When Wenyen Gabriel checked in for the first time as a member of the Lakers, he did so not only wearing his fourth different jersey this season, but his ninth — when including his stops in the G-League — in only four years. He entered Crypto.com Arena as a basketball-playing vagabond, hoping his latest stop would be less temporary than he had grown accustomed to, and maybe, even a place to call home.
There were only three minutes and 57 seconds left in what turned out to be a blowout when his number was finally called. The pummeling came at the hands of the Clippers, the same team that decided to pass on retaining Gabriel’s services just two months prior.
But despite all of the less-than-ideal circumstances and winding roads that ultimately led him to Los Angeles that night, the 24-year-old wasted no time getting to work. His first recorded stat while wearing purple and gold would come just 38 seconds later. Fittingly, it was an offensive rebound that came when two of his former teammates lost track of him on the baseline.
Like a wide-out on the receiving end of a deep pass, Gabriel sidled himself into impeccable position to catch D.J. Augustin’s airball. He would go on to whiff on the corresponding dunk attempt, but once again, pulled down another board and kept the possession alive. After four attempts in the half-court sequence, the Lakers would finally end up scoring thanks to their newest signee’s elbow grease.
Within a season that has been filled with disappointment, this could have easily been chalked up as an otherwise meaningless burst of effort in garbage time. But for Gabriel, it was a good first impression. A fresh start. And a foreshadowing of what he would try to provide each time he touched the floor.
Since joining the team on a two-way deal, Gabriel has impressed with his ability to check off boxes that have been left untouched all year. His seamless plug-and-play compatibility within a variety of lineups has come in large part from just being himself — being large.
With his wiry frame, and standing at 6’9” while also deploying a 7’1” wingspan, Gabriel almost immediately slotted into the vast opening between guard and center that the Lakers have been trying to fill all season. According to Basketball-Reference, Gabriel joined LeBron James as the only non-traditional center on the team who is also at least 6’8.”
“His length and athleticism is something we’ve lacked all year long,” Frank Vogel said prior to the team’s game on Wednesday. “He has the potential to really change things for us.”
One of the areas where Gabriel’s physical tools have most noticeably made an impact is filling in as one of the team’s small-ball centers during Anthony Davis’ absence. Between his nimble feet on the perimeter and possessing enough length to contest at the rim, he offers the club a unique set of skills they’ve been devoid of. Take this possession for example.
As the drop big, watch how Gabriel slide ups and is able to dig at the ball-handler just enough for Augustin to get back into the play, then recover in time to break up this lob attempt. A deterrence of two birds with one stone.
Against Philadelphia, and matched up with Joel Embiid, Gabriel once again flashed the advantages that come with having his degree of corporeal gifts, and a red-hot motor to boot.
In this sequence, Gabriel is tasked with attempting to box out the mountain that is Embiid, but also be in position to contest James Harden’s drive to the cup. He does so with his outstretched right hand and helps force the miss. This is where many players would be content with the result, place their napkin on the table, and call it a day.
But not Gabriel.
After landing back down to earth, he goes up again with a second jump and tips the rebound away from this year’s potential MVP with his left hand. An awesome example of ambidexterity and effort in one vacuum-sealed package.
The latter is something Gabriel has already helped cultivate within what has largely been a lackadaisical squad.
“Main thing for me is to play defense. (And) obviously the energy, cause that’s something that’s contagious, and I know I can contribute every single night,” Gabriel said of his role following the team’s loss to the Sixers.
Although the team’s defensive numbers (125.2 defensive rating) haven't exactly matched the eye-test when Gabriel has been on the floor, he noticeably gives a damn on that end, and can routinely be found flying around, trying to make a play.
Like he does here, where he blocks this shot into another dimension.
In terms of the contagious energy he’s provided, it has mostly been derived from his knack for crashing the offensive glass. In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, Gabriel has rebounded 10.1% of the Lakers’ own missed shots when he’s been on the floor this season.
Albeit over a small sample, this mark ranks in the 100th percentile among forwards this year, and is also a big reason why the team has seen a near eight percent uptick in their offensive rebounding numbers during Gabriel’s minutes.
“I like the energy that Wenyen brings to our team,” Vogel remarked following Gabriel pulling down nine rebounds in just 19 minutes against the Raptors. “He plays super hard and has a pure attitude... He’s a little bit green in terms of being a young player, but definitely love his energy even though he didn’t make shots tonight.”
As noted by his head coach, Gabriel’s kinetic play has not only helped turn heads on the bench and in the stands, but is also quickly becoming his calling card in his short time with the team.
Beyond his defensive activity and rebounding prowess, there is also a starkness to his agility when compared to some of the team's older players. Gabriel simply has young and hungry legs that are constantly trotting.
Maybe the clearest evidence of this comes via the league’s tracking data, where among the team’s core rotation players, only Austin Reaves has played at a quicker average speed than Gabriel has in the last ten games. Despite his lankiness, Gabriel is fluid in his movements. He is not a gazelle by any means, but is also nowhere near a baby giraffe, like other angular-bodied players sometimes are in their early career.
But Vogel’s reference to Gabriel’s missed shots shouldn’t go ignored, and in fact, could be the lynchpin in Gabriel's journey in finding a concrete spot in the league. Because despite the multitude of positives he has brought to the table, Gabriel’s perimeter game still leaves much to be desired (just 22% shooting from behind the arc). With little self-creation ability of his own, and on a team that already was shaky in terms of 3-point consistency prior to his arrival, Gabriel’s offensive value outside of rebounding feels dependent on the stroke. How well he is ultimately able to keep defenses honest could be the biggest deciding factor when it comes to minutes, and a job.
The shot falling would also go a long way in improving his chances to be a part of the team’s potential postseason rotation. As a two-way player, Gabriel is currently ineligible for playoff action.
However, if the team converts his deal like they did with Stanley Johnson — they would have to cut someone currently on a guaranteed contract to do so — Gabriel will be offered an even bigger stage to showcase his abilities. But he’ll have to continue prove himself in order to earn that chance, something he’s no stranger to doing.
“Doubt comes in and out all the time throughout your whole journey,” Gabriel told reporters during his introductory press conference. “But it’s how you respond to it. It’s just a feeling. It’s just a thought...but keep good energy, stay positive, and make sure you’re doing the work everyday and keep building. That builds your confidence, and the doubt slowly starts going away.”
Despite the justified praise that has come his way for the impact he’s been able to make by simply playing hard and being himself, Gabriel is not a perfect player by any stretch, and there are legitimate reasons why he has bounced around the league like he has up to this point.
However, his combination of physical tools and approach just so happened to have aligned perfectly with what the Lakers needed at the exact right time. Almost as if the relationship was always destined to be symbiotic, etched across the cosmos just waiting to be imagined.
There is a probable reality where this partnership may have ultimately come too late for both parties. The Lakers’ championship aspirations are looking slimmer with each passing day, and Gabriel’s future still very much in limbo despite how much of an impact he’s been able to make during his brief tenure in purple and gold. But for the time being, the union has been a rousing success. And both can take solace in that regardless of what comes next.
Although it’s unlikely Gabriel’s journey will reach its conclusion with the Lakers, if he continues to perform like he’s done up until now, it’s difficult to imagine it ending anytime soon whether in Los Angeles or somewhere else.
So regardless of the number of detours that may still await him, or what the final tally of jerseys he will wear during his career is, it will be Gabriel’s hard work that will be his guide. Nothing else. Because even when one door closes — or a miss occurs — he’s a second, third, and fourth chance in human form, punching the clock and ready to get his hands dirty.