Wenyen Gabriel has experienced both the highs and lows during his tenure with the Lakers. As one of the few players who was on last season’s roster and then survived the mass exodus at February’s trade deadline, Gabriel has seen it all in his two years in Los Angeles.
Despite the bleak moments experienced in last season’s 33-49 finish, the journeyman consistently has been a bright spot with his hustle, passion, and ability to shore up the gaps. Proving to be more than just a fan favorite, Gabriel was tasked with stepping into his biggest role to date this year.
While he made the most of his opportunities, Gabriel’s limitations were also magnified with more playing time, leaving his future with the team a true toss-up.
How was their season?
Given the context of his contract and role, Gabriel outperformed expectations this year.
Although he was initially slotted behind Thomas Bryant and then Mo Bamba in the depth chart, Gabriel quickly emerged as the team’s most reliable back-up big.
With career-highs in games played (68), minutes (1024) and effective field-goal percentage (62%), Gabriel showed to be one of Darvin Ham’s most trusted players.
On offense, he proved to be more than just an energy big, as he flashed touch around the rim (53% on floaters) and was dynamic in the pick-and-roll. According to the league’s Synergy data, Gabriel scored 1.36 points (89th percentile) per possession as the roller.
Defensively, Gabriel’s boundless energy and length helped him be a deterrent at the rim and menace on the glass.
But while his strengths popped, so did his weaknesses.
Gabriel made just 27% of his 3-point attempts and had a career-low 12% of his shots come from behind the arc this season. And although it wasn’t through a lack of trying, Gabriel also was too undersized to handle the league’s bulkier bigs. This left Davis as the only viable center in the paint, a roster flaw the Denver Nuggets exploited en route to their sweep.
Fortunately, these are two areas of his game Gabriel himself admitted he needed to improve on this offseason.
“I got to strengthen my body, my lower body, my base and all that,” Gabriel told the media during his exit-interview, “Also, improve on my shooting...I have the ability to shoot, but it’s something I have to expand on as part of my game.”
Should the Lakers bring them back?
The answer to this question ultimately depends on the price. Fresh off his career year, Gabriel enters the summer as an unrestricted free-agent and will certainly look for his first notable payday. Or at the very least, a raise from his minimum deal and preferably job-security after playing for six teams in just four seasons.
In one sense, Gabriel represents exactly what the front-office may look to prioritize if their recent comments are to be believed.
During his exit interview, president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka, stressed the importance of continuity and keeping the team’s young core intact. As being one of the few aforementioned holdovers on the team and still just 26, Gabriel checks both boxes and potentially could be had at a bargain rate.
On the court, Gabriel has shown to not be afraid of doing the dirty work and be an innings-eater off the bench. These are traits that are extremely helpful over the course of a grueling 82-game season where the team’s stars may need some protecting.
The issue, however, is whether his regular season production is strong enough to overlook his limitations in a playoff setting. Gabriel logged just 30 non-garbage time minutes this postseason as the team had a -18.5 netRTG when he was on the floor.
Given his lack of shooting and size at the center position (a career-high 71% of his possessions came at the five spot), the Lakers may be better off investing resources and minutes to a player who could be more viable in the postseason.
Will he return?
Gabriel may be the most difficult Laker to project heading into the offseason. On one hand, every team around the league needs a blue-collar player with his intense motor. Yet, will any of those clubs be willing to pay him more than a minimum deal?
If not, then a reunion with the Lakers makes sense for both sides. The team gave Gabriel the national exposure and solidified role he sought after bouncing around the league. And in return, Gabriel brought the energy and enthusiasm they lacked for a large portion of the season.
It’s also worth noting the role the new collective bargaining agreement may have in the Lakers’ decision on players of Gabriel’s ilk. With a reported “marching order” to avoid the second luxury tax apron, every dollar will count for the front office as they also have to negotiate raises for other key free agents.
Gabriel also may hold value here if he’s able to be retained at similar money deal to his previous contract. But if he's looking for a raise — which he absolutely should — then there’s a very strong likelihood both parties ultimately go their separate ways.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.