Jim Boylen seemed pretty sure of what he was getting from Daniel Gafford when he announced he would be available for the Bulls’ Monday night matchup with the Bucks.
“Just run somebody over, knock somebody down, play hard,” Boylen said of his expectations for Gafford. “I’m expecting Daniel, besides maybe a few nerves, to have a smooth transition into what we do and who we are.”
What he got was much more: One night after playing 31 minutes for the Windy City Bulls in Long Island, the rookie from Arkansas posted 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 10-for-12 shooting against one of the league's most fortuitous frontcourts in the Bucks. He led the Bulls in scoring and threw down six dunks (tied for the highest single-game total by a player this season), each one seemingly more vicious, timely and acrobatic than the last.
But the nerves? Non-existent. In fact, Gafford fit into the Bulls’ three-guard sparkplug bench unit like a glove.
“If you throw it anywhere near the rim, he’s gonna go get it,” Coby White said. “Everybody trust[s] him, so that’s all that matters. You gotta trust your teammates.”
“He can dunk the sh*t out of the ball,” Kris Dunn said.
Gafford was active every second of his 20:58 on the floor, hunting screen-and-roll opportunities, rebounds and lob-passes, as if for sustenance. He even said after the game that, energy-wise, he could have handled a weightier minutes total, if needed.
“That’s just the practice and stuff we do every game,” Gafford said of the chemistry between the lineup of him, White, Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono and Thad Young — a unit that posted a 150.0 offensive rating in 12 total minutes together on Monday. “All the time, we always building relationships...
"I didn’t really have to say anything, they already knew what my plan was… Just go get anything off the rim.”
Even in defeat, Gafford played to a level beyond even his wildest supporters' dreams, corralling one-handed alley oops, mopping up missed shots by teammates and providing security coming over from the weak-side in the Bulls’ aggressive, blitzing defense.
The Bulls offense, too, was 22.2 points per 100 possessions better with Gafford on the floor — he sets solid picks and attracts rare defensive gravity on rolls to the rim. And even though the ancillary defensive metrics weren't ground-breaking, he showed flashes of being the type of player that can anchor the undersized three-guard lineups that Boylen loves to utilize, without sacrificing the level of activity and athleticism that makes the purest form of this Bulls defense so difficult to deal with.
“He brings a whole other dynamic to our team,” Dunn said. “He’s a forceful roller… [and] defensively, someone gets blown by, we know we got help-side with him, we know he’s gonna come over and try to deflect the ball.”
Lol at Giannis thinking he can float it over Gafford pic.twitter.com/sY7vW0aI9j— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) November 19, 2019
As he did before the game, Boylen credited Gafford’s instruction with schematically similar Windy City for preparing him to take full advantage of this opportunity. Now, the question becomes: With Luke Kornet likely to miss at least 7-10 days, can Gafford continue to expand his role with this team, moving forward?
“I think he made a great case for himself today,” Dunn said. “As long as he just keeps working hard, keep doing what he’s been doing, staying disciplined, I think good things are gonna keep happening.”
“I still got a lot more left,” Gafford said. “Whenever I get my chance again, I’m gonna do the same thing.”
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