LOS ANGELES — If you had to guess, who would you think among the Lakers has fared sixth-best in terms of plus-minus?
He’s the only guy outside of the top-five still on the team with a positive on/off differential (i.e. comparing the team’s scoring differential when he’s on the floor to when he’s off).
The top of the leaderboard tracks along the lines of the general consensus of who has been good this season — with D’Angelo Russell, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder rounding out the top five — but since 11 more players have logged at least 400 minutes this season for the Lakers, that sixth spot isn’t exactly a no-brainer.
If you thought it was one of the recent additions to the starting lineup like Jarred Vanderbilt or Troy Brown Jr., I wouldn’t blame you, but the answer is Wenyen Gabriel (unless you read the headline here, then you have no excuse).
Therefore, by at least one metric, the Lakers’ sixth-best player this season has been Wenyen Gabriel. Before this season, Gabriel had never appeared in more than 21 games for the same team in a single campaign, but this year he’s up to 61 with the Lakers. That’s quite a jump for an undrafted veteran who the Lakers added on a 10-day in the middle of last season and is now on his sixth NBA team in four seasons.
However, Gabriel has been a consistent source of energy on a team that has had to scrap its way to the majority of its wins since the trade deadline. Still, energy alone undersells how valuable Gabriel’s presence has been for the Lakers. Before the Lakers’ win against Oklahoma City on Friday, Darvin Ham praised Wenyen for his recent play, stating, “[Wenyen’s] ability to rebound, defend, move his feet laterally and vertically, his ability to catch and finish, come up with 50/50 balls.” Ham continued, saying, “He’s really a huge presence on the offensive glass and he plays the right way.”
Gabriel’s combination of size, second bounce, and processing speed makes him a high-level backup big man, but the most magnetic thing about his game is that idea of him playing the right way. A chaos actor often either crashing into someone or already on the floor, Gabriel is the personification of that infamously mathematically challenged Dwyane Wade ad on steroids — “fall 500 times, stand up 501.”
In line with his track record of under the radar excellence, Gabriel’s predilection for nonstop hustle is so congruent with what the franchise aspires to be about that years before they ultimately signed him, he actually set the record in the “Lakers Mentality Drill,” during his pre-draft workout. The drill asks asks players to score as many points as possible in two minutes by taking one shot, grabbing their rebound, then running the length of the floor again to score on the other basket. The key to the drill, which takes place at the end of the workout, is a willingness to hustle up and down the floor while shooting accurately even when completely gassed.
Wenyen, being the humble grinder he is, saw SB Nation’s very own Harrison Faigen’s tweet about setting the drill record and reached out to ask if it was true. When asked for his thoughts on his performance, Gabriel said, “It’s just a testament to the work I’ve been putting in on my shot. I’m glad Magic got to see it.”
Now Wenyen is still often the least traditionally skilled scorer on the floor, but finds a way to be a winning basketball player by setting hard screens, giving multiple efforts on the offensive glass, and just generally never giving up on the play. By manifesting a focus on winning through the way he plays the game, he’s an easy guy to root for. Even when things don’t go his (or the Lakers’) way, his passion for the game is impossible to ignore.
Wenyen Gabriel is all Lakers fans right now... pic.twitter.com/djZJux6bHc— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 18, 2023
Wenyen’s also begun to develop a synergy beside AD. When both Wenyen and AD are on the floor, the Lakers are dominating their opponents by 33.4 points per 100 possessions with both an offense and defense which rank in the 100th percentile. While they’ve only been on the court together for a total of 184 minutes, the bulk of those have come since Wenyen essentially stepped into the backup center role following Mo Bamba’s injury and the first half roasting with Rui at the five for the first half of the Lakers’ loss at Houston.
Ham also touched on this promising trend, and what exactly has made the Wenyen-AD pairing so successful, “[Wenyen] supports A (Davis), when A goes after a block, he’s able to come and corral some rebounds, and vice versa, AD doesn’t have to hunt down every attempted shot at the rim when he and Wenyen are out there together.”
While the Wenyen-AD lineup data suggests that the pair generates broadly dominant basketball all over the floor, it’s the rebounding data that stands out, backing up Ham’s analysis of what makes them so successful together. Each big is a successful rebounder or shot blocker in his own right, enabling either one to go all-out on a contest, leaving the other one to clean up the mess.
While the pairing does have its offensive schematic limitations due to the lack of long-range shooting between the pair, their size is less of a problem than it might seem defensively because of both bigs’ ability to flip their hips and stay attached to quicker perimeter players.
If Wenyen has one Achilles heel, it’s where his effort spirals out of control, either over-pursuing or setting too enthusiastic of a screen and fouling. In fact, even after a sizable improvement over last year, Gabriel ranks in the league’s 18th percentile in terms of fouling opponents, something that can take him out of games early and undermine his oversized efforts.
While Wenyen’s been a quality cog in the Lakers’ rotation on the whole, he will need to continue to improve his discipline on both ends and cut back on the fouling. Also, with LeBron back in the lineup it may be harder for Wenyen to retain his recent minutes load. If the Lakers still want to carve out opportunities for LeBron to play the five when they stagger him and AD, they might be wise to throw Wenyen a handful of minutes beside Davis when LeBron is on the bench — considering how successful they’ve been together so fat.
Finally, projecting forwards into future seasons, he can grow into the kind of player who can’t be played off the floor under any circumstances if he can develop a more consistent 3-point shot at considerably higher volume. If he can turn 30% on less than an attempt into 34% on 3-4 attempts, Wenyen’s size and activity could play up into becoming well-known as one of everyone’s “most underrated” role players in the NBA, à la peak Robert Covington.
As an unrestricted free agent this offseason, one can only hope the Lakers are willing and able to offer Wenyen his market value this offseason, and that his retention is part of a broader plan to build out a new young core. Either way, as long as he continues to check into games on a nightly basis, the next couple of weeks could be pivotal for Gabriel’s off-season market and his future in Los Angeles.
All quotes acquired firsthand unless otherwise noted. Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Post Production Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.