Bulls player preview: Daniel Gafford should compete for rotation minutes

Mark Strotman
NBC Sports Chicago

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White

How last year went

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Daniel Gafford had a chance to be a first-round pick following an impressive freshman season at Arkansas. The 6-foot-11 center opted to return for his sophomore season, and while his numbers increased in a more significant role for the Razorbacks, his draft stock fell.

The Bulls stopped Gafford's slide by nabbing him with the No. 39 pick for two reasons: He filled a need for the Bulls, who were days away from losing Robin Lopez in free agency and knew they weren't getting anything out of Cristiano Felicio, and also because they feel they have a first-round talent who, with some seasoning, could wind up being a rotation big.

Expectations for this year's role

Wendell Carter is going to get all the run he can handle at center. The Bulls also invested in Luke Kornet, who fills a nice complementary role to what Thaddeus Young will bring around the rim. So, where does that leave Gafford? He'll be battling it out with Kornet for minutes behind Carter. His value as a pick-and-roll roller could really have benefit Kris Dunn if he wins the backup point guard job, and the Bulls are in need of all the rebounding they can get. Gafford has the advantage there over Kornet, who is a better rim protector. The reality is, even with those gaudy Summer League numbers, Gafford is looking at a small role and likely some time with Windy City.

That's not a bad thing. But he's a one-trick pony big (more on that later) who still needs a lot of work defensively. The Bulls signed Kornet and, yes, still have Felicio. They won't need Gafford to log significant minutes as a rookie.

Where he excels

If Daniel Gafford gets the ball close to the rim, you've already lost. That's what happened early and often at Arkansas, where Gafford attempted an incredible 88% of his attempts at the rim. Gafford shot 70% on those 287 attempts including 22 of 29 in transition. He's your classic rim-runner, whether it's on the break or rolling to the basket. Gafford showed off that skill set in Las Vegas at the Summer League, too: He was 28 of 37 (75.6%) at the rim in his five Summer League games. He looked comfortable rolling to the rim, was able to get position under the basket and used his athleticism to grab an impressive 13 offensive rebounds.

He'll need to do more than just that at the NBA level (see below) but if the Bulls can get the athletic Gafford to his spot under the basket, he's going to have a real shot at leading the Bulls in field goal percentage.

Where he needs work

We discussed it over the summer, but Gafford isn't all that versatile on either end when he moves away from the rim. On shots that didn't come around the basket last season, Gafford was 12 of 37 (32.4%) and didn't attempt a 3-pointer. And remember all that work he did at the rim in Vegas? He missed all four shots that didn't come at the rim (but were also inside the paint). Gafford has lived off being stronger and more athletic than his high school and collegiate opponents. That won't fly in the NBA.

Teams also put Gafford in difficult spots as a defender, bringing him out to the 3-point line where they shot 38.5% against him, per Synergy Sports. Gafford ranked in just the 28th percentile nationally defending all jump shots. For all the great work he did around the rim, teams knew how to exploit him. That will be the case at the next level, too, which is why Gafford needs serious seasoning and (perhaps more importantly) experience playing.

Best case/worst case

In a best-case scenario, Gafford builds rapport with whoever the backup point guard becomes (Dunn, White, Arcidiacono) and becomes a force rolling to the basket. The Bulls are able to use him in spurts and he becomes the type of screener that maybe Robin Lopez so valuable. Gafford isn't going to create much on his own - or for others; he averaged 0.7 assists as a sophomore - but if he's put in the right spots, he's talented enough to succeed. If he can be that player, he'll be in the rotation over Kornet and Felicio.

In a worst-case scenario (and it's not all that big given he's a second-round pick), Gafford spends some time in the G-League where he can not only improve but develop his game farther away from the basket. If teams key on him and switch their guards on to him, Gafford could have a rough time seeing minutes. Also, if teams take away his roll capability - and Dunn/White/Arcidiacono aren't 3-point threats to make defenses pay - Gafford won't have much value. Again, versatility is the key, and he can become that type of player with live game experience, either in the West Loop or in Hoffman Estates.

One key stat

We've given you all the pertinent numbers on Gafford dominating competition to this point at the rim - and how he struggles away from it - but consider the rim-protecting Gafford did last season at Arkansas.

Opponents shot just 44.6% in the restricted area against him, and Gafford had a block rate of 8.4%. How good was that? Well, as a freshman Wendell Carter's block rate was 7.6% for the Duke Blue Devils. Granted, Carter was playing primarily zone for the Blue Devils - thus giving him fewer block opportunities and making that 7.6% number even more impressive - but Gafford was just as good at swatting shots. Gafford had a 9.5% block rate in the Summer League (and nearly broke the record for blocks in a game) which was better than Carter's 7.5% block rate in his own rookie Vegas stint.

Gafford might not be a great defender right now, but he has excellent timing and knows how to contest shots. That should serve him well and make up for some of his 1-on-1 defensive deficiencies.

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Bulls player preview: Daniel Gafford should compete for rotation minutes originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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