Home opening night was kind to the Washington Wizards, as they defeated a Ja Morant-less Memphis Grizzlies team for win number one on the 2023-24 NBA season.
After an embarrassing defensive effort Wednesday in Indiana giving up an opening-night record 143 points, Wes Unseld Jr’s team responded at home, holding a talented Memphis squad to just 106 points.
Growing as a team on the defensive end of the floor is something that Unseld Jr. continues to stress, especially down low.
“It’s been a priority for us to clean up our paint defense,” Unseld Jr. said. “Part of it is roster construction. When you lose a 7-footer, you don’t have much protection back there. We gotta do a better job of not letting them get to the rim.”
Wizards center Daniel Gafford emerged as the lone starter down low this season, a role he earned with solid rim protection and improved offense. The one glaring hole in his game is foul trouble, an issue he finds himself in often.
In game one vs. Indiana, Gafford picked up four fouls in the first half, relegating him to the bench for most of the second half. Being the lone center, Unseld Jr. believes Gafford must be smarter with his aggression, but is pleased with how he’s performed thus far.
“Overall, he’s been better,” Unseld Jr. said. “Just having the discipline to meet force with force but do it with the right technique. Get your hands up from over top the ball. Stay down with complex takeaways, angles. And then if [they] make tough shots, live with it.”
Gafford played well Saturday, tallying his first double-double of the season. He was active on the glass, securing 11 boards against a depleted Memphis front court.
This occurred despite injuring his ankle mid-way through the second quarter. Gaff stayed down for a minute, crawling on the floor in pain, but was able to hobble to the locker room. He eventually finished the half and returned in the third quarter.
Hobbled ankle and all, DG managed to stay out of foul trouble, picking up just two fouls in 28 minutes. The Wizards big man defended Jaren Jackson Jr. by sliding his feet and contesting vertically, something Unseld Jr. was looking for.
After trading Kristaps Porzingis in the offseason, Washington found itself with a depleted frontcourt. Bringing in Mike Muscala and Danilo Gallinari added bodies to the group, but the depth Washington had last season isn’t there.
With Gallinari struggling in pick & roll defense, and Muscala not being a feared rim protector, Gafford stands alone in the paint. He’s the only true rim protector on this roster, and has to play as such.
Yes, he still needs to play aggressive and seek blocks, but not at the expense of team defense. Often times, Gaff goes for blocks he simply can’t get, leaving the paint open for offensive rebounds and put-backs. Discipline goes for staying vertical and not reaching, but it also stretches to being smart about when to go for swaps and when to hold back.
If the fifth-year center can play like he did Saturday, a game in which he flashed his athleticism while exuding discipline, the Wizards will win a lot more games this season.