Improved versatility will be the key to unlocking Daniel Gafford's potential


Daniel Gafford is a project. And that’s not a bad thing.

The Bulls’ second-round pick in last month’s NBA Draft has looked nothing like that through three Summer League games. His raw numbers have been the most impressive of anyone on the roster, first-round picks Coby White and Chandler Hutchison included. He looks the part, plays with patience, timing and passion – that poor microphone under the hoop probably needs to be replaced – and has certainly shown why he had first-round potential just one year ago.

Gafford has done his part thus far in Las Vegas. He’s averaging 11.7 points (second on the team to White), 8.7 rebounds (fifth best in Vegas) and a league-high 3.3 blocks. He’s shooting 68% from the field, the best percentage among players with at least 20 attempts (next best is 60%).

But here’s the part of the article where we mention how critical it is to not get too excited over Summer League results.

What Gafford has done in Las Vegas lines up with how he played in his sophomore season at Arkansas: Highly efficient around the basket on both ends of the floor, and not much else.

It’s a reality, but not a bad thing for a second-round pick who will be 21 when he makes his regular-season debut in October.

Gafford attempted 324 shots in his sophomore season with the Razorbacks, and a whopping 287 of them came around the rim. That’s 88% of his attempts coming on what we’ll refer to as inside the restricted area (Synergy Sports doesn’t delineate whether a shot at the rim was inside the RA or simply around the rim). To put that in perspective, last season Detroit's Andre Drummond took 745 of his 1,052 attempts in the restricted area (70.8% of his attempts).

The good news was that Gafford was outstanding on those attempts. He was more polished as a sophomore, added some weight from his freshman season – he went from 225 to 237 pounds – and produced. He shot 70% (201 of 287) in the restricted area, helping him shoot 66% from the field overall. That 70% clip included him going 22 of 29 in transition – he had three transition dunks in the SL opener and it appears that will be a plus to his NBA game – meaning in halfcourt sets he shot 69.3% at the rim.

He’s been a force inside in Vegas, too. Gafford has made 15 of 17 shots in the restricted area, per ESPN’s shot charts. Granted, he did so in the first two games against center-less Cavaliers and Lakers teams, but still fared well (3 of 4) against a tough New Orleans frontcourt on Monday night.

But Gafford has also missed his only four attempts that have come outside the restricted area, and those attempts were all in the paint on layups. That, too, lines up with his sophomore season numbers. Per Synergy, Gafford was 9 of 19 on shots in the paint that weren’t around the basket last year. Outside the paint, Gafford was 3 of 18 and didn’t attempt a 3-pointer.

That’s not to say Gafford can’t develop – remember, it’s OK to be a project – and it’s obvious that Arkansas took advantage of their 6-foot-11 NBA prospect by camping him out under the basket where he’d be most effective for the Razorbacks. But it also shows that he’s going to need to add some versatility to his offensive game.

He doesn’t need to become a midrange shooter in the mold of Taj Gibson or even sprinkle in 3-pointers in the mold of Myles Turner. But he’ll need to be more than a player who feasts on rolls to the basket and cleaning up offensive rebounds. Those won’t come as easily in the NBA as they did at Arkansas and have in Las Vegas.

Defensively, Gafford was elite around the rim at Arkansas, too. Opponents shot just 44.6% in the restricted area against him, per Synergy Sports. His 8.4% block rate was a top-50 mark in the country – Wendell Carter’s was 7.6% as a Duke freshman – and he had more games with four blocks (6) than he did games in which he didn’t block a shot (5). He was an elite rim protector and defender who also fared well defending opponents’ post-ups.

He’s certainly shown that in Vegas. Gafford has blocked 10 shots in just 80 minutes, good for an 11.3% block rate. To put that in context, Carter blocked 13 shots in 144 minutes in Las Vegas as a rookie (a 7.5% block rate).

But it wasn't all good. During his sophomore season at Arkansas, opponents shot 27 of 70 (38.5%) from beyond the arc with Gafford as the primary defender. It’s obvious that teams’ respective game plans were to take the 6-foot-11 center away from the basket to open up their offenses, but they also attacked Gafford once he was out on the perimeter. Granted, individual 3-point field goal percentage defense isn’t the strongest of stats to rely on, but the fact that there were 70 attempts against him is a red flag, regardless of how many went in. Gafford ranked in the 28th percentile defending all jump shots, with opponents scoring 87 points on 82 possessions.

Whether it’s defending stretch bigs on pick-and-pops or being switched on to guards in pick-and-roll action, Gafford will need to improve as a perimeter defender. He flashed a little bit of that on Monday night, blocking a Nickeil Alexander-Walker jumper on the left baseline in the first quarter. The Bulls will want to see more of that as he progresses.

Gafford is elite in his current skill set. He finishes at the rim, runs well in transition and times his blocks with ease at the rim. It’s now up to him and the Bulls’ coaching staff to expand (literally) his game to feature more skills away from the basket. He’s a project, and a good one to have at that.

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