If Thursday’s loss to Florida in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament was the last game of Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford’s college career, he wasn’t in the mood to say. But that didn’t prevent a television reporter who was part of the media huddled around the 6-foot-11 Gafford in the Razorbacks’ locker room to ask the inevitable question about when he was going to make the jump to the NBA.
Gafford’s answer spoke volumes about his character.
“I just want to focus on the team right now,” Gafford said.
The Gators buried Arkansas’ slim NCAA tournament hopes, and at 17-15, there’s no guarantee of an NIT bid, either. It’s doubtful the Hogs would play in one of the other, alphabet soup (CIT, CBI) events, so with an early start on spring break. Gafford, a projected first-round NBA Draft pick, could also get an early start on his decision-making process.
A year ago, after his freshman season, Gafford surprised some Draft analysts by consulting with the Arkansas coaching staff and his family and deciding to return to school, even though he was generally regarded as first-round material.
“It was a mature decision,” says Arkansas associate head coach Melvin Watkins, “to say ‘I’m not quite ready yet, and I’m enjoying the college experience.’ In today’s world, you get so many outside influences, trying to give you their opinions. Some of them are self-serving. Some are motivating.”
Suffice it to say Gafford listened to those opinions in the latter camp, the people who thought he had some work left to do before he should even consider the NBA. He was motivated to improve, and improve he did.
“I wanted to work on my body,” says Gafford, who weighs about 235, “and be more physical in the post. I wanted to move my game out to the free-throw line where I could attack the basket, and I wanted to work on my jump shot. But I didn’t shoot that many jumpers this year, which was a disappointment to me.”
I've only seen one other guy in college basketball this season who's a better athlete than Daniel, and that's Zion Williamson.”
In warmups before the Florida game, Gafford consistently made mid-range jumpers. But unguarded shots are one thing. Making them with a hand in your face is another.
“He’s still got some work to do there,” Watkins says. “He’s a little inconsistent. He can shoot it; he just doesn’t have all the confidence in it.”
Gafford knew after Arkansas lost All-SEC guards Jaylen Barford (17.9 ppg) and Daryl Macon (16.8) from last season’s NCAA team he’d have to step up his production, even though he’d averaged 20.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per 40 minutes as a freshman. Gafford delivered a first-team All-SEC season during which he led the league in field-goal percentage (66.0) and rebounding (8.7). was third in blocked shots (2.0) and fourth in scoring (17.0). Gafford made the most field goals in the SEC and was third in double-doubles.
One of those double-doubles was witnessed by former Razorback All-American center Joe Kleine, pressed into emergency duty as a color analyst when Arkansas played Alabama in a game broadcast on the SEC Network. Gafford hammered the Crimson Tide’s solid front line with 29 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, a performance that impressed Kleine, who played 15 years in the NBA.
“When you're that close and see the things Daniel does -- and does them with ease -- it's amazing,” Kleine told Hawgs Illustrated. “I've only seen one other guy in college basketball this season who's a better athlete than Daniel, and that's Zion Williamson.”
I’m not a complete player yet. But I’m going to be one soon.”
High praise indeed. The consensus among mock drafts is that, should Gafford decide to leave college, he’ll be a mid first-round pick.
If NBA teams are convinced Gafford can take that jumper of his from warmups to games, his stock could rise even higher. His size, body and athleticism are that of a prototypical next-level forward, and he’s inspired to continue to develop his skills.
“He’s so athletic,” Watkins says. “He has that lean build and can get up and down the floor -- I don’t know that you can find a big guy that can run the floor like he can and with that kind of ability. With what he has naturally, and as he continues to grow into the game, I think his upside is unlimited.”
Suffice it to say if this was Gafford’s final season, it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. The Razorbacks finished 8-10 in SEC games, enduring losing streaks of four games in January, and an NCAA tournament bid-crippling six in February. That left them in the unenviable position of having to win four games in as many days at the SEC tournament in Nashville to ensure a trip to the Big Dance. That quest ended before it began after Florida made sure Gafford, who was limited to 15 points and six boards, wouldn’t dominate the game.
Many times, adversity is a better teacher than success, though, and Gafford learned a lot.
“You can’t play soft,” Gafford says, referring to his team. “You can’t play like kids. You’ve got to play like grown men.”
Then, assessing his own game, Gafford talked about evolving into the Razorbacks’ go-to guy and how he had to learn to play with what he called a “target” on his back.
“You’ve got to bring it every night,” Gafford says. “You’ve got to be strong every night. I’ve still got some more work to do. I’m not a complete player yet. But I’m going to be one soon.”
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