By Matt Esposito
Wenyen Gabriel may not be atop many free agency big boards, but he is primed to prove himself a bargain when the ink on his next contract dries. But, allow me to clarify a bit: Wenyen Gabriel is a restricted free agent, meaning that Portland can match any offer that another team extends to the big man. And although other teams can offer Gabriel as much as the non-taxpayer MLE, expect his offer sheet to be much lower. Yet, a contract under the MLE does not indicate that Gabriel isn’t a quality NBA player worthy of rotational minutes.
Gabriel showcased his utility during Portland’s bubble games. He was asked to cover multiple positions, protect the paint when necessary, and hustle his tail off. Despite a small sample size (he’s only played 30 career games), it doesn’t require much squinting to see how Gabriel embodies the traits of those coveted big/forward hybrids.
In Sudanese, the name Wenyen means “wipe your tears.” If developed properly, Gabriel’s defensive game will surely cause some tears for opposing players. Clips of him smothering players such as Paul George and
his younger clone Cam Reddish display his stopping potential. His lateral movement is great for his size, and Gabriel is just now learning how to let loose that lanky wingspan of his.
Next season, the Blazers’ best defensive lineup would feature a healthy (fingers crossed!) Zach Collins alongside Gabriel. Obviously, this assumes Portland brings back their inexperienced rookie. The cost of doing so should be reasonably low, unless some team is higher on Gabriel than the consensus.
During bubble play, I may have shouted “let if fly, WG” a few times. Guilty as charged. But if you watch Gabriel’s shooting stroke, you’ll understand why. Without further ado, this is when I distract you from googling his career made triples (six) by shoving a video in your face.
Those sure are some pretty mechanics for someone who hardly ever hoists three-pointers. A deeper dive reveals that Gabriel has been working on his perimeter game for quite some time. During his college days in Kentucky, Wenyen converted 62 of 169 three-point attempts (36.7 percent.) In the G-League, he buried 38 percent of his threes while putting up 2.5 attempts per game. Gabriel is a floor-stretcher in the making who simply needs an opportunity.
Help Blocks & Agility
Traditionally, bigger players need more time than guards to adjust to the speed of the professional game. (Ask Celtics fans how patiently they waited for Jared Sullinger to pick it up.) Gabriel seems to finally be catching onto the fast pace of defensive rotations, however. His help-side blocks demonstrate this.
Although still prone to blowing assignments, Gabriel can make up for mistakes with long strides and agile footwork. This, when paired with his length, makes for some highlight-reel material. Some may be itching to see Gabriel at the five spot, but he may be best suited for the four. His agility is good enough to hang with speedy, hybrid forwards, and he still has the wingspan to protect the paint. I expect some smart team to use him precisely in that manner.
So, there must be some reasons this guy doesn’t have more free agency hype, right? One of Gabriel’s most concerning problems is his lack of physicality. At 205 pounds, the man is a walking string bean. It certainly shows on the defensive end, but may actually be more visible when he’s playing offense. Gabriel has a tendency to avoid bodies in the paint instead of capitalizing on his athletic abilities. This can scare general managers, as it purportedly reveals insight into a player’s on-court mindset.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Gabriel finished in the 69th percentile for field goal attempts at the rim, but ranked in the 2nd percentile for makes once there. At first, I thought this to be a fluke given his small sample size, but the eye test supports the numbers. In the very first play in that clip, Gabriel wiggles his way out of a dunk attempt and it is inexcusable, especially for us gravitationally challenged earthlings.
Fit & Potential Contract
Sticking with Portland is the most obvious fit for Gabriel. They witnessed his potential firsthand, and could have a greater need for his size if Hassan Whiteside bounces in free agency. The Phoenix Suns are another team to watch. They have team options on guys like Cheick Diallo and Frank Kaminsky, plus Aron Baynes could sign elsewhere. If the Suns find themselves in the market for a cheap big with some untapped potential, Gabriel should be their guy.
What kind of money will he sign for in his next contract? Expect it to be cheap. While Gabriel certainly has potential, he lacks the production to pull down anything north of $3 million per year, and even that would be generous. The Blazers could probably convince Gabriel to return one a one-year deal for about $1.74 million. Do not be surprised, however, if another team offers slightly more than that and pries Gabriel away from Portland.
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