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Wenyen Gabriel’s Defense and Hustle a Highlight of Game 1 Win

Gabriel’s defense and hustle will be key in round one.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Two contrasting things that seem like they couldn’t happen on the same night, but most surely did:

  1. Wenyen Gabriel of the Portland Trail Blazers didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet on Tuesday, putting up only four points and three rebounds in 16 minutes while also accruing five fouls in that time.
  2. Wenyen Gabriel of the Portland Trail Blazers was instrumental to Portland’s Game 1 victory over the Lakers on Tuesday, finishing with the third-best +/- on the team at +12 and making hustle play after hustle play all while guarding Anthony Davis, one of the seven best players in the league.

The human energizer bunny that is Gabriel started for an injured Zach Collins on Tueday and did exactly what was needed. There was a lot asked of Gabriel, and he stepped up to the task without hesitation. And with Collins out for at least the next week, Gabriel showed exactly what he can bring to the Blazers and why he shouldn’t be glued to the bench if Collins comes back.

Gabriel’s contributions mostly came on the defensive end, where his mix of length and speed make him quite effective. Gabriel is essentially a large bundle of limbs in constant motion, using his 7’1” wingspan to disrupt shots and his athleticism to recover from mistakes quickly.

This is a good example of him using that length and athleticism against AD. Davis gets Gabriel to fall for the pump-fake (something that happens often, frankly) and then tries to get around him. Gabriel is able to recover quickly, though, and force Davis into a tough 14-footer. When Anthony Davis is settling for jumpers, you’re doing something right as a defender.

Here’s another Davis shot that Gabriel is able to affect. Gabriel shows good defensive awareness off the rebound and puts himself in position to defend the paint. When the ball finds its way into AD’s hands, Gabriel rises straight up to match Davis without fouling. Gabriel has shown a propensity for altering shots inside the paint, sniffing out wherever the ball is and trying to make every shot as difficult as possible. He’s not always a big shot-blocker, but he knows how to make attempts at the rim more difficult.

But just because he isn’t a big shot-blocker doesn’t mean he never blocks shots. This was his only block of the game, but it wasn’t a super easy one to make. Gabriel has help coming in this 2-on-1 situation, but he still has to worry about Davis behind him. He’s able to nullify the Davis option and force Danny Green into a tough shot. It’s just another valuable thing Gabriel brings to the table.

It’s important for young role players to understand what their role is on offense, otherwise you end up like Dillon Brooks chucking 30-foot jumpers over three defenders. Gabriel understands that the one thing that he can do really well is run to the rim on the fastbreak. He’s not going to beat anyone with his shooting, but he can beat a lot of people to the rim when he gets out and runs quickly.

That’s exactly what he does here. The moment the missed Davis three lands in Carmelo Anthony’s hands, Gabriel is sprinting towards the opposite hoop, catching Davis by surprise. It’s important that Gabriel capitalizes on plays like this because truthfully he’s not going to get buckets in many other ways. His only other made shot of the day was a layup off a nice pass from Jusuf Nurkic. But he still has value on offense if he can keep rim-running effectively.

As exciting as it is to have a player that plays with this much energy, there is one glaring problem that is a direct result of Gabriel’s hyperactivity: his fouling. Gabriel fouls A LOT. He’s averaging 6.6 fouls per 36 minutes this season and only needed 16 minutes to rack up five fouls on Tuesday. It’s the reason why Anthony Davis is still able to get 28 points despite shooting only 8-24 from the field. When you give 17 free throws to an 85% free throw shooter, it’s bound to bite you in the butt.

Instead of settling for a jumper Davis goes right at Gabriel this time, and the result is a trip to the line for The Brow. Gabriel isn’t particularly strong and Davis is a superstar, so he’s going to be able to take advantage of Gabriel in situations like this by either finishing at the hoop or getting the foul call. Gabriel is almost always going to do whatever he needs to stop a score from happening, and that’s going to result in plenty of fouls.

It’s not exactly ideal, especially when your other options at the 4-spot are the currently injured Collins and a 36-year-old former superstar who has never been known for defense. It’s especially tough because Anthony Davis is very skilled at getting to the line, averaging the sixth most free throw attempts per game at 8.5. It’s an admittedly annoying skill, but it’s one that Davis can utilize over and over again when Gabriel is on the court.

Even though Gabriel’s fouling problem is prevalent, it doesn’t change the fact that he did generally what was needed from him on Tuesday. He played hard, being a disruptor on defense while running hard at the rim on offense. He’s far from a perfect player, and I would understand if you scoured any and every online betting site for an over/under on how many fouls he’ll get. But right now Gabriel is doing exactly what he’s being asked to do, and it helped Portland earn the win.