When Thomas Bryant was signed by the Lakers this offseason, it was reported that he’d be given an opportunity to win the starting center position. Bryant did start in the Lakers’ most recent preseason game against the Timberwolves; however, that was when the Lakers’ Big Three and others were sitting out. The team’s other true center, Damian Jones, started in the first preseason game of this 2022-23 season. With the two centers — along with Anthony Davis — part of Darvin Ham’s rotation from the tip-off of the preseason, this left the prospect of Wenyen Gabriel getting heavy minutes seeming unlikely.
Gabriel saw himself on the outside looking into the frontcourt rotation despite holding the advantage of having familiarity already with LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Davis, something that Bryant and the other new members of the team didn’t have (Jones did have some limited time spent with the Lakers two seasons ago). It remains to be seen if that familiarity is what has given Gabriel the ability to impress so far in the preseason, but either way, that play is shaking up a frontcourt that had the feeling of an already-decided rotation heading into the season.
Although we probably shouldn’t be taking so much optimism from the preseason as we have with nearly every facet of the team, there may be something there with Gabriel’s play and how it could translate to the regular season. Just take a look at the play below where Gabriel is the team’s five, guarding DeAndre Ayton and playing Darvin Ham’s drop coverage on Devin Booker coming out of a pick-and-roll. Gabriel stays with Booker all the way to the rim and challenges the shot to perfection. And then, he turns on the jets.
Can Jones or Bryant do that? They may be just as able to contest Booker’s shot, but would they be able to find the speed that Wenyen Gabriel has to not only be the person contesting the shot at the rim but also the first player to the other rim on the fast break? I don’t think they do have that type of speed, and honestly, I’m not sure there are any other players on the roster that can complete this specific combination of defense and offense other than Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
Now, although Gabriel can do a certain thing that only the team’s two best players can do, that doesn’t mean he has no weaknesses. His overall height and strength at the five position will always present problems at times against most NBA teams. In those situations, the Nikola Jokic’s, the Joel Embiid’s, and even the Steven Adams of the world will find opportunities to just out-muscle Gabriel in isolation.
But with the way that Darvin Ham wants these Lakers to play, Wenyen Gabriel could be a useful ingredient in the Lakers entree that Ham plans to serve to opponents each and every night.
All of that potential can be found in that clip above. As a potential four next to Anthony Davis (Davis did not play in the Suns preseason game), Gabriel could raise the team’s transition ceiling as a much more versatile and faster frontcourt member when compared to the two traditional centers. On defense, Gabriel can leverage that same agility and long arms within Ham’s drop coverage, allowing him the better capability to cover perimeter players in pick-and-rolls while also presenting the potential for deflections that Jones and Bryant may not provide themselves.
We’ll almost certainly get Damian Jones or Thomas Bryant at the starting 5 position on opening night against the Warriors, and although Gabriel would probably find himself more at the 4 with those two serving as the 5 of any respective lineup they’re in, it should be emphasized that Gabriel has severely outplayed Jones and Bryant so far in the preseason.
Although all signs point towards one of those two centers starting at the 5 early on as opposed to AD starting there with Gabriel joining him in the front court, it should what led to Gabriel playing at the five that night against the Suns. Ham was focused on getting a look at small-ball starting lineup that night, with Gabriel being his go-to replacement for AD when he couldn’t play. That shows that not only is Ham interested in the small-ball lineup formation, but that he knows Gabriel would be a key part of any type of small-ball play.
Because of that, who knows? Maybe we will see Gabriel have a quick ascension through the pre-conceived rotations that us fans and Darvin Ham had coming into the season. That rise would be fitting, given how well he’s played and how he provides a certain skill set that not many on the team have, with that skill set properly serving the ultimate goal of what Ham wants this team to be.