WASHINGTON -- As the Wizards played the Utah Jazz at home on Saturday night, on display were two of the NBA's best shot-blockers, Rudy Gobert and Daniel Gafford. Though the Jazz won fairly easily, both put up big numbers, Gobert with 20 points, 11 rebounds and a block, while Gafford had 14 points and 11 boards.
The two are also close matches in terms of blocked shots this season. Gobert ranks fourth in the NBA with 2.2 per game with Gafford right behind him in fifth at 2.0 blocks on average.
There are plenty of differences, of course. Gobert is six years older and far more accomplished. He has won the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award three times, tied with Dwight Howard for the second-most all-time. Only Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutumbo, each with four, have more.
Gobert is a four-time All-NBA selection and five-time All-Defense. The Defensive Player of the Year awards alone suggest he will be in the Hall of Fame someday.
So, Gafford has a ways to go to reach that level. He has only played 121 total NBA regular season games. But what makes their comparison very interesting is how they compare at Gafford's age. When Gobert was 23 years old, he wasn't blocking shots at nearly the rate Gafford is now.
Take a look at their per-36 numbers through their Age 23 seasons:
Gafford - 121 G, 15.5 pts, 9.2 reb, 3.4 blk, 1.0 stl, 68.7 FG%
Gobert - 188 G, 10.7 pts, 12.7 reb, 2.9 blk, 0.9 stl, 57.5 FG%
Gafford is a better shot-blocker and scorer per-36 minutes than Gobert was, while Gobert had an edge in rebounding. But the similarities are there and easy to spot.
Just listen to Gobert's former teammate, Raul Neto, who now plays with Gafford. Neto was with the Utah Jazz when Gobert was Gafford's age and saw his rise to stardom up close.
"They have pretty similar games... he's showing that he can protect the rim at a high level. Last game against Detroit, he basically won the game for us protecting the paint and making plays at the end. But I think it's very similar," Neto said.
Neto thinks the gap between Gobert and Gafford has a lot to do with other areas of defense beyond simply blocking shots. He saw Gobert learn how to control games by altering shots, sometimes with very subtle tricks to throw off players driving into the lane. He can almost play mindgames with his opponents.
"The thing that he really got better at over the years was understanding when to go for a block, when to kind of play that, not fake defense, but making the offense choose and doubt whether the player should shoot a floater or shoot a pull-up or pass for a lob," Neto said.
"I think it's very similar, learning those moments in the game where you've gotta jump or fake that you're gonna jump and get to your man. I think that's something that Gaff is learning and he's getting better every game."
The one difference Gafford won't be able to catch up in his pure size. Gobert is bigger than Gafford, about three inches taller and 23 pounds heavier, according to their official measurements.
Gobert also has a prepesterous 7-foot-9 wingspan. Though Gafford's is 7-foot-2, Gobert's unique size allows him to cover a lot of ground and close quickly, just by reaching out his arm.
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr., however, things Gafford can have a similar effect on the defensive end the more he gains experience.
"I think it's an overall presence... they rely heavily on his ability to just kind of change if not block shots, but his presence sometimes is enough. His size, his ability to read situations. Read the appropriate amount of help, I think that's probably the biggest difference right now between him and Gaff. That's just the sign of a young player who is still figuring it out," Unseld Jr. said.
When asked what from Gobert's game Gafford can apply to his, he honed in on his frequent foul trouble. Though he only plays 21.2 minutes per game, quite a bit fewer than Gobert who plays 31.6, he averages 4.4 fouls per-36 minutes compared to Gobert's 3.1.
Getting into foul trouble both limits Gafford's time on the floor and how freely he can defend when he's in the game.
"That's one thing I'm really working on, to where I can alter shots to where I'm not getting a foul called everything I try to go up to alter one," Gafford said.
"That's just the main thing, the main focus. I really can't say anything else. I block shots, I alter shots. At the end of the day, I'm not on the floor because of the fouls I commit time and time again."
Gafford has plenty of steps to take before he can truly be in the same conversation as Gobert, but he's only 23 years old. Gobert wasn't an All-Defensive team selection until his Age 24 season. He wasn't a Defensive Player of the Year until he was 25.
If Gafford keeps getting better, perhaps he can earn some hardware for himself someday.