Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Wenyen Gabriel.
When the Lakers first signed 25-year-old Wenyen Gabriel to a two-way contract in March, they knew he had the skillset to fill in a void in the team’s frontcourt, and potentially give them depth they missed during the season. And besides being one of the few bigs on the team who could actually jump more than twice in one possession and provide young hungry legs, Gabriel showed a lot of potential — and some glaring weaknesses — in the 19 games he played for the purple and gold this season.
Gabriel, who was on his ninth team (including in the G League) in four seasons, was the ideal prototype that Frank Vogel could insert in a small-ball lineup, or perhaps the type of glue-guy between the guard and center position (he can play the 5, 4 and 3) that seemed like the right fit for his athletic and springy skill set.
So while Gabriel’s signing may not have changed the direction of the Lakers’ season, the team might have a player they can invest in moving forward. His 6’9 height and 7’1 wingspan demonstrated clear advantages that Los Angeles might consider when they eventually fill up their frontcourt positions next season. But the front office first has to first assess how he performed in the past two months, and decide if Gabriel fits into whatever roster identity they plan for next season.
How did he play?
For someone who was first on a two-way contract paying less than the average annual salary of a Los Angeles resident who does not play professional basketball for the Lakers, Gabriel performed fairly well. He made such an impression on the Lakers that not only did he crack the rotation, but he was eventually rewarded with a two-year, standard NBA deal that will pay him significantly more (with a team option this summer).
The Lakers don’t usually maximize their two-way players, but they had no choice but to start Gabriel for five games this season in the absence of Anthony Davis. He averaged career-highs of 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 16.4 minutes, and had a net rating of 7.3 in 19 games for L.A. These are obviously not eye-popping numbers, but the lasting impression the young big man left was more due to his verticality, versatility, ability to space the floor (a few times), rebounding skills, mobility, highly contagious motor and his coachable attitude more than his stats.
In short, Gabriel showed solid potential to be a role player, but was not consistent enough. Take his best game (when playoffs stakes were still on the line) against the Toronto Raptors in March as an example.
Gabriel was utilized as a floor spacer (he shot a perfect 3-3 on 3-pointers), dump off big man stationed at the dunker’s spot (which is important for a team with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook), a screener, and was tasked to stay in front of guards (look at that nasty block on Fred VanVleet on the highlight clip above). His defense (as seen multiple times in other games too) held up quite well thanks to his quick feet, rim protection, and determination to battle for rebounds.
Gabriel finished this game with 17 points on 87.5% shooting from the field but unfortunately, this didn’t hold up as the season ended. His best scoring game after his breakout performance in Toronto came four games after in Dallas, when he scored just nine points despite playing a good amount of minutes — a clear depiction of his unreliability and weakness that’s important to take note of as well.
There’s a reason why Gabriel has worn nine different jerseys in three seasons. He hasn’t produced enough consistent scoring and shooting for a team to invest in him just yet. Gabriel’s also a skinny fluid big, which he uses to his advantage but is the reason why he gets physically beaten and imposed on by his opponents.
The key to Gabriel’s improvement will be to develop his shooting and build on some muscle, two goals the Lakers already asked him to work on in the offseason.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
In April, Gabriel inked a two-year, veteran’s minimum deal with a $1.8 million team option for the 2022-2023 season. This means that the Lakers have the choice of whether they want to bring him back or not next season. Note that aside from investing in Gabriel’s talent, signing him to a standard NBA contract was a way for the Lakers to improve their roster flexibility, as they can now include Gabriel as a cheap throw-in to balance out the math on trades this summer as well.
Should he be back?
This is where it gets tricky for Rob Pelinka and the front office because, for as much potential as Gabriel has, he might not be ready to play vital minutes on a championship-contending team.
It will also be up to how the Lakers build their team next season. What type of big men do they want to back up and support Anthony Davis with? Will the Lakers chase after mobile centers who can stretch the floor? Or continue their love affair with vertically spacing, lob threat-types of bigs? The strongest case Gabriel can present is his ability to play multiple positions.
The best-case scenario for Gabriel to return is as a third-option big man or forward who can play emergency minutes when Davis and whoever fills the front-court depth in next season’s roster is unavailable.