Kentucky Basketball: Wenyen Gabriel vs PJ Washington

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 16: PJ Washington /
LEXINGTON, KY – DECEMBER 16: PJ Washington /

Wenyen Gabriel has been one of the top players for the Kentucky basketball team in the last two games, but will this earn him a starting position?

During much of the 2016-2017 Kentucky basketball season, debate revolved around whether Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis should be starting. Coach Calipari made several references throughout the season about needing Willis to be more consistent or needing him to have Gabriel’s energy. Gabriel remained in the starting lineup, even though several poor performances left much of Big Blue Nation scratching their heads. The roles are reversed this season, as the now-veteran Gabriel finds himself on the bench while PJ Washington has the starting position. As the season progresses, who will Big Blue Nation see in the starting role? More importantly, as March rolls around, who will be playing more minutes?

If the UCLA game last week was any indication, Wenyen Gabriel should now be in the starting lineup versus Louisville on Friday. Gabriel provided much needed stability, energy, rebounding and perimeter shooting against the Bruins. He finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes of playing time. PJ Washington, who started the game, finished with 9 points and 4 rebounds in 27 minutes. So not only did Gabriel out-produce Washington, but he did it with one less minute of playing time as well.

The Case for Wenyen Gabriel

Gabriel also made 3-of-4 shots from three-point territory. His ability to shoot from the perimeter helps Kentucky spread the floor and makes the Cats much more difficult to guard. Spreading the floor helps create driving lanes for Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox. If Gabriel’s defender leaves to help on drives he can catch and shoot from outside. Washington doesn’t spread the floor like Gabriel and he takes more contested shots than Gabriel.

Gabriel finished with 9 total rebounds to Washington’s 5 in the Kentucky basketball team’s victory of Virginia Tech. So in the two most recent games, both of which were against quality opponents, Gabriel has out rebounded Washington by a 15-9 margin. Washington outscored Gabriel in the Virginia Tech game, 11-7, but Washington also played played 12 more minutes. In 33 minutes of playing time, Washington only managed 5 rebounds and 11 points. Gabriel, in 21 minutes of action, was able to grab 9 rebounds and score 7 points. It’s fair to assume with another 8-12 minutes of time, Gabriel’s numbers would have continued to exceed Washington’s.

NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 09: Wenyen Gabriel
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 09: Wenyen Gabriel /

Calipari is stuck in a tough place here. He can continue playing Washington more minutes, which allows high school recruits to witness Calipari’s preference of playing freshman. Or he can play Gabriel more minutes, which rewards his energy and hustle. Calipari repeatedly called Washington an alpha-dog and said he was an energy guy. But if the “energy guy” is being out-energized and out-performed by another player, what does this say about Washington? Maybe the early grind of the college season has been too much for Washington. Gabriel is a better fit for Calipari’s system right now and deserves the starting position and the increase in minutes.

Will Coach Cal Make A Move?

Do you think Calipari will make the switch? In my opinion, Washington will continue starting. I think Calipari will appease Washington’s ego – and this is NOT an insult on the young man. Washington’s ego has to be managed more carefully than Gabriel’s, as Washington believes himself to have more potential and a higher draft stock than Gabriel. Calipari also has to worry about fighting against negative recruiting. If a highly-touted player like Washington comes to UK and cannot keep a starting position, that provides recruiting ammunition for the likes of Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and others.

Gabriel has clearly been the more productive player in the last two games. Right now, he gives the Kentucky basketball team a better chance to win games. But that doesn’t mean Calipari will give Wenyen the starting nod. For Big Blue Nation’s sake I certainly hope Gabriel will at least get more minutes than Washington as long as he’s being productive.