Just 12 days after he was taken off the court in a wheelchair after badly spraining his right ankle, Daniel Gafford returned for the Wizards on Saturday night and immediately made an impact, flying in from the other side of the basket to deny All-Star Devin Booker with a left-handed block.
Gafford played only 17 minutes due to restrictions from the training staff, but he was effective with nine points on 4-for-6 shooting with five rebounds and that block, which happened on his very first play of the night.
"It felt great," Gafford said. "With the limited time that I was out there, it felt natural and it felt good to be out there after this six-game stretch where I’ve been missing. It was kind of sore at the end, but other than that I just felt good being able to get up and down the floor."
Gafford said he had a similar injury on the same ankle when he was playing for the Chicago Bulls, who traded him to Washington in March. Gafford had a better idea of what to expect this time around, though he thought it would end up being more serious than it was.
Gafford said he believes the Wizards training staff can "work magic" after receiving treatment on his ankle over the course of 11 days in between games. He started out on crutches, but was able to walk on his own sooner than expected.
The Wizards lost to the Suns on Saturday, as despite getting Gafford back they had to play without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans. Beal was out due to back tightness, while Bertans was given the game off to rest.
On a night the Wizards were overmatched in the second half and lost by 28 points, Gafford's return was a bright spot.
"Every game he just shows me something that I really love," head coach Scott Brooks said. "He was competing. He plays with toughness and we need that. He’s going to keep getting better, I love his potential. I know we have the rest of this season to keep still improving him."
Through three games with the Wizards, Gafford is averaging 11.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting a cool 73.7 percent, all in 15.1 minutes per game. His per-36 numbers are obscene: 26.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.8 blocks. It's a very small sample size, but Gafford is making an excellent first impression.
The Wizards acquired Gafford because they saw him as something they did not have; an athletic rim protector. Though at 22 years old he's a raw talent, Gafford has so far done exactly what the Wizards hoped he would and has been able to thrive efficiently despite not playing heavy minutes.
Gafford's best attributes are protecting the rim, rebounding and throwing down lobs. But on Saturday, Brooks was impressed in particular by how Gafford ran out to the three-point line to contest shots from Suns guards. He hadn't seen that in Gafford's previous two games with the Wizards and believes it can be an effective tool for their defense.
The more Brooks gets to know Gafford's game, the more he seems to like.
"He’s tough and he cares, and I like that. I can’t say enough good things about him," Brooks said.