Wes Unseld Jr. had the good fortune of coaching some great players during his time with the Denver Nuggets, most notably Nikola Jokic, whose development from a second round pick to league MVP he helped oversee. But Unseld Jr. did not coach a player quite like Wizards center Daniel Gafford, and that has him looking forward to their working relationship.
Unseld Jr. has a reputation for defense and Gafford is the best rim-protector the Wizards have had in years. According to Unseld Jr., he's even unique to his days in Denver where they made the conference finals two seasons ago and last year ranked 12th in defensive rating.
"I’ll say this, I haven’t had the opportunity over the past few years to have a dynamic guy like that," Unseld Jr. said. "The shot-blocking, his ability to change shots around the rim, to run the floor, to finish above the rim and be a presence to put pressure on the rim as a roller. His flexibility, his versatility; he’s very fluid. For a lot of guys that big, it doesn’t come easy."
Gafford, who will turn 23 during camp, averaged 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 23 games for the Wizards last season after arriving in a trade deadline deal from the Bulls. The Wizards went 17-6 with him in the lineup.
Gafford's impact was immediate and substantial, and in Unseld Jr. he may have a very good fit between player and coach. Unseld Jr. is bringing with him new ideas for the Wizards' defense and he has a talented young rim-protector to anchor those efforts.
The day before Unseld Jr. spoke in what was a pre-training camp press conference, team general manager Tommy Sheppard gave a vote of confidence for Gafford as the Wizards' opening day starting center. That gave some clarity to what was shaping up to be one of the team's most anticipated roster battles.
Gafford, it appears, has the leg up on Montrezl Harrell, who has long thrived in a bench role as the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year two seasons ago. For Gafford, though, he may need to improve some elements in his game to stay on the floor. One would be limiting fouls and another would be his conditioning, which he has admitted was an issue last season.
Unseld Jr., though, says Gafford has done a nice job working himself into shape this summer.
"Without having a point of reference on last year, I think he’s right where we need him to be. He’s been working extremely hard... He’s gifted not only athletically, but he’s done a great job with his body, getting back into shape. He’s playing at a pretty high level right now," Unseld Jr. said.