After receiving a three-year extension prior to the 2021-22 season, it appeared the Wizards’ organization was making it known that they saw Daniel Gafford as their center of the future, but the season turned out vastly different than many were expecting. Gafford started out the season as the starting center, who seemingly was expected to be a defensive anchor and the team’s primary lob threat.
As the season went on though, Gafford’s minutes became reduced, sometimes without a clear rhyme or reason. With the return of Thomas Bryant and the presence of Montrezl Harrell, Gafford saw his playing time dwindle as the team began to freefall. Desperate for a change, the team acquired Kristaps Porzingis to be the presumed starting center, while offloading Harrell in a separate trade.
The two moves combined with the poor play of Bryant put Gafford in a position to become the clear backup center for the Wizards, which seems to be his role going forward. This put him in a position to gain a consistent role but it was vastly different than what his role was to start the season.
It was quite the roller coaster ride of a season for Gafford, but there was quite a bit that we learned about Gafford in his first full year with the Wizards.
The attribute that stands out every time Gafford steps out on the floor is his athleticism. His ability to catch lobs, be an effective roller and score around the basket is what helps make up for his lack of offensive skills. Gafford had a 69.3 field goal percentage, which ranks 4th in the entire league for qualifying players.
Part of the reason for Gafford’s high shooting percentage is that he doesn’t play outside of his strengths on that end. Eighty-eight percent of his attempts came within five feet of the basket and 79 percent came within the restricted area under the basket.
On the defensive end, Gafford is an effective rim protector. His 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes rank 6th in the league. His ability to be a shot-blocker gave the Wizards a much-needed presence at rim that the team has not had in quite some time.
Gafford’s offensive game has not progressed much in his time with the team, this season notwithstanding. His ability to score around the basket is negated by his lack of ability to score away from it. Teams that have been able to use zone defenses and other defensive schemes to take away the threat of Gafford’s finishing at the rim, have hurt his effectiveness on the offensive end at times.
Gafford also still struggles with getting in foul trouble. His 4.2 personal fouls per 36 minutes were only a slight improvement over last year’s 4.5 personal fouls per 36 minutes. His inability to stay out of foul trouble makes it difficult to rely on him night in and night out to stay on the floor.
And for as much as Gafford has shown as a rim protector, the defensive metrics show that the Wizards' defense is actually better when he is not on the floor (115.5 defensive Rating On the Court versus 110.5 Defensive Rating Off the Court). This can be explained by teams around the league using pick and roll to switch players like Gafford onto quicker wing players who have the ability to take players like Gafford off the dribble or to simply take him away from the basket to take the Wizards' primary rim protector away from the basket.
Gafford’s season was much more of a continuation of his first few months with the team last year. Fans were baffled by the Chicago Bulls’ willingness to trade such a young, athletic big man, but his limitations in the current playing style of the NBA make it difficult to play Gafford big minutes every night.
In order for Gafford to take the next step, he will need to add to his offensive skill set. Developing a post-game, developing an effective jumpshot, and maybe even bulking up some are just some things Gafford can do to expand his role on this team.
With the injury history of Porzingis, it is likely we will see Gafford spend some moments as a spot starter. Wes Unseld Jr. also experimenting with Porzingis and Gafford on the court at the same time towards the end of the season, could also be a way this team can continue to get Gafford more minutes.
Regardless, even with a role off the bench, Gafford figures to be a key rotational player on this team next season and maybe even for the next few seasons to come.