LEXINGTON, Ky. — It has become an annual ritual for Kentucky basketball fans to get fired up about the team’s many 5-star freshmen, of whom there are seven this season. But Wildcats coach John Calipari said something very important about a grizzled sophomore Wednesday at SEC Media Day.
Wenyen Gabriel, a 6-foot-9 forward, is “not even the same player,” Calipari announced. “I would say Wenyen is one of our top three guys right now, if you ask me. His energy is unbelievable, he’s making baskets, easy plays. He’s the relentless guy I recruited — second and third tips and just keep going. And he’s stronger. So he’s probably ahead because he’s got better habits than some of the guys, because he’s been here.”
Gabriel was a 5-star recruit himself and he started 23 games for Kentucky as a freshman last season, but he hit a wall and lost all confidence by the time March rolled around. He finished the year buried on the bench, scoring just 20 points in the final 14 games, including only one point in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s different when you’re being recruited than when you’re playing for a coach,” Gabriel said. “It’s a little more aggressive, so it becomes a little hard to understand. There’s a little conflict there.”
He struggled with the way Calipari prodded for more, more, more. Heading into his second season, Gabriel has a better grasp of his coach’s tough-love language. In fact, he’s helping translate for the latest crop of heralded freshmen.
“I know Cal is there to help me. I feel like I understand him more, we both understand each other a little better. It’s easier to work that way,” Gabriel said. “He just wants us to get better and he’s going to push you. No matter what, he’s not going to back down from that. So kind of embracing that challenge right there, it’s a whole different look for me, knowing that I need to do this — that it’s not about blaming anybody else — just taking responsibility.”
Those words of wisdom are precisely why, for all the hype surrounding the new guys every season, Kentucky is at its best under Calipari when there are a few returning players to hold it all together.
To watch Gabriel walk and talk these days, his chest out and head high, voice loud and sure, is to see confidence renewed.
“Came in as a freshman, eyes open, just trying to listen,” Gabriel said. “But now I know what to expect, what I need to do. Every day, I have an agenda of things I need to get done, so it’s definitely a different approach. You walk with a different level of confidence and a different level of responsibility.”
That change has not gone unnoticed by his coach or teammates.
“Wenyen is different,” said redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo, who arrived at UK last January in time to witness Gabriel’s second-half fade, “because he’s more confident.”
Previewing 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats
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- How football got 5-star Kevin Knox to Kentucky
- Freshman PG Quade Green already leading young Cats
- Teammates: Hamidou Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Jarred Vanderbilt is out
- John Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter