BOZICH | Wenyen Gabriel shoots from Kenny Payne's lab to SEC record book
Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne has always believed that Wenyen Gabriel was an elite three-point shooter. On Saturday Gabriel showed the SEC -- and himself -- what he could do.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (WDRB) – After Wenyen Gabriel attempted just one shot from distance during Kentucky’s loss at Texas A&M a month ago, UK assistant coach Kenny Payne had three persistent words of advice for his player:
“Shoot the ball.”
This is a player who has made 75 three-point shots in one five-minute stretch during a Kentucky practice.
Gabriel listened. He attempted four three-pointers when Kentucky lost at Auburn four days later. Gabriel missed all four. Payne upgraded his advice to four words:
“Keep shooting the ball.”
Pay attention. Pupil trusted teacher.
There is evidence of that – and that Gabriel is a coachable guy who has benefited from time in Kenny Payne’s shooting lab. Saturday against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals, Wenyen Gabriel did something Allan Houston, Tony Delk or Chris Jackson could not do in an SEC Tournament game.
Make seven three-point field goals. In seven attempts.
“It felt like I was throwing a rock in the ocean,” Gabriel said.
On Saturday, after Kentucky defeated Alabama, 86-63, to advance to the SEC Tournament final against Tennessee, Payne extended his analysis to seven words – one for every Gabriel field goal during his 23-point performance.
“The coaches knew he could do it,” Payne said.
Was Gabriel trying to break the tournament record?
“I was trying to break my own record of three,” Gabriel said, with a laugh.
Let me clarify that: The UK coaches did not know Gabriel would make seven threes against a surging Alabama team, erasing Travis Ford from the SEC Tournament record book.
Adolph Rupp or John Wooden could not have predicted that. Neither could Payne – and he’s the guy who has worked with Gabriel on his stroke and remained his primary encourager.
Like Gabriel, Payne was a frontcourt player with special shooting skills as a college player. Payne’s ability to shoot the basketball at the University of Louisville is what convinced the Philadelphia 76ers to make him their first-round pick in the 1989 NBA Draft.
At 6 feet 9, Gabriel is at least an inch taller than Payne. Gabriel is a leaner, more mobile player. He simply needed to develop Payne’s confidence.
Payne believed in Gabriel more than Gabriel believed in Gabriel, especially after the player missed 9 of 11 threes during Kentucky’s four-game losing streak against Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Auburn in February.
“When you have games when you’re missing your shots and nothing will go in, it plays on your ego and plays on your confidence and plays on your psyche,” Payne said.
“For him to go out and his teammates are cheering for him and he’s shooting the ball in rhythm, it’s got to make him feel like, ‘Man, why didn’t I do this is November? Or December?’ “
It’s coming. Over Kentucky’s last four games, Gabriel has attempted 18 shots from distance. He’s made a dozen.
Remember those numbers – 12 for 18, because that is what Kentucky shot from the three-point line against Alabama. Mark it down as a season-best in three-pointers made as well as three-point percentage for the Wildcats. P.J. Washington, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all scored from behind the line.
There were two other things to like about Gabriel’s performance. He made shots from every angle – left corner, left wing, top of the key, right corner.
He also made his final two threes when it mattered – after Alabama had sliced an 18-point Kentucky lead to nine in the final five minutes.
“They were big momentum busters,” Payne said. “The momentum was heading toward Alabama and then all of a sudden, the ball moves around and finds him.”
“It felt like he was 10 for 10,” said UK forward P.J. Washington.
Is this sustainable on Sunday as well as during the NCAA Tournament?
Heavens, no. I believe I said that Houston, Delk and Jackson failed to make seven threes in an SEC Tournament game – and those guys could shoot with anybody.
This has not been one of Calipari’s better shooting teams. One game does not change that.
What it might change, though, is Kentucky’s offensive blend. Make the other team respect your ability to shoot the ball from distance. Pull defenders away from the goal. Open driving lines. Diversify the offense.
And on some nights the three-point shots will fall.
“A performance like this should show him that if he’s confident, he can go out and play like that,” Payne said. “He’s a threat out there to shoot the ball.”
“I think it will definitely give me more confidence to shoot it, make seven threes,” Gabriel said. “The next game I’m going to continue to be aggressive.”
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