Wizards

Leonsis on why Gafford was worth contract extension

Wizards

Like many fans of the team he owns, Wizards chairman Ted Leonsis was pleasantly surprised with the significant impact center Daniel Gafford made after joining the team in a March trade last season.

Gafford came in, only played 23 games and the Wizards won 17 of them. He added a defensive presence at the rim they had been lacking for years. And beyond that, he endeared himself with each and every interview with his humility and good nature.

Leonsis sits down with every player and coach at season's end, along with general manager Tommy Sheppard, to conduct exit interviews. He was looking forward to Gafford's because he hadn't had much of a chance to interact with him during the sprint-like schedule of last season and because Gafford had basically just gotten to D.C.

So, Leonsis arrived at the practice facility following the team's playoff exit and June and took the opportunity to get to know Gafford. He was blown away.

"When I did my exit interview with Gafford last year, to be honest I didn’t know a lot about him when we made the trade. And I loved every time he was on the court. He had one of the most authentic exit interviews," Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington.

"He said 'I’m staying here all summer, I’m going to rent or buy a place right nearby the practice facility. I’m going to do everything I can to improve.' And he really did."

 

Gafford displayed that upward trajectory throughout the summer and then in training camp and the preseason. After averaging 10.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 17.7 minutes per game for the Wizards last year, he rebounded better and blocked even more shots in their four preseason games.

The Wizards then inked Gafford to a three-year contract extension worth $40.2 million on Monday, the night before the 2021-22 NBA season tipped off. Gafford is set to play for Washington through his age-27 season, in 2025-26.

Leonsis was thrilled to have Gafford's future secured in Washington.

"I’m happy that Tommy and his people were able to keep him here because I think he’s a core piece. To have a center that young with that kind of defensive presence, I think you saw that [Wednesday vs. the Raptors]," Leonsis said. 

"People were thinking twice before coming into the lane. A couple of blocks kind of gets in their head. We haven’t had that kind of size, skill and leaping ability in a long, long time. I think it’s one of those subtle, but really, really important moves that the team made."

Leonsis spoke with NBC Sports Washington at the team's unveiling of a commemorative bust for Wes Unseld, the legendary center whose number hangs in the rafters and whose legacy is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Unseld is the most decorated player in franchise history and the only MVP the team has ever had.

Inspired by the occasion, Leonsis drew a parallel that could be considered the ultimate compliment for any Wizards player.

"We’re here to honor Wes and Wes was very, very strong and very, very hard-working. He played defense, rebounded. He did all the things necessary to win," Leonsis said.

Gafford does all of those things for the Wizards nowadays. And at only 23 years old, the Wizards hope he too can become a franchise great.