Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This installment breaks down Arkansas big man Daniel Gafford.
Daniel Gafford’s sophomore year at Arkansas didn’t necessarily go as planned when he decided to return to school after a strong freshman season. Many saw him as sure-fire first round pick after his freshman year, but he decided to go back to school for another year to improve upon a few of his weaknesses before putting his name into the 2019 draft. His sophomore year did very little to persuade scouts and NBA front offices, as his stock has dropped significantly in the ensuing year; he’s now a borderline first-round pick in what is a significantly weaker draft class. His weaknesses on both ends of the court have not improved much at all in the last calendar year and it’s become clearer that he just is who he is at this point: a rim-running center who provides value as an athlete offensively and a weak-side rim protector with just a touch of versatility to his defensive game.
Gafford’s elite athleticism is what makes him an intriguing draft prospect. He stands 6’11 with a 7’2 wingspan and weighs in at 238 pounds. He’s a strong rim-runner in pick-and-roll, with an ability to set solid screens and roll hard, getting up for lobs at the rim. He’ll use his athleticism on the glass, where he’s a strong offensive and defensive rebounder.
In a league dominated by pick-and-roll, Gafford will also have a lot of gravity as a roll man, which brings with it a lot of offensive advantages. A team with a strong playmaker on the perimeter who needs a pick-and-roll partner will look Gafford’s way, as he will be able to play that role very well at the next level.
His offensive weaknesses come with essentially everything else. He has very little offensive versatility to his game; he fills his role as a roll man quite well but can’t do the other things a lot of other modern starting centers can do within an offense. A team cannot operate through him at the elbows at all; he showed very poor vision and passing acumen during his two years with the Razorbacks. He has no outside shot — at least for now — and is essentially a total non-threat outside of a four-foot radius around the basket. There’s not much upside to be explored with his jumper, as he’s a poor free throw shooter and doesn’t display good touch on his contested non-dunk finishes.
Gafford’s turnover numbers skyrocketed during his sophomore season, despite only a small bump in usage and no corresponding bump in assist percentage. He wasn’t asked to be more of a playmaker this past year, but the turnover rate nonetheless jumped. Gafford had a lot of issues with turnovers out of the post, where he sported a true turnover rate of 14% on 229 post-ups last season, a number that ranks him No. 93 out of 139 Division I players with more than 150 post-ups in 2018-19. He won’t be asked to post up nearly as much (if at all) at the NBA level, where he’ll be a part of a more modern offense than he was at Arkansas. For comparison, he finished just 39 possessions as a roll man in his sophomore season; it’s fair to say that he won’t have a nearly 6-to-1 post-up-to-roll-man usage ratio as an NBA player.
Defensively, his vertical athleticism gives him upside as a shot blocker and rim presence, whether as a weak-side rotator or a primary defender in pick-and-roll. He plays with energy defensively and has a good motor, which bodes well for his development on that end of the floor. A lack of mobility limits his versatility, but he may be able to grow that area of his game in his first few years in the league. A knee injury in high school might put a cap on where he can be as a switchy, versatile perimeter defender, but if he can get to the level where he can play multiple defensive schemes as a center, that would make him a useful piece on that end.
He’s not immensely strong as a big man and may get pushed around on the boards as a result. Holding up against some of the bigger true centers in the league will be a chore and may require his team to double more often. The more important aspect to his defensive game is his recognition and basketball IQ, which lags behind his athleticism at this point. He’s slow to recognize gaps he needs to fill defensively, which is massively important to a weak-side rim protector. Having the athleticism to get vertical and block shots is one thing, but being in position in the first place is the more vital aspect to rim protection. As of now, his recognition is poor and will have to improve significantly if he’s going to be an above-average defender. He’s a little jumpy for blocks and commits too many fouls, but those are issues that can be ironed out over his first year or two in the league.
With the way the center position is going, Gafford feels more like a high second-round pick a team wants to bring in to see what he can do as a backup, rather than a full-fledged starter. His lack of versatility on both ends of the floor will put a limit on his contributions toward winning basketball, especially at the highest levels, and maxing out his current skill set will make him a mid-tier starting center. The high replacement level at center is also worth considering; backup centers who do what Gafford does are a dime a dozen these days, so unless he can add to his game significantly on either end of the floor, his value of a replacement-level big man isn’t necessarily all that high.