drives you to succeed? Mannix was in the room when Calipari asked Gabriel that question two years ago.
“I remember Wenyen’s pretty well,” he said. “It was the South Sudan and him trying to help — his family that’s still there and all the people that he shares a bond with there — any way he can. It’s important to him to make it for them. That was his why. And I remember Coach Cal telling me, ‘That’s one of the best whys I’ve ever heard.’”
Gabriel said he wakes up each day with two thoughts: First, instead of a soldier stuck in a never-ending civil war in Africa, he’s a basketball star at Kentucky, so “what’s there to be mad about?” Second, don’t waste it.
“That’s what really pushes me: the things that I could do. It’s not what I’ve been through or what I’ve already done,” he said. “When I wake up, what really keeps me pushing is what I can be.”
On Calipari’s youngest team yet — eight freshmen, three sophomores and zero juniors or seniors — Gabriel is the only player who comes close to qualifying as a “veteran.” It is a roster full of (albeit 5-star) fresh faces and question marks, plus one guy who has already gotten up from enough knockdowns for his former coach to know what’s coming next.
“Improvement,” Mannix predicted. “It’s difficult and probably unfair to try to quantify that, but improvement. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s significant improvement, but I would bet my house that we will see progress. The change that’s taken place in him physically shows me that he’s probably driven more than ever because of the challenges of last season.
“The player that I know, giving him more motivation is a scary thing for the opposition.”