Daniel Gafford has been nothing short of a revelation for the Wizards in his brief time since landing in Washington via a trade deadline deal with the Bulls in March. Through seven games, six of them wins, he's already done several things not seen from a Wizards player in years.
With four blocks on Friday night against the Pelicans and four more against the Pistons on Saturday, he became the first Wizards player to block four or more shots on consecutive games in eight years. His block barrage late in the fourth quarter and in overtime against New Orleans was the type of defensive takeover Bradley Beal said he had never seen from a Wizards teammate. Beal was drafted in 2012.
It's early, but it already looks like the Wizards got themselves a legitimate building block for the future, a 22-year-old big man who can protect the rim, run the floor and devour lobs. The fact they got him for two players outside of their rotation is becoming more confusing by the game.
So, who is this guy and where did he come from? One fellow NBA player happens to know him more than most; Sixers guard Isaiah Joe, who was Gafford's teammate at the University of Arkansas and before that grew up playing against him in Arkansas high school tournaments.
Joe arrived on campus in Fayetteville in 2018 when Gafford was a sophomore. They became fast friends, bonding over video games.
"He’s actually more of a gamer than I am. He has so many games on his console, you can play all of them. Games from the early 2000s, I’m like ‘why do you still play it?’ He just loves video games," Joe said in a phone conversation with NBC Sports Washington.
"He had 'Mario Kart,' 'Super Smash Bros.' He had all the 'Spiderman' games, all the fighter games; 'Street Fighter,' 'Mortal Kombat.' The newest ones and the oldest ones, he has them all and he still plays them. He’s a big anime guy, so he has [anime] games."
Gafford and Joe would often play 'Call of Duty' and regularly before games Gafford would bring his Playstation to the locker room at Bud Walton Arena and set up shop.
"We would just chill in there and play video games," Joe said.
Then, they would go out on the floor where Gafford's athleticism at the college level stood out like a created player on NBA 2K. Joe describes Gafford as a "killer on the court," able to sprint from baseline to baseline like few big men can.
Joe would marvel at Gafford's "freak" athleticism, how he could catch and throw down alley-oop passes no matter where they were thrown. Joe said he realized very quickly Gafford was different and was destined to play in the NBA.
"I could tell right away. When I got there, it was his second year and he just already, what he was doing nobody else could do, the way he was impacting the game," Joe said.
Gafford's shot-blocking skills may have stood out the most. Joe understood the true impact of Gafford's rim protection the following year, after he had left for the NBA. Joe played one more year at Arkansas before making the leap to the pros himself.
"We didn’t have any rim protectors. It was like ‘dang, Daniel Gafford really impacted the game this much for us,'" Joe said.
Gafford was so good at blocking shots, running the floor and dunking that he had a signature move that is still the stuff of legend at Arkansas. Joe heard about it from Gafford's freshman year, then saw it in action when they were teammates.
"I remember he had one play where he got a block, he blocked a shot and then beat everybody down the court and got a windmill dunk and the crowd went crazy. It’s crazy because he got the block and beat everybody down," Joe said.
Sure enough, there is video proof. As you watch, notice how many people he sprints past while running a full 94 feet. The block was his seventh in the game.
Earlier this season, when Gafford was still with the Bulls, he and Joe squared off on Feb. 19 in their first meeting as NBA opponents. Though Gafford only played five minutes for the Bulls and Joe about six minutes for the Sixers, they crossed paths on one play in the lane that Joe is still shaking his head about.
"I actually drove in the lane and got my shot blocked. I knew better," Joe said. "It’s funny because a couple days before he had got like a highlight block that was posted on the Bulls media page and I retweeted it. I was like ‘I remember those days.’ Then, a couple days later when we played and it happened to me."
In his six games with the Wizards, Gafford is averaging 11.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. His per-36 minutes: 23.2 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocks.
Joe believes the Wizards got a special athlete with the potential to be an elite rim-protector. He also can't say enough about Gafford the human being.
"He’s just a great person. He’s a great person to be around," Joe said. "He’s always got positive energy in the air."