- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Bradley Beal has played with approximately 95 teammates over the course of his nine-year career, according to Basketball-Reference. Of those, only 19 or so list their primary position as center. So that doesn’t include trendy small-ball fives like Markieff Morris and Bobby Portis. 

There’s really no reason this information should matter — except for the fact that when Beal says he hasn’t played with a player like center Daniel Gafford before, he isn’t lying. 

“I haven’t had a lob threat in my whole career,” Beal said after the Wizards’ win Monday over the Utah Jazz. “I like the fact I can just throw the (darn) ball up to the rim and he can go get it, even if it’s a horrible pass.”

Gafford has fit right in with the Wizards since the Chicago Bulls traded him to Washington last month — even as he was sidelined for six games with a sprained ankle.  The 22-year-old returned to action last week and has quickly picked up where he left off — throwing down dunks, blocking shots and converting easy buckets around the rim.  He has an explosiveness that past Wizards centers like Marcin Gortat and an older Dwight Howard did not. 

In four games this season for Washington, Gafford has made 20 field goals on 27 attempts. Seven of those have been dunks — including two alley-oops in Washington’s  125-121 win over the Jazz. Washington’s guards look comfortable in tossing up passes for Gafford to hammer home, despite the lobs not always being on the mark (as Beal referenced).

Gafford tends to catch them, anyway.

“His minutes and efficiency has been really good because he keeps it simple,” coach Scott Brooks said. “He gets something at the rim.”

Gafford has made 86.7% of his shots inside the restricted area this season, second on the Wizards only to big man Thomas Bryant, who tore his ACL and is out for the year. Gafford’s sample size with Washington is small, but the young center also posted efficient percentages in Chicago. As a rookie last season, he shot 77.8% from that area. 

Through four games, Gafford is averaging 12 points per contest. That’s an incredible clip given that he’s only averaging 15 minutes per night and is still on a minutes restriction because of his injury. Gafford twisted his ankle in a win over Indiana on March 29, an injury that looked much worse upon first glance when the big man landed awkwardly after jumping. 

In many ways, Gafford is the prototype for what most teams look for in centers these days. He rolls to the basket, doesn’t need the ball and defends. 

The latter is much-needed for the Wizards, and Gafford has made a noticeable impact on the defensive end of the floor. Gafford is averaging 1½ blocks per game and his 6-foot-10 presence makes opponents think twice when driving. 

“They brought me here because of what I can do on defense,” Gafford said. 

The Wizards didn’t have to give up all that much for Gafford, which makes his emergence unexpected. At the trade deadline, Washington sent Chicago guard Troy Brown Jr. and center Moe Wagner — two players out of the rotation — for Gafford and Chandler Hutchinson. The trade was a classic swap between franchises looking to jump-start a player’s career after the team that drafted them soured on them. (In Wagner’s case, he was re-routed to Boston for veteran Daniel Theis.) 

In Chicago, Gafford was largely used off the bench. The Arkansas product was drafted 38th overall in the second round and he was stuck behind 2018 first-rounder Wendell Carter Jr. and veteran Thad Young.  Bulls coach Billy Donovan played Gafford sparingly, and there were nights when Gafford failed to see the floor. 

Earlier this season, Gafford admitted to taking playing time for granted. An injury to Carter Jr. forced Gafford into the starting lineup in late January, but after 11 games Donovan pulled Gafford from the rotation because of a poor performance against the Los Angeles Clippers. Gafford didn’t see extended playing time again until March 21, more than a month after the Clippers game. 

Brooks uses a similar tactic for Washington’s younger players. The Wizards have relied on a big-man-by-committee approach since Bryant’s injury and as a result, Alex Len is currently warming the bench. 

Gafford understands he’ll have to keep playing well to show he’s learned his lesson.

“They brought me here to do my job,” Gafford said, “so that’s what I’m going to do.” 

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