Hidden Huskies: Piath Gabriel has the tools, but can she develop the skillset to become a factor for UConn?

The 6-foot-5 center didn't play much as a freshman but could eventually become a force for the Huskies in the paint.

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When Piath Gabriel first committed to UConn back in September 2019, she didn’t fit the mold of a typical recruit for the Huskies. She was just the third three-star prospect to go to UConn since ESPN started handing out stars in 2011 and was ranked as just the 23rd-best post player in the class of 2020.

Gabriel was a project big, a good rebounder and defender but raw on the offensive end. Geno Auriemma didn’t care about the numbers or the ratings, though. He saw a strong 6-foot-5 post player — the type which had become a unicorn in women’s basketball.

“If you want a kid like that anymore, you’ve got to go recruit volleyball players,” he said during UConn’s virtual coaches’ show in July. “There’s not many of them, and we got a kid.”

While Auriemma wasn’t sure what to expect out of Gabriel before she arrived on campus, his excitement was tangible whenever he spoke about her.

“The first time I saw Piath play, I was impressed by how hard she works. How hard she runs the floor. How willing she is to mix it up in the lane,” he said in a release when she signed her letter of intent in November 2019. There’s some things offensively that she needs to work on that I think we can help her with. Of all the big kids that I saw this season, she really impressed me with her work ethic. I think Piath is probably going to be the biggest surprise of all the kids coming into college next year.”

Ultimately, Gabriel wasn’t a factor as a freshman. She played just 56 minutes total — never more than four in a single game and only came in late in the fourth quarter when the Huskies had a big lead — with a total of 15 points, 13 fouls, 12 rebounds and five blocks.

While we never got anything more than a glance at Gabriel this past season, she played just enough to help us get a sense about where she stands entering her first full offseason in Storrs.

Gabriel was raw, as advertised, but made visible progress from her first appearance against UMass Lowell on Dec. 12 to her last against Syracuse on Mar. 23, particularly in the way she played.

Let’s dive into the film:

Rebounding

High Post Hoops’ scouting reports described Gabriel as a “terrific rebounder” when she committed, though that didn’t ultimately prove to be true during her freshman year.

Early in the season, Gabriel struggled to box out. Against UMass Lowell, she was twice pushed out of position by a substantially smaller player and couldn’t grab the offensive board.

Other times, she allowed herself to get boxed out far too easily and didn’t work to get into a better position.

Gabriel did improve significantly as the season progressed, though. This rebound against Georgetown is the perfect example: She sees the shot go up, finds a body, seal them off and grabs the easy board.

While Gabriel didn’t grab a ton of rebounds herself, she opened up more opportunities for her teammates once she started to use her size down low. There were times where she would box out one or two players, which cleared out the lane and allowed someone else — often Aubrey Griffin or Mir McLean — to fly in and clean up the glass. While Gabriel might not have gotten credit in the box score, she did the dirty work to make it happen.

Even with that, Gabriel let other opportunities slip through her hands — literally. Her film is littered with occasions where she boxed out, put herself in the right position and then just couldn’t grab the ball when it came to her. It was a consistent theme throughout her freshman year. This is just one example:

If Gabriel can strength her hands to grab more rebounds, she’ll be a force in the paint — and quickly. Just look at what she does here:

Defense

Gabriel’s defense can be broken down into two parts: Shot-blocking and 1-on-1 defending.

Starting with the positives, Gabriel displayed good instincts in terms of when to go for the block and she often altered shots just with her presence in the paint.

Though she didn’t block any shots in her first seven appearances, that finally changed during UConn’s Jan. 23 meeting against Georgetown. Gabriel carried a newfound confidence and blocked two shots on the day. Both times, she just held her position and swatted the ball without fouling.

Once Gabriel flipped that switch, she made more than a few plays like this one:

Though it was a small sample size, Gabriel rejected 10 percent of opponent’s two-point attempts when she was on the floor and finished with five blocks on the season.

In terms of her on-ball defending, Gabriel still has a lot of work to do. She averaged 9.3 (!!!) fouls per 40, most of which were the result of unnecessary reach-ins. This type of play was a common occurrence throughout the year:

Another issue was Gabriel’s slow foot speed, which allowed quicker players to get around her. But as with every other facet of her game, she did get better the more she played.

On this next play, she keeps her position well, cuts off the ball handler and gets a block. It’s the perfect sneak peak for the type of defender she could become with enough time and development.

For the most part, Gabriel was good defensively in her limited minutes once she settled in — aside from the foul trouble, of course. If she can reduce the fouls and move her feet just a little faster, she isn’t far from being an impact player on the defensive end.

Offense

Gabriel started her collegiate career well. On the first possession after checking into the game, she got the ball and made a nice pass to McLean underneath.

Her second play on the ball wasn’t as great. Gabriel had no idea Paige Bueckers tried to pass to her on the pick and roll:

Though Gabriel was far from a standout player on the offensive end, she at least looked comfortable with the ball in her hands. She frequently flashed in the high post for the ball and could distribute it from there. Gabriel also developed a few back-to-the-basket moves that she put on display towards the end of the year.

While Gabriel finished on that particular play, there were a few times that she missed a relatively easy chance or tried to force a shot when she didn’t have a great look at the basket. But considering the score and time left in the game, you can live with those mistakes from a freshman when they’re trying to be aggressive and make a play.

A few times — particularly early in the year — Gabriel looked like she wasn’t sure where she should be or what she should do on offense but she often responded to those moments by setting a screen. Again, it’s a good sign that a young player is trying to make something happen, even if she doesn’t quite know what that should be.

Final takeaways

After watching all 56 minutes of Gabriel’s freshman season, it’s not hard to see why she was limited to end-of-game duty. She was as raw as advertised — if not more so — and only played when the game was well out of hand. She likely would’ve struggled against bigger and better players.

Still, there’s plenty to be excited about with Gabriel. She showed noticeable progress in every facet of her game throughout the season — particularly on the offensive end — and should benefit from a real offseason with the Huskies.

Gabriel also has time on her side. With Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards returning along with Dorka Juhász and Amari DeBerry coming in, UConn’s frontcourt is set for next season. Gabriel can continue to develop her game behind-the-scenes without the pressure of contributing right away.

The rising sophomore is also regarded a hard working and coachable player as assistant coach Jamelle Elliott explained last preseason.

“She has a great way about her. She wants to be taught, she’s eager to learn every day,” Elliott said. “Does she have a long way to go just like all of our other players? Absolutely. But the fun part of it is seeing her eyes every day, eager when she comes into practice, eager to get better, and anticipating ways that she can get better every day so when it is time for her to have an opportunity to impact us when it’s time to play, she’s going to be as ready as possible.”

Gabriel likely won’t see serious action anytime soon barring a massive leap over the summer. Still, with her physical tools and intangibles, she’s one of the most interesting players on the roster to keep an eye on moving forward.

With enough time and development, it’s not hard to see Gabriel at least breaking into the rotation as defensive and rebounding specialist, not unlike Natalie Butler. And if the rising sophomore can really makes strides over the next couple of seasons, she could become a force in the paint for the Huskies.