How Russell Westbrook is teaching Daniel Gafford nuances of the game

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Westbrook is teaching Gafford nuances of the game originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Russell Westbrook's leadership can take on various forms and, through just over two months as his teammate, Daniel Gafford has seen a few of those ways.

During a recent game, Westbrook told Gafford point-blank: "stop f---ing fouling." That was according to Gafford, who took it well, despite the harsh language. He knows he needs to limit his fouls and talks about it frequently.

Westbrook's instruction, however, can be far more nuanced. Since Gafford arrived in a March trade from the Bulls, the two have been working together on passing angles. The details are very specific, but fascinating for anyone who loves the game of basketball.

"With Russell and his relationship, you can see it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "He’s telling him ‘when I’m driving to the left and Dwight [Howard] is guarding you this way, he’s going to come and try to block my shot. You’ve gotta come this way so I can get a better passing angle.’ Just things like that, it takes time."

Gafford has a pretty good situation as a young big man with Westbrook, a legend still in his prime, and Bradley Beal, the top scorer in the Eastern Conference and a perennial All-Star, in the Wizards backcourt. Those guys can not only make it easier for Gafford on the floor, but share years and years of knowledge acquired through experience Gafford does not yet have.

"Playing with a guy like Russ, certain things like trying to figure out the spots that he needs me in," Gafford said. "Any given situation, throwing me lobs or giving me a pass where I can get a touch shot up. Or, just even running the floor and getting certain angles to where I can finish in transition. Those are the main things. We’re progressing really well with that. We’re building a lot of chemistry, for sure."

Both Beal and Westbrook are uniquely good at drawing double-teams. According to NBA Court Optix, Beal ranks seventh in the NBA in double-teams per game, while Westbrook is 11th.

When the defense collapses on them, that means somebody else is open. And when it's the guy guarding Gafford who leaves to help, he can take advantage, as long as he gives Beal and Westbrook an opening for the pass. As Brooks described, that can be accomplished sometimes by just stepping to the side so they can get the ball around the closing defender rather than over them.

The Wizards are currently matched up with the Sixers in a first round playoff series, which means Gafford has gone up against Howard, a future Hall of Famer, as well as the ultimate test for any center in today's NBA, MVP finalist Joel Embiid. These are Gafford's first playoffs. He's only 22 years old, so much of what he is learning is on the fly.

But you can tell he's taking detailed notes when he goes through the adjustments he has to make from game to game. In his postgame press conference after Game 3, he went in-depth on how Embiid fleeced him on several pump fakes. So, he remembered that in Game 4 and was able to stay on the ground when Embiid tried to get him again.

There is a learning curve, no question. But Gafford is proving he can pick things up quickly and limit making the same mistakes twice.

"I love his professionalism. I love his appetite to want to get better. He’s a great listener. I can’t get many words out of him, but he’s listening. He knows you have to study the game," Brooks said.

"Not only do you have to study the players that you guard, but you have to study the game; how the game is played, how you can impact a pick-and-roll coverage, how you can impact how they go under on Russell, the angle of your screens. There’s so many things that go on, but when you teach and when you coach young players, you can’t give them geometry right away. You’ve gotta go step-by-step and give enough that he’s going to have some comfort level before you move on."

Brooks said one of the challenges in developing a young player like Gafford is the speed the Wizards play. They lead the NBA in pace and love to run out on the fastbreak with Westbrook leading the charge. That requires quick thinking to the point where some decisions require more instinct than others. There isn't time for someone like Gafford to deliberate what to do.

As Brooks says, Wizards players not only have to play at a fast pace, but think at that pace as well. Gafford, though, seems to have what it takes to learn

"Every day it’s getting better. I couldn’t ask for a guy that wants to be coached as well as him," Brooks said.