LEXINGTON, Ky. – Wenyen Gabriel is a stick figure in a basketball uniform. He’s listed on Kentucky’s roster as a 6-foot-9, 213-pound freshman forward. His legs look like wire hangers protruding up out of a pair of sneakers.
So here’s a comparison for Gabriel that nobody could’ve seen coming before Saturday’s game against Auburn: “Dennis Rodman,” teammate Bam Adebayo said, referring to one of the greatest rebounders and most physical players in NBA history. “Nah, I’m playing. (But) Wenyen’s a great player. He just had one of them massive games.”
Indeed, Gabriel came out of nowhere to snag a career-high 16 rebounds in the Wildcats’ 92-72 win over the Tigers at Rupp Arena. No Kentucky player had grabbed that many boards since Julius Randle during the 2013-14 season.
It matched the same number of rebounds Gabriel had managed in the previous four games combined.
“It felt good. It felt kind of like I’m going back to how I was,” said the former 5-star recruit, “how I was playing in high school. My confidence is coming back and I’m about to start playing more aggressively.”
Gabriel’s final tally Saturday: 6 points, 16 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal in 29 minutes. Coach John Calipari pointed out that if he’d not gone 0 for 4 at the free-throw line, he would’ve had just his second career double-double.
But he did hit his first two 3-pointers against Auburn and finished 2 of 3 beyond the arc. He’d made just 4 of 20 threes to start the season.
“Wenyen’s playing so much better. He’s taking major steps forward,” senior guard Mychal Mulder said. “I’m excited to see the progression he’s having in this game.”
Gabriel, who averaged 5.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in his first 15 games, credits a couple of key things to his growth: First, learning to maneuver among grown men with his slender frame, and then earning some confidence in practice by performing at a higher level.
“Coming to play at Kentucky, SEC, college, it’s a big difference, especially with my body type,” he said. “Getting used to it, it took me kind of a while. I’m starting to get used to it now, maturing more, learning how to play, finding my role, and I think I’m just going forward from here.”
His teammates – and Calipari, who has urged him to shoot every time he’s open – also helped Gabriel begin to play fearlessly.
“They’re always trying to help me out, give me the extra pass during practice. ‘Knock that down.’ And it worked today,’ Gabriel said. “I think I’m building my confidence during practice.”
When Gabriel is playing with his chest puffed out and not getting bullied on the block, he can be a game-changer for sixth-ranked Kentucky (15-2, 5-0 SEC), which outrebounded Auburn 40-28 thanks to him. While Gabriel won’t soon be confused for Dennis Rodman physically, he does have the kind of boundless energy that defined The Worm’s career.
“He has such a high motor and he never stops playing,” Mulder said of Gabriel. “Shot goes up, he’s fighting for that rebound. He takes a shot, he’s ready to rebound his own miss. Not a lot of people are like that. That’s something unique about him and something I admire about him a lot.
“When you see a guy playing with such a high energy level, it’s not so much about talent at that point. It’s all about fight. It’s all about who wants the basketball more. You see that and it’s kind of infectious.”