Daniel Gafford is embracing his expanding role

With dunks and blocks, Daniel Gafford has played his way into the Bulls rotation.

The Bulls, like many other teams, have had their share of gaffes in the NBA draft.

This time it's looking like a positive with Gaff, that being Daniel Gafford, the second-round lob dunk engine who seems ready to get his first NBA start Wednesday in New Orleans.

"I thought he (Gafford) was great," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said following Monday's loss in Dallas in which Gafford had 13 points, making six of six field goals on dunks in relief of the injured Wendell Carter Jr. "He gives us vertical spacing; that's important. We want the floor to be bigger to guard. We want to spread it and play vertically, make defenses guard more of the floor. When he's playing that way it helps us. He's just my kind of guy."

Gafford throws down the lob from Satoransky.

He wasn't for awhile to start the season with two minutes played in the first eight games. Boylen seems ready to embrace the bouncy 6-foot-10 center/forward, though a replacement starter for Carter Jr. on Wednesday in New Orleans hasn't been announced.

Carter Jr. sustained what seemed like a serious sprained ankle early in the third quarter. The Bulls didn't practice Tuesday as they traveled to New Orleans. So there was no update on Carter Jr., who said after the game he was told the sprain was "moderate." He'll be examined more carefully when the team returns home after Wednesday's game. Lauri Markkanen made a surprising return to play against Dallas after an ankle sprain Saturday against Boston when it seemed he'd miss a game or two. Gafford also sprained an ankle at the end of the first half Monday. But he returned to play an impressive second half with nine points and five rebounds in 15 minutes.

"Just go out there and just play my game, set screens, rebound, play with energy," said Gafford. "Block shots, grab rebounds and catch what comes off the rim."

Gafford only has become a rotation regular in the last few weeks since a DNP against the Clippers on Dec. 14 and a minute played in Oklahoma City the next game, averaging about 13 minutes per game since then. Even with that limited play, he's averaged almost two blocks per game. Then Monday, it was a season high 25 minutes, making his six shots on dunks with eight rebounds and two more blocks.

It's been those blocks and dunks that could provide a new element to the Bulls play even with the loss of Carter Jr. for now.

Gafford leads the Bulls in blocks despite being ninth on the team in minutes played. The 6-foot-10 jack-in-the-box is even T-28th overall in the NBA in number of blocks with 36. With 10 games sitting out and eight others playing fewer than 10 minutes with a G-league stint, Gafford doesn't qualify for the official league rankings. But on a per 36-minute basis, Gafford is averaging more blocks than the league leaders, Hassan Whiteside, Brook Lopez and Anthony Davis.

"I'm just playing the basketball I've always played," Gafford said recently. "Come out and be a high energy guy getting rebounds. Put pressure on the rim where you can't come in and get anything easy."

The basket and the lane is something of a safe space for Gafford, though not always for opponents because of his quick reactions. He played two seasons at the University of Arkansas and was First Team All-SEC as well as All-Defense. But his draft prospects were dimmed by the modern NBA thinking. Players his size are now expected to shoot three pointers. He didn't attempt any in college, though he shot more than 60 percent overall and averaged 16.9 points per game his sophomore season.

And since baskets still count for two points even if it is unpopular to some, Gafford is proving to be an efficient scorer. He had those six dunks in six field goal attempts in Dallas, and rarely shoots from more than an inch away. Gafford did show a nice midrange shooting touch for the Bulls in Summer League. But he seems to have accepted taking small steps, if also big leaps.

Gafford is shooting 68.8 percent for the season, which if he had enough attempts to qualify would rank second in the league to the Knicks' Mitchell Robinson, another lob dunk specialist. The other top percentage scorers are Utah's Rudy Gobert, the Nets' Jarrett Allen, the Rockets' Clint Capella and Sacramento's Richaun Holmes. It suggests what kind of player Gafford can be despite being just under seven feet tall. Gafford, with a 7-2 wingspan and 9-2 reach, agility, explosive athletic ability and soft hands is beginning to project as that offensive roll player adept at finishing the lob pass.

Satoransky set his career high in assists, 14, against Dallas with many of those lob passes, some seemingly at the top of the backboard.

"Throw the ball up and I'll get it," Gafford agreed.

Gafford isn't going to replace Carter Jr., who is averaging almost a double-double with 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. But Gafford's presence and the way he plays in Carter Jr.'s absence perhaps presents a new dynamic because of the potential for Gafford's rim protection and shot blocking. Carter Jr. is a hardworking inside player who can score, though more with the size of a power forward. With Gafford emerging, perhaps Carter Jr. plays some power forward and begins to further expand his shooting range. But Gafford also can give the Bulls a larger response to the effect of players like Gobert and Allen.

Gafford didn't even play in seven of the first eight games of the season as the Bulls experimented with lineups and free agent signee Luke Kornet. After playing just 13 minutes in the first 13 games, Gafford surprised in a loss to the Bucks on Nov. 18 with a team-high 21 points on 10-of-12 from the field in just 20 minutes.

Gafford scored a team-high 21 points in a breakout game against Milwaukee.

For the season, playing in just 27 games and averaging 12 minutes, Gafford is averaging 4.6 points and 2.2 rebounds, but is both a blocks and dunks per minute leader.

"Whenever I get on the floor, I go all out," Gafford said after that Milwaukee game. "When it comes to dunks, when it comes to rebounds, whatever it comes to, I'm going to go all out. I finally was able to show people what I can do to help this team."

Everyone should get a longer look in the next week or two.