Had Daniel Gafford kept his name in the 2018 NBA Draft as a freshman, he likely would have walked across the stage and shook the commissioner’s hand as a first-round selection. The Arkansas center instead returned to school for his sophomore season and, despite individual successes, saw his draft stock fall out of the first round.
Draft evaluators would consider his decision to return to school a failed attempt at betting on oneself. But Gafford, who the Bulls made the No. 38 pick on Thursday night, knew he wasn’t ready for the NBA and instead got himself ready for the league on his own terms.
“I decided to come back to get that year under my belt. If I would have came out my freshman year, this process would have (eaten) me up,” Gafford said Monday at the Advocate Center. “And I didn’t want that to happen.”
That maturity and self-awareness was apparent during Gafford’s introductory press conference that also included first-round pick Coby White, VP John Paxson and head coach Jim Boylen. He made no excuses for why he may have slipped to the second round in what was largely considered a weak draft class – “it could have been me, it could have been the draft – but owned that reality that he says will only push him to work harder.
Both Paxson and Boylen saw that ownership in the pre-draft process. Ironically enough, it reminded both of Bobby Portis, another Arkansas big man selected by the Bulls.
“His spirit of who he was in the interview, at the pre-draft camp, to where he came in and worked out for us, it was a Bobby-like spirit,” Boylen said. “Competitive, toughness, compete, take coaching, take correction, learn on the fly. We changed his free throw a little bit just when he came in for the workout. He was able to pick it up. Things like that.”
It’s common – and almost a requirement – for draft picks to describe their competitive nature and willingness to work hard in introductory interviews. But none of it felt rehearsed or fake with Gafford, who admitted he’s far from a finished product but also said he’s willing to improve wherever he can.
Gafford, who said he became a Portis fan before he even committed to Arkansas, won’t provide the same versatility as Crazy Eyes did in his time with the Bulls. Gafford is a true center, a rim-runner whose offense will come from pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds – “I think everything's a miss,” he said when describing his rebounding prowess – and who will be relied upon to defend the rim on the other end. He admitted that at times he’s guilty of expanding his game too far but that he’s gotten better at realizing his strengths and playing to them. That’s something Boylen said stuck out to him when he first met Gafford in the pre-draft process.
“There’s an art in the world of kind of knowing who you are, and he has a great feel for who he is as a player,” Boylen said. “Again, he adds to our vertical spacing, he adds to our athleticism, our length, our competitiveness, and again, he looks you in the eye when you talk to him, he has a great spirit.”
The expectation is that Gafford will slide in behind Wendell Carter Jr. on the depth chart at center. There’s been no indication that the Bulls plan to bring back Robin Lopez, and Cristiano Felicio won’t be part of any rotation unless the Bulls are playing for Lottery balls in March and April.
His skill set also gives the Bulls an added dimension. He’s built like and plays like Clint Capela, a comparison he agreed with on Monday, and should allow the Bulls to run more in the open court. He’s an unfinished product (despite being 6 months older than Carter) but will get to learn on the fly for the rebuilding Bulls.
A new skill set, a hard worker and a guy who returned to Arkansas for his sophomore season to hone his game. Though they’re different players at different positions, the Bulls would be more than happy if Gafford’s career panned out the same as Portis’.
“Bobby was great for us and a great kid and I think that Daniel’s in that same mold, maybe on a different style of play, different position,” Boylen said. “He adds to our versatile spacing and our length and our athleticism. (The) Arkansas program has been good to us, so we’re gonna keep it going here.”