Portland Trail Blazers: Where does Wenyen Gabriel fit into future plans?

Wenyen Gabriel, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Wenyen Gabriel, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
Portland Trail Blazers
Wenyen Gabriel, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

Wenyen Gabriel looked to be merely a throw-in in February’s Kings-Blazers trade. But after flashing potential, should he be a rotation player once the Portland Trail Blazers get to full health?

When the news first broke of the Portland Trail Blazers making a salary-shedding deal that brought in Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan, and Wenyen Gabriel, odds are many of us had the same initial reaction. Ariza’s no-flaw fit with nearly half of the NBA’s systems was inspiring, as was Swanigan’s return to Portland.

But presumably, for many of us, that left us with one question: who is Wenyen — or as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski initially announced, Wendell — Gabriel, and how does he fit into what Portland’s plans? Was he merely a throw-in?

We’ve had two months to evaluate the ins-and-outs of this question.

But Gabriel only needed 12 minutes.

Life comes at you fast, and Gabriel found that. The lanky Sudanese forward went from three weeks of DNPs to starting the first game of his career. In front of an emotional. national audience no less. Against the Western Conference leading Los Angeles Lakers no less. In the wake of the death of Kobe Bryant and eight others, no less.

Two minutes in, Gabriel found some grit and grime, and cleaned it up. He blocked JaVale McGee on one of the Lakers’ opening plays. A minute later, he threw the GPS on, and beat Anthony Davis to track down a loose ball. Forget all the talk of his shooting stroke, or his 50-40-90 line on 19.3 points per game for the Stockton Kings of the G-League. As long as he’s on the hustle board, he’s going to have a spot in Terry Stotts’ rotation, just as every other athletic specimen has.

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The great thing about Gabriel’s debut (and many of the games that followed) is that those performances aren’t for everyone. A box score watcher would see Gabriel’s six-foul, 0-for-3 shooting performance in a dozen minutes and assume he stunk up the joint. On a team of offensive assassins, his energy was exactly what the team needed, though.

It’s far too early to start talking about numbers for Gabriel, who hasn’t even played 150 minutes in his NBA career. It’d be wrong to be completely prescient about them, but they do give us a general idea. Gabriel, or “UpMan” as he goes by, his junkyard dog-type potential. He ranks in the 98th percentile in offensive rebounding percentage. And once you get a 6-foot-9 freak with a 7-foot-1 wingspan at the basket with momentum, good luck stopping that. He’s taken 46 shots, and 25 of them have come in the paint or restricted area.

Early returns on defense are also inspiring. Only Utah, Dallas and Brooklyn force fewer turnovers than Portland, but with Gabriel on the court, the Blazers force them by the boatload. He also appears to have good pick-and-roll instincts with Lillard, as either a roll man, or knowing when to cut once he forces the 3-on-2.

Beyond all of that, though, it’s important to remember that these Blazers teams have never been built solely on analytics. Heck, getting within a round of the NBA Finals with an undersized, dribble-heavy backcourt that just so happened to rank among the top-10 in midrange shots all but ensured that. What Gabriel does have is the same thing Lillard and McCollum had in coming up in the ranks: the will to prove himself to his doubters.

The story’s there. Gabriel worked out for ten different teams, and even broke a record during the “Lakers Mentality Drill” —  a back-and-forth, fast break 3-point shooting test — but struggled to find his way.

Gabriel was one of five different Kentucky Wildcats to throw their name into the 2018 NBA Draft. He was the only one to not receive an invite to the Combine that spring. He went to Twitter, vowing to make them all regret. Through hard work, he’s beginning to find his way.

As we await either the resuming of the 2019-20 season, or the start of 2020-21, one of the great pastimes in Portland is wondering how the roster looks at its peak. The center position is locked in with Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. At forward, the Blazers will have a logjam of Carmelo Anthony, Rodney Hood, Trevor Ariza, Zach Collins, Nassir Little (played 67 percent of his time at PF), and Mario Hezonja.

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Once we begin to roll down the list of potential backups (Swanigan, Jaylen Hoard, Moses Brown, etc), you have to wonder if there’s a long-term spot for Gabriel. He’s been rock solid in spurts, and likely deserves a chance, even when the rotation deepens. At this point, it feels safe to say he’ll have that chance, but it’s certainly a discussion to watch for.