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Wenyen Gabriel goes for the hoop during a 2014 game at Trinity High School in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Manchester's Wenyen Gabriel ready for the spotlight at University of Kentucky

It's been an explosive year for Manchester's Wenyen Gabriel - a year that's landed him in one of college basketball's most storied places.

Gabriel has enrolled at the University of Kentucky, the eight-time national champions who have made the NCAA final eight in five of the last seven seasons, including the 2012 title.

Two years ago, Gabriel was a 6-foot-5 standout at Trinity High School who had helped the Pioneers win the Division I championship in 2013. He was a fine player, but not on anyone's recruiting radar.

The scholarships began to trickle in following Gabriel's first prep season at Wilbraham and Monson Academy (Mass.) in 2014 with pitches from UNH, Providence College and a handful of other schools.

However, everything changed for Gabriel in the summer of 2015 while playing for Rivals Basketball Club of Haverhill (Mass.) in several national AAU tournaments.

Gabriel not only lit up the competition, but did so with a new 6-foot-9, 185-pound frame, the result of an explosive growth spurt "I'm definitely ready for this change with prep school really helping me out the last two years," said Gabriel after taking in the Sam Carey Basketball Classic at Southern New Hampshire University on last month. "That higher level of competition I was up against makes me feel pretty well-prepared for what's in front of me and I'm excited to tackle the challenge."

The summer showcase helped Gabriel climb into the's Top 100 college basketball recruits for the class of 2016, reaching as high as No. 9 at one point, and earned him calls from powerhouse programs like Kansas, Duke and Kentucky.

Gabriel committed to coach John Calipari and the Wildcats, officially signing in November.

After his decision, Gabriel's game and physique progressed. He averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in his final season with WMA last winter and graduated in May standing 6-foot-10 and 204 pounds. The body development continues to be the biggest surprise about Gabriel.

"Growing an inch helped him a little bit, but he worked really hard in the weight room," WMA coach Mike Mannix said. "Putting on somewhere around 20 pounds of muscle in two years is a pretty significant feat for high school kid that hadn't done a lot of strength and conditioning prior to getting here."

While there are many challenges ahead on the court, it doesn't appear to be any easier off for Gabriel. He's not only in unknown territory down in Lexington, but he'll have the burden of his growing celebrity-status as a top college athlete.

"It's not something I really think about," Gabriel said. "I just try to focus on the task at hand. There is a big year to look forward to and that's what is really important to me over anything."

Even if Gabriel's status does catch up with him from time to time, Mannix isn't so sure there will be a struggle to manage all the attention from what he's seen from Gabriel to this point.

"He learned to just kind of unplug at the right time," Mannix said. "Just because your phone buzzes, it doesn't mean you have to answer. But he knew which calls or texts were significant and took priority by keeping a good inner circle with his family and people back home.

"When he was plugged in or unplugged, for the sake of his own sanity, he always made sure to do it in a respectful way. The way he handled it was mature beyond his years."

Gabriel, 17, who came to Manchester with his family at age 3 from Egypt and South Sudan, his birthplace, has great support in the Queen City, the only home he's ever known.

"I feel like I have the whole city behind me," Gabriel told the Union Leader in 2015. "Growing up I haven't made any enemies. I feel like I'm inspiring a lot of people, so it makes me really happy. It makes me want to do even more."

The unique part of Gabriel's game is that, despite carrying the build of a rim protector, he possesses the skills of a guard. He was groomed as a shooting guard or small forward before his big growth spurt and those skills have remained and adapted with Gabriel's body.

"In the last 12 months, he's worked really hard on his ability to put the ball on the floor and get by his opponent," Mannix said. "He's to a point now where he can beat his man off the dribble with different footwork, and dribble combinations by improving that ball handling.

"All of that has really helped to make him that combo forward instead of just like a power forward."

In addition to his uncanny skillset, Gabriel has greatly improved his work with his back to the basket, which is traditionally a strength of a player with his height. Gabriel prides himself on how well-rounded he's become and expects it to translate well on his new stage.

"I see myself as an impact player and that's what I am aiming to show I can be from the start," Gabriel said. "The hope is that I can just get a lot of good minutes this year and I'm looking forward to making the most of them.

"My motor and length have been important parts to my game. They're really going to continue to be big tools for me as I go."

As far as his playing time goes, Calipari has shown he is not afraid to throw first-year players directly into the fire and seems prepared to do just that with Gabriel.

"I see him as a 6-10 guard in the sense that, if we're playing three guards, he's one of them," said Calipari on his official website, "He can really shoot it, he's got a great shot and he's a shot blocker defensively. He's an energy guy who can guard multiple positions and is getting better by the day."

Calipari has become one of the most prolific coaches and personalities in the college ranks. While he's taken criticism for how he has run his programs since beginning his coaching career in 1988, Calipari has come into his own at Kentucky with 28 of his former Wildcats being selected in the NBA Draft over the last nine years. Gabriel is hopeful he can join that group under Calipari's tutelage.

"Coach Cal is everything I thought he would be," Gabriel said. "There was never a change in his approach throughout my recruitment and you have to like that about him. He is an 'in your face' kind of coach, but that's the type of stuff you like as a player because it gets you ready to go."

The attention Gabriel has brought to New Hampshire basketball is rare. Few Division I players come from the Granite State.

The best known Granite State player is Matt Bonner, who went from Concord High School to the University of Florida and then a 12-year career in the NBA, 10 of those seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, where he was part of two NBA champions. Claremont's Kaleb Tarczewski just completed four successful years at Arizona, and Duncan Robinson of New Castle averaged 11.2 points per game last season as a sophomore at Michigan. Both of those players attended prep schools, as Gabriel did.

Trinity's famed Fab Four of the early 2000s all famously got Division I scholarships. Luke Bonner played one year at West Virginia before transferring to UMass. Chris Lutz played two years at Purdue before transferring to Marshall. Chad Millard played a year at Louisville before moving on to Creighton. Chris Brickley had the most interesting road of the four, starting at Northeastern, transferring to Southern New Hampshire University in Division II, and then joining Louisville for his final season and a half.

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