About midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s game against the Mavericks and star guard Luka Doncic, the Wizards made a bold switch on defense and put Daniel Gafford on one of the NBA's youngest stars.
The Wizards were trying anything and everything to slow down Doncic, who tallied 33 points on 13-of-25 shooting from the field. Doncic's usage rate is the highest in the league amongst players who have played more than 50 minutes this season, as the Mavericks are intent to run their offense through one of the best passers and scorers in the league.
And while it wasn’t solely Gafford in the final two quarters as the Wizards tried a mix of defensive coverages all night, it was the first time he was asked to cover a player like Doncic for so long. His effort certainly helped in the Wizards’ 120-114 win over the Mavericks in Dallas.
“It was a challenge, I’m not going to lie to you,” Gafford said. “I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to guard a guard of his caliber in situations like that that many times. I stepped up to the challenge because I want to be able to excel in my career, especially defensively. I don’t want to just block shots and stuff. I want to be able to go out on the perimeter if I have to. Just slowly working and progression to sliding my feet a lot more.”
Gafford also closed the game out for the Wizards, as he finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 27:26 on the floor — the most minutes he'd played this season. When asked about Gafford keeping that energy and intensity up for the long-term, coach Wes Unseld Jr. thought it was certainly possible.
“I hope so,” Unseld said. “That’s probably a question for Daniel but I hope so. He’s not going to play out of this world every night, no one does. I think if he continues to play with the same amount of energy, with purpose and discipline, then yeah absolutely.”
Gafford on Doncic was a staple of the second half, but it was by no means the only reason the Wizards held the Mavericks to just 14-of-41 from the field after they allowed the Mavericks to knock down 28-of-48 shots in the first half.
The Wizards allowed 69 points in the first half and trailed by eight at the break, but the Mavericks mustered just 45 points in the second half as the defense tightened up with some halftime adjustments.
“We ratcheted it up a notch,” Unseld said. “We did make some adjustments just to kind of give them some different looks sometimes from possession to possession. But I think our energy and purpose was better. I think sometimes when you’re scoring the ball like we did in the first half, you kind of get caught in that lull of, ‘Alright we’re just going to try to trade baskets.’ That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Gafford added there’s still much more to learn and grow from, but Saturday night was a nice test for himself, and for the team, against one of the NBA’s best.
“I be making a joke and calling him Wilt Chamberlain sometimes," Kyle Kuzma said of Gafford, "Because he be blocking [explective] for no reason. It’s really funny. But man, he’s just done a great job.”