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Wenyen Gabriel is more than just an energy big

Although he plays his blue-collar billing to a tee, the 25-year-old also moonlights as a pick and roll dynamo and blocking maestro.

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NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In an era of basketball that is littered with labels like “primary creators,” “hubs” and “3 and D’ers”, players like Wenyen Gabriel often get clustered within a miscellaneous column.

He does not posses a singular skill like shooting, he does not have a definitive position and he is already on his fifth team in just four years. Because of this, his talents while visible, are often spoken in generalities instead of specifics.

It is in these instances when Gabriel, and those like him, are commonly tagged as “energy guys.” A catch-all term that is typically reserved for players tasked with filling multiple holes, like taking care of the dirty work and most importantly playing hard. To be clear, the 25-year-old does all these duties very well, and executes them with pride and vigor.

Yet although he has embraced his role and the boundaries that naturally come with it, there have also been flashes that suggest he’s capable of more on both ends of the floor.

Due to Anthony Davis’ seismic absence, the team necessitated that multiple players step out of their comfort zone and carry more of the load than what was initially expected. Gabriel, being one of the few bigs on the roster, has arguably emerged as the most reliable.

While not producing the overall counting stats that Thomas Bryant has, Gabriel has done an admirable job in helping serve as a Davis proxy within the team’s pick and roll game.

Despite giving up size whenever he checks in at center, Gabriel's combination of screen-awareness (when to flip, re-screen, etc) foot-speed, and 7’1 wingspan has made him one his teammates’ go-to targets in the half court. And based on the results thus far, it’s for good reason.

According to Synergy, Gabriel is scoring a blistering 1.54 points per pick and roll possession this season which ranks in the 88th percentile of the league.

While the efficiency is impressive on face value, when zooming in and looking solely at his “rolls,” it becomes even more striking as he's producing 1.70 points per possession thanks to converting on all but four of his 31 roll chances this year.

Even though he has benefited mightily from playing off the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, Gabriel’s numbers are also simply a result of his own finishing ability. He is not simply scoring on dunks, but is scoring through contact, over length and routinely showcases a buttery touch through an array of flip shots.

It’s a cosmic gumbo of physical tools, force and grace happening all at once.

With career highs in points per shot attempt, eFG% and rim FG% Gabriel continues to display a more capable offensive profile than his reputation and archetype suggested.

This level of efficiency has to be seen as icing on the cake for a Lakers’ team who relies on Gabriel most for his defensive prowess and versatility, especially with Davis out.

Although there is no replicating his All-Star teammate’s legendary defensive acumen, Gabriel has fought tooth and nail to shore up the team’s rim protection in spite of playing within multi-guard lineups and having to often serve as the sole deterrent in the back-line.

With vines for limbs, Gabriel magically finds a way to get his hands in two places at once on defense. Put a trench coat and trilby hat on him and voilà, Gabriel can easily pass as Inspector Gadget with arms that extend log enough to contain the ball-handler in drop coverage in one instant, then rotate over for a violent recovery block the next.

Individually, Gabriel has proved formidable in sealing off the basket as the opposition is shooting just a measly 46% at the rim against him and scoring only 0.92 points per attempt. For context, this is 0.12 points less than what Synergy’s expected points per shot chance at the rim estimates.

Gabriel’s defensive impact has also manifested itself in the Lakers’ team numbers as well. According to Cleaning the Glass, opposing teams are are shooting nearly ten percent lower on shots coming within four feet when the big has been on the floor compared to when he’s been off this season.

It is this level of effectiveness on the defensive end that has helped Gabriel earn the trust of his coaching staff in nearly any situation, like in crunch time as it is often him, not Bryant, finishing contests.

There is absolutely an aspect of being at the right place at the right time when it comes to Gabriel’s current opportunity to spread his wings. But it is also becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore the fact that good things simply tend to happen when he’s on the floor.

Whether it’s a timely bucket post-roll or swatting shots into another dimension, Gabriel continues to show that his impact is more substantial than just providing energy. Perhaps there is no better indicator of this than the fact that only James has a better individual plus-minus on the Lakers than the undrafted big this season.

Already setting career highs in both minutes and games played, Gabriel is finally getting the stage to show the world what he’s capable of when allowed to color outside of the lines of being just an energy big. And for the Lakers, it couldn't have come at a better time.

“Just trying to get better every day,” Gabriel recently said. “I’m learning every day, and the more I learn, the better I’ll be out there.”

While it is Gabriel’s blue-collar approach that has endeared him with the fanbase and helped jumpstart his career, if this recent stretch has proven anything it is that it’s foolish to attempt to categorize or confine him as just one thing.

There’s something bubbling underneath, and sooner or later, it’s going to boil over.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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