When the Portland Trail Blazers made their big trade with the Sacramento Kings in January, Trevor Ariza got the lion’s share of the attention. Rightfully so. As a starting forward, Ariza brings energy on both ends of the floor that the Blazers have desperately needed.
After Ariza in the headlines came Caleb Swanigan, a former Blazer who wasn’t really traded away as much as he was sent on an extended sabbatical to California.
Almost ignored was Wenyen Gabriel, a lanky, athletic big man who, like Swanigan, had spent most of his time with the G-League Stockton Kings. The 6’9” product out of Kentucky and former five-star went undrafted in 2018 and languished on the bench in Sacramento, but managed to put up some solid numbers in the G-League.
Gabriel is the kind of prospect that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey looks at a lot: a raw, athletic player that most likely won’t play because the current rotation is too good for him to crack. Extenuating circumstances have allowed Gabriel court time with the Blazers, playing limited minutes as the Blazers frontcourt remains depleted for the foreseeable future.
Gabriel’s box score has rarely looked good in the limited minutes he’s seen, but that’s not what makes him stand out. The thing that stands out about Gabriel most is the energy he displays on defense. He made Rip City fans well aware of how useful a 7’1” wingspan can be with his block on JaVale McGee in his first NBA start (it’s the first highlight in the video).
Those hustle plays in help defense are where Gabriel has earned his minutes. He has the speed and length to at least try and get himself into position and make a play. Keep watching the above video and you’ll see several plays where he bursts back on defense trying to stop whoever is barreling down the court.
Unfortunately, his hustle often leads to him fouling quite a bit. Since joining the Blazers his fouls per 36 minutes sits at a much too high seven fouls. It should go without saying that most likely fouling out every time you play is not exactly ideal. In the game against the Lakers he fouled out in a kind of amazing 13 minutes. Some of those fouls are good ones that prevented easy buckets, but it’s still not great.
Despite the fouls, Gabriel remains switchable on defense. Height and length, paired with athleticism and energy, enable him to defend players big and small. Dan Marang pointed out on the Blazer’s Edge pod earlier this week that when a lineup of Gabriel, Nassir Little and Mario Hezonja (sigh) was on the floor against the Pistons the Blazers had their most switchable defensive lineup. And it actually worked, in no small part due to Gabriel’s hustle.
The highlights also show Gabriel’s tenacity on the boards, especially on the offensive end. In the Detroit game he kept multiple possessions alive with his hard work following either his shots or CJ McCollum’s off the glass. It didn’t result in him lighting up the box score or anything (4 points and 5 boards, 3 of those on offense), but it maintained Portland possession key moments.
Offensively, Gabriel is glaringly raw. He has an effective field goal percentage of 44.3%, including only 21.4% from three. That three point percantage has gone up since joining Portland to 33%, but it’s definitely not good enough to where a three from Gabriel is ever the desired outcome.
His best game offensively this season came against New Orleans on Feb. 11, where he scored 12 points in 13 minutes of action (and didn’t foul out this time!). Throughout the game he showed his ability to slide into the right spots as well as some touch as a shooter.
It goes without saying that hitting that contested mid-range shot is not the norm for Gabriel. But it showed flashes of what might happen if he develops the right away. If he becomes even passable on offense, making key cuts and hitting open jumpers, he becomes infinitely more valuable.
Gabriel’s going to lose minutes. When Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return, we will not get as much chance to enjoy the hack-happy Wenyen. But it shouldn’t be overlooked how valuable these minutes are for such a raw prospect. He’s been grinding ever since he’s gotten the opportunity. He might not blossom into much more than a lower-end bench player, but his time with the Blazers has shown he’s willing to keep working to help this team.