The Phoenix Suns’ roster for the 2023-24 season is now set, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be keeping tabs on players as they become available. Nice as it would be for every player the organization added this offseason to hit, the reality is they will not.
With a core four of players who will decide how far the Suns go in the postseason, any changes they are going to make will have to come around the fringes. Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe seem like home runs, but individuals like Bol Bol and Chimezie Metu arrive with legitimate question marks.
Which is why the Suns should be following the developments of big man Wenyen Gabriel, who is now without a team.
Gabriel last played for the Los Angeles Lakers, but was squeezed out after the signing of Christian Wood on a two-year, minimum deal. The 26-year-old recently helped his country, South Sudan, to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games for the first time in their history.
Gabriel’s compatriot and current Sun Bol didn’t feature for South Sudan, and so the importance of having an NBA level player who was there to help lead the team and play at a high level defensively was important. Gabriel did his own stock no harm at the FIBA World Cup.
Which is why he may feel aggrieved at having lost his spot on the Lakers’ roster to Wood — a player who fans may quickly realize is not the answer to all of their problems. There is no doubt that Wood is the better offensive player of the two, but the merits of Gabriel as a defender are perhaps a tad underrated at this point.
In fact last season while with the Lakers, the team had a defensive rating of 111.4 when Gabriel was on the court. Not only was that the best mark of his career, but the Lakers as a team had a rating of 113.2 for the season, good for 12th in the league. Stretch Gabriel’s number across the whole campaign, and the Lakers would have cracked the top five in this category.
The Lakers’ loss could yet be the Suns’ gain, and while Gabriel may yet get snapped up by another NBA team, or perhaps go abroad, he represents a much better option than some of the bigs the Suns have been linked with in recent times.
Think about it this way — the Suns have in recent seasons made it work with Bismack Biyombo as a backup big behind Deandre Ayton. This season they’ve gotten Drew Eubanks to come in, and he is sure to play hard and do what he can defensively with the minutes he is given. Much like fan favorite Jock Landale did last year.
But if Bol’s terrible defending becomes unplayable, as it was with the Orlando Magic last season, then it may be that he loses his spot to his fellow countryman with the Suns. Offensively the Suns are going to be set, and yet scoring in small bursts and handling the ball are the strongest parts of Bol’s game.
He is a luxury to this Suns’ group, and one who absolutely could excel playing 15 minutes per game in the regular season. But if Ayton does not take the leap defensively that new head coach Frank Vogel is pinning much of his hopes on, then the organization will need to come up with solutions to this problem on the fly.
They’re unlikely to trade Ayton, at least right away, and so somebody like Gabriel then becomes an important player to go out and get. Like Bol, and seven other Suns this coming season, he’d come in on a minimum deal, and he’d be able to play alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant right away.
In truth he’s a better fit next to those guys compared to Bol anyway, but timing is everything in the league and Gabriel was still very much with the Lakers when the Suns were remaking their roster completely in the opening hours of free agency.
It might feel like backup bigs like Gabriel come along all the time, but that is not necessarily the case. He managed to play 87 games for the Lakers across two seasons when they were trying to win a championship — that’s not nothing. He also has 10 playoff appearances for that franchise in that time as well.
If the season gets off to a rocky start for the Suns, or they’re languishing defensively after a couple of months, then Gabriel is a player they will have to enquire about. He deserves another chance in the league, and the Suns would be perfectly positioned to give it to him.