Even following a strong rookie season relative to his draft station, a consistent second-year role was hardly promised for Bulls center Daniel Gafford.
A new regime that didn't draft him, after all, grabbed rein of basketball operations during the offseason. A new coach that knew him little took control of rotational turns.
Early in the season, those dynamics appeared steep to overcome. As Billy Donovan experimented with Lauri Markkanen as the team's de facto second-string center, Gafford logged 17, 12 and zero minutes in the Bulls' first three regular-season games. He rejoined the regulars when Markkanen entered the NBA's health and safety protocols for close contact with Chandler Hutchison, who had tested positive for COVID-19, and averaged 5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just 14.8 minutes... But again received a DNP designation in Markkanen's first game back on Jan. 15. In the two games since, Gafford has played 13 and 17 minutes in Bulls victories and made an impact.
Such ups and downs wearing on a young player would hardly be surprising. In fact, it would be understandable. But through it all, Gafford has stayed ready and professional. And he's earned the respect of his coach in the process.
"I give him a lot of credit because if there's one guy on our team that's been inconsistent minutes-wise its been him," Donovan said of Gafford after Wednesday's practice. "And it has nothing to do with the way he's playing or not playing as much as it's like, we've got an opportunity to throw Lauri at the 5 (center), this may be a good look against a specific team."
Gafford's second DNP of the season -- which coincided with the Bulls' catastrophic 127-125 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder -- came against a team missing its starting center in Al Horford and staffed with wings and floor-spacers in the front court. Donovan called it a matchup-based decision.
Two days later, he came out and posted seven points, three rebounds and two blocks (with a +14 plus-minus) in a 16-point win over the Dallas Mavericks.
"Really, there was no reason for him (Gafford) to be out of the rotation against OKC other than the fact that I knew OKC was going to have at least a couple guys who were going to shoot 3s, and it was an opportunity to play Lauri some at the 5," Donovan was quick to note after the Mavericks game. "We’ve played Thad (Young) at the 5. We’ve played Lauri at the 5. We’ve played Wendell (Carter Jr.) and Gaff there. That’s four players at the 5 spot who have experienced time there. Sometimes it can be an odd man out a little bit."
Gafford's typical duties are more traditional. But the virtues he brings to the table are apparent. His energy is palpable. He plays with power as a rim-runner, finisher and shot-swatter. All integral attributes to a Bulls bench built around a blend of skilled veterans that has already swung multiple contests this season.
"I think Gaff gives us really good energy. I really have got to find a way to get him in there," Donovan said. "Gaff is a roller and a guy that's finishing at the basket and he's a really good rim protector. But we need to find a way to utilize his energy and just get a look at him in the game early and get him in there just to see how he responds and play.
"The games he didn't play -- nothing to do with him -- it was more my decision. And I really appreciate and respect just how professional he's been, coming in everyday, not pouting, not being upset, seeing a bigger picture, wanting to work and help the team and just trying to keep himself ready."
Donovan's rotational button-pushing should only continue with the expected returns of Tomáš Satoranský and Chandler Hutchison this Friday. The front court is crowded. But with Wendell Carter Jr. and Patrick Williams' statuses up in the air, important playing time could soon free up.
If and when called upon, Gafford will be ready.