Though the Wizards have three capable centers they expect to compete for minutes this season, Thomas Bryant will not be back until December due to his recovery from ACL surgery, per general manager Tommy Sheppard. That leaves two candidates, Daniel Gafford and Montrezl Harrell, to potentially start on opening night, Oct. 20 against the Raptors.
Sheppard, though, gave a fairly strong indication on Thursday the starter will be Gafford. When asked about how things will shake out between the three centers, Sheppard outlined a hierarchy of sorts.
"We'll start it out with Daniel Gafford will be the opening day center and then with [Montrezl Harrell] behind him. Montrezl has been fantastic; his energy, his effort. I think what he brings to us is tremendous. I think that will play itself out, minutes will work themselves out. Players tell you what to do. It's the ultimate meritocracy. If you go out and perform, you're going to get minutes," Sheppard said.
Gafford, who turns 23 next week, was a major difference-maker for the Wizards after coming over in a trade deadline deal from the Bulls. He only played in 23 regular season games, but the Wizards won 17 of them and rode that wave to their first playoff appearance in three years.
Along the way, Gafford averaged 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in only 17.7 minutes per game. He helped particularly on the defensive end with his rim protection, but also by running the floor and finishing at a high rate around the rim on offense.
Gafford did not start any regular season games for the Wizards last season, but was moved into the lineup for Games 4 and 5 against the Sixers after the Wizards went down 0-3 in the series. It sounds like he may have done enough to earn the starting job going into this season as well.
If Harrell does indeed begin the year on the bench, the Wizards will have quite the weapon for head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to deploy. Harrell was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year two seasons ago when he averaged 18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks for the Clippers.
He has come off the bench in 361 of his 387 career games and proven to be one of the best in the NBA at lighting an offensive spark from the second unit. In the last two seasons, only Jordan Clarkson (42) has more 20-point games off the bench than Harrell does (35). Davis Bertans is eighth (19) on that list, so him and Harrell would give the Wizards two of the better bench scorers in the league.
Harrell could make a major impact on the bench and that would allow Gafford to set the tone defensively in the starting lineup.
"There's no mystery that Daniel's been fantastic. We see his growth exponentially. Every day he does something else that you say 'wow, he's really on the rise.' Then, when you have somebody like Trez on your roster, he's going to play. He's such a high-energy and high-effort guy. It's so infectious, I think it will really bolster our depth," Sheppard said.