Barring some unforeseen event, Daniel Gafford will be the Washington Wizards starting center next season. If he can figure out how to improve, he might even be able to hang around long enough to be part of the team when they start winning.
Gafford, a lanky 6-10 with pogo sticks for legs, came to Washington in a preposterously lopsided trade. Then GM Tommy Sheppard got him for the low-low price of Troy Brown Jr., who had fallen out of Scott Brooks’ rotation and was just plain awful when he got minutes.
Invigorated by the trade, Gafford — who had shown improvement in his second season with the Chicago Bulls — got even better. Specifically, he upped his defensive rebounding, blocked a few more shots, cut back on the fouling (though that’s still an issue) and improved his overall efficiency with more trips to the free throw line and fewer turnovers.
Much of his step forward offensively got attributed to Russell Westbrook, and the two did work well together. However, credit rightfully belongs to Gafford, who produced in a similar manner with the Bulls, and maintained the extreme efficiency when Westbrook went to the Lakers, and he was playing with guards like Spencer Dinwiddie and Monte Morris.
Last season, Gafford “shot” 73.2% from the floor, which would have led the NBA in “accuracy” if he qualified for the leaderboard. I put quotation marks around shot and accuracy because 96% of his field goal attempts came from 10 feet or closer, and 59.2% were at-rim attempts.
Despite playing just 1,604 minutes last season, Gafford ranked 12th with 135 dunks. Dunks comprised 36.2% of his total field goal attempts, which was fourth most last season. Here’s the top five:
- Mitchell Robinson, NYK — 52.1%
- Jalen Duren, DET — 41.2%
- Rudy Gobert, MIN — 38.8%
- Daniel Gafford, WAS — 36.2%
- Nic Claxton, BRK — 34.6%
While it would be theoretically nice if Gafford could expand his offensive repertoire, head coach Wes Unseld Jr. would be nuts to ask him to do more than set screens, roll to the basket, dunk, and crash the offensive boards. It’s a classic case of don’t fix what’s not broken.
Where can Gafford get better? One big area: rebounding. He ranked 28th in offensive rebounds per possession, and 61st in defensive rebounds. It’s true that defensive rebounding it largely a team effort, and his tendency is to chase blocks. That’s fine — the first principle on defense is always to make the other team miss. But he needs to get his long arms and vertical lift on the boards as well.
Another: stop fouling so much. He was 21st in fouls last season at 5.7 per 100 possessions. That’s giving away too many high efficiency possessions to opponents, and it hurts the team defense.
Last: figure out how to harness the athleticism and instincts into sound team defense. The Wizards have been worse defensively all three seasons that Gafford has been in uniform.
So let’s talk doppelgängers. My Statistical Doppelgänger Machine factors age and an array of pace-neutral statistical categories like minutes played, usage, preferred shot types, offensive and defensive rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, fouls, scoring, and an overall measure of the player’s production relative to era.
The Machine does not include variables for size, position, or athleticism, but even so individuals tend to get “doppelgängers” who are relatively close in each of those categories.
- Nic Claxton, 2021-22, Brooklyn Nets — This was a 22-year old Claxton, before last season’s breakout. Similar profile to Gafford — long, slim, rebounds a little less than teams want from a center, blocks tons of shots. Claxton appears to be a solid team defender, however.
- Ivica Zubac, 2020-21, Los Angeles Clippers — Pretty good player who the Clippers got cheap. Rebounding in this season dropped precipitously from the previous year.
- Clemon Johnson, 1980-81, Indiana Pacers — I remember Johnson as a backup to Moses Malone with the Philadelphia 76ers. This was the best season of his career in my estimation. Two seasons later, the Pacers traded him (along with a third round pick), and he got to be part of the celebrated ‘83 Sixers that won a championship.
- Alex Len, 2017-18, Phoenix Suns — Len’s best season by a wide margin — one of the two in my database that rated above average.
- Mason Plumlee, 2013-14, Brooklyn Nets — Plumlee is annoying and easily hated. He went to Duke after all. He’s also been pretty good — consistently a bit better than average for six teams over 10 seasons.
- Jason Maxiell, 2007-08, Detroit Pistons — Remember Maxiell? Yeah, me neither. I mean, I remember the name, but I cannot recall a single thing he did on a basketball floor. That’s on the amazing side because he lasted 10 seasons. In our defense, he rated below average to waaaaaay below average in nine of them. This comp season was the only average or better season of his career.
- Onyeka Okongwu, 2021-22, Atlanta Hawks — This is second year Okongwu, who managed just 48 games due to injury. I liked him in the draft, and I think he has promise, but I also think his reputation has already sped past his production.
- Jarrett Allen, 2017-18, Brooklyn Nets — Rookie year Allen. Just 19 years old and already every bit as productive as Gafford’s been with the Wizards. He’s been an outstanding version of the rim-running, shot-blocking center ever since. The Nets, of course, selected him with the draft pick they got from Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards in exchange for a three-month rental of Bojan Bogdanovic, and taking on free agent “prize” Andrew Nicholson.
- Mason Plumlee, 2014-15, Brooklyn Nets — Interesting to note that while Plumlee is an excellent passer for a big man, that skill didn’t really emerge until he got got Portland in his third season.
- Robin Lopez, 2009-10, Phoenix Suns — Lopez is among the weirdest players around. Here’s his PPA progression by season (PPA is my overall production metric. In PPA, 100 is average an higher is better):
- 2008-09 — 49
- 2009-10 — 130
- 2010-11 — 83
- 2011-12 — 69
- 2012-13 — 151
- 2013-14 — 168
Most players grab two or three defensive rebounds for every offensive board. Lopez has 2,511 career defensive rebounds and 2,144 on offense. In Washington, and then again in Orlando, he got more offensive rebounds than defensive. He also blocks some shots, figured out how to cut back on the early career fouling, and took up hook shots.
Overall, the Gafford comps are a pretty tight grouping of solid bigs who were competent starters at times, but were best suited for valuable backup roles. Scanning down the list produces more of the same. Names like: James Donaldson, Chris Andersen, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, Brendan Haywood, Randy Breuer. That’s fine for now as the Wizards build for the future. They’ll likely want someone better when it’s time to win.
Who’s next through the Doppelgänger Machine?
This poll is closed