Bulls Insider

How Daniel Gafford is thriving in new role with Wizards

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Bulls Insider

So this is what it looks like when Daniel Gafford plays with an elite point guard.

That’s been the dominant impression from here watching Gafford, who is averaging 12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2 blocks in four playoff games for the Wizards. The former Chicago Bulls big man also moved into the starting lineup against Joel Embiid as Washington beat the Philadelphia 76ers Monday to keep their postseason alive with a Game 5 victory.

This is not to diminish what Gafford has done since the Bulls traded him as part of their three-team deal with the Boston Celtics to acquire Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr., Javonte Green and cash in March. Nor is it to suggest that Russell Westbrook is the sole reason Gafford is thriving.

It’s more a reminder of how often Gafford struggled during his 11 starts with the Bulls and how the NBA is so much about fit and opportunity.

Monday marked Gafford’s first start for the Wizards, for whom he averaged 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 17.7 minutes over 23 regular-season games. In 31 games with the Bulls this season before the trade, Gafford averaged 4.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 12.4 minutes.

In a reserve role, Gafford impacted several games with his energy and athleticism. But he struggled more often than not while starting 11 games for the injured Wendell Carter Jr. (though the Bulls did go 4-7 in that stretch).


When Carter returned from injury, Gafford started chalking up “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” designations with regularity, only cracking the 10-minute threshold twice in the next six weeks until his trade. After the latter of those two appearances  an eight-point, 11-rebound, two-block outing against the Detroit Pistons on March 21 — Gafford lamented the aforementioned lost opportunity with a sharp focus on the future.

"I just felt like I took the (starting) opportunity for granted," Gafford said that night. "I came out, I was nonchalant, I was not really aggressive. You know, I just came out just like, 'Hey I just do this every day.'

"I think it was after the LA (Clippers) game (his last start with the Bulls), how I played and stuff in that game, my confidence was really weighed down because after that I wasn't playing, certain things like that. I was always having to come in the gym on off-days, certain things like that. But all that helped.

"Confidence was a real big thing. It was a real big key. And once I got a hold of that and a grasp of that, it was just, sky was the limit for me."

Indeed it was. And good for Gafford to stay the course, then run with this fit and opportunity. It seems like every time you look up during a Wizards playoff game, Gafford is emitting a primal scream following a thunderous dunk or blocked shot. He has clearly found his role and his niche, throwing down lobs from Westbrook and Beal and supplying defense while mostly avoiding the foul trouble that so often plagued him with the Bulls.

When the Bulls acquired Nikola Vučević, Gafford would’ve been a low-minute backup at best had he stayed. And management pegged Theis as a better fit and counterpart alongside Vučević anyway.

Coach Billy Donovan agreed, moving Theis into the starting lineup alongside Vučević and Lauri Markkanen into a reserve role. Troy Brown Jr., the main return from the Wizards' portion of the deal, showed some promise, particularly at the defensive end, before an ankle sprain sidelined him.

With both Robin Lopez and Alex Len on one-year deals in Washington, Gafford projects to play a significant role in 2021-22. His $1.8 million for 2022-23 is non-guaranteed, and he also has a $1.9 million team option for the following season. So he’s on a budget deal for his current production.

Especially because Westbrook is signed through the next two season as well.


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