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Wizards may have found something special in Daniel Gafford

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards - Game Four
Can Daniel Gafford make the jump to becoming the Wizards’ starting center?
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Washington Wizards deadline deal with the Chicago Bulls seemed almost a throwaway at first. It felt more like Washington giving up on their 2018 first round pick than acquiring a new player.

That changed when Daniel Gafford took the court. In his first game with the Wizards, Gafford had 13 points and 3 blocks on 6-7 shooting in a win over the Pistons. Suddenly, the afterthought demanded attention. That continued throughout his abbreviated season with the Wizards.

In 23 games with the team, Gafford averaged 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in less than 18 minutes per game.

Entering his first full season with the team, there’s justifiable uncertainty in projecting Gafford’s future. Can he start, is he more suited to be a high energy shot blocking big off the bench?

That’s a question that still must be answered for someone with 1400 career NBA minutes. While Gafford was effective for the Wizards, he struggled to stay on the floor due to endurance and conditioning issues and got into foul trouble when he started.

Those are concerns, but they’re no different than those for any player early in his career? Still a week from turning 23 years old, it’s too early to pigeonhole Gafford into a role.

One of the arguments against starting Gafford is his inability to shoot effectively from outside 10 feet. That didn’t have much impact on his ability to be part of an effective offense though.

When Gafford was on the floor, the team had an offensive rating of 116.8 — about as efficient as the Brooklyn Nets, which had a league-best 117.3 ortg. The Wizards were a top offense team with Gafford on the floor despite his lack of three-point shooting. Why?

To answer the why, look at his hyper-efficiency. Much is made of Thomas Bryant and how efficient he is (which is true). In his three seasons in Washington Thomas Bryant’s effective field goal percentage has been as follows:

2018-2019: 64.8%

2019-2010: 62.6%

2020-2021 (10 games): 69.8%

Gafford’s efg in his first 23 games with Washington was 68.1% and he shot an astounding 76.5% from inside five feet according to NBA.com. That wasn’t a fluke — his efg in Chicago was even better, and his career efg is 69.1%. It’s a disservice not to acknowledge Gafford’s Bryant-like hyper-efficiency.

What Gafford offers is vertical spacing. Am I worried that he doesn’t shoot threes? To borrower an adage from Moneyball, “He gets on base a lot. Do I care if it’s a walk or a hit?” The answer is no.

I haven’t talked defense yet.

Before the trade deadline, the Wizards had the 26th ranked defense in the NBA with a defensive rating or 114.1 (and a 15-28 record). From March 27 to the end of the regular season, their defense was sixth best, and their drtg was 109.7 (19-10 record). They jumped from 26th and 6th, and while that can’t all be attributed to Gafford, his presence helped.

For additional context, here’s a comparison of Gafford to the incumbent at his position – Bryant.

On/Off Net Rating and ORtg/DRtg

Thomas Bryant

’20-21

· On: -2.1

· Off: -1.4

· ORtg: 113.6

· DRtg: 115.7

’19-20

· On: -6.6

· Off: -2.9

· ORtg: 109.4

· DRtg: 116

’18-‘19

· On: -3.6

· Off: -2.3

· ORtg: 109

· DRtg: 112.6

Gafford:

· On: 7.1

· Off: 1.6

· ORtg: 116.8

· DRtg: 109.7

The team’s net rating has been better with Bryant off the floor. With Gafford — the Wizards +5.5 points per 100 possessions. The point of this exercise isn’t to critique Bryant. These numbers come with context (i.e. who each player is sharing the floor with, etc...).

Rather, I’m poking at the idea that Gafford may not be a good starter because he doesn’t shoot threes, and I’m demonstrating how large that delta may be on the defensive end of the court.

Bryant isn’t fully to blame for the team’s defensive woes, but Gafford’s talents may better allow him to make up for the defensive deficiencies around him in a way that Bryant can’t. There’s room for both.

The team, if it’s to have any success, will need positive contributions from each over an 82-game season. That said, if the priority is to improve defensively under Wes Unseld Jr., Gafford is a more impactful defensive eraser —the team could continue to thrive offensively with him.

Signed to less than $4 million over the next two seasons, the Wizards may have caught lightning in a bottle — with an emphasis on may. With the season less than a month away, and with Bryant out of action as he works to come back from a torn ACL, Gafford will get a big opportunity to show what he can do.