Daniel Gafford worth the price of admission

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Arkansas freshman center Daniel Gafford warms up before making his first collegiate start against Minnesota Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Bud Walton Arena.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas freshman center Daniel Gafford warms up before making his first collegiate start against Minnesota Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Bud Walton Arena.

— Reacting to a headline and a supporting email, a plan to eyeball 6-foot-11 freshman Daniel Gafford for the first time was in place until Murphy’s Law kicked in.

After Gafford made 9-of-11 shots against Fresno State on Nov. 17, a five-column headline in the state’s daily newspaper said: “Gafford spurs ‘NBA’ talk after big night.”

Such a hook attracts readers, but cynicism prevailed until I received an unsolicited opinion from a knowledgeable friend who has monitored Arkansas basketball success from Eddie Sutton to Nolan Richardson to Mike Anderson.

“Daniel Gafford does appear the real deal,” he said in the correspondence. “They’ll be lucky to get two years from him before the NBA beckons.”

On Thanksgiving, the 4 p.m. tip for Arkansas vs. Oklahoma in Portland fit perfectly between a nap — sleep-inducing tryptophan in turkey is no myth no matter what scientists say — and dinner.

At 3:40 p.m., a recorded message from an 800 number informed that 2,497 customers were out of power in Little Rock. Lucky us.

A short time later, customers were told electricity would be restored at 6:30. Then, a good news update — power should be on at 5 p.m., enabling a viewing of the second half. Not so fast. Moments later, the monotone voice advised the 6:30 start-up remained in effect for about 1,400 customers.

At 5:20, I departed a still-dark house for one of the few restaurants open 24 hours.

In the car, Gafford is hurt were the first words heard from the Razorback broadcast team, followed by he’s OK, and a rave review of a Gafford move to the basket that was described as being a centimeter from perfect.

I could only imagine the nifty maneuver.

Leaving the restaurant, I heard Gafford pick up his fourth foul with less than three minutes to play. When Anderson left Gafford on the floor, I agreed with the broadcaster who interpreted the move to mean the head coach believes the young man from El Dorado is one of his best players.

Home with pancakes (extra syrup) and bacon, the TV was on and the final 2:39 was available. Gafford made a 17-footer with four seconds on the shot clock for an 85-81 lead at 1:03 and added two free throws for a six-point advantage with 38.1 to play — confirmation that he is unfazed by the moment and that his release is that of a shooter.

His totals for the final two tournament games were 29 minutes, 9 fouls, 11 rebounds and 14 points. It doesn’t take what Danny Ford once called a “scientific rocket” to realize that Gafford can contribute in a big way if he stays out of foul trouble.

He had only two fouls against Colorado State last Tuesday and finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He had four fouls - he played most of the second half with three - against Minnesota on Saturday and finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 6 blocks.

He is the reigning SEC freshman of the week with season averages of 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 69.5 percent on field goal attempts.

The glimpse of Gafford’s skills, a 7-2 record against good competition, the stabilizing presence of senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, and the UA’s haul on signing day are reasons to believe Arkansas is on track to be a winner this year and beyond.

When ESPN ranks recruiting classes in football, I check where Arkansas’ group fits in the SEC and pay little attention to names because incoming freshmen rarely crack the starting lineup. Basketball is different. Proficient shooters in high school are unfazed by the slightly deeper 3-point line in college and superb on-court skills are effective whether the defender is 17 years old or 21.

Anyway, last month, Arkansas cranked out a series of releases topped with headlines certain to encourage.

The first introduced Keyshawn Embery with “Razorbacks Land Top Player in Oklahoma.” After that, Isaiah Jones was identified as a “Top-20 Shooting Guard,” Reggie Chaney as the “Top Player in Texas,” and Ethan Henderson as “Arkansas’ No. 1 Player.”

Maybe my opinion is under the influence of this plethora of positives, but it appears Arkansas got a break with the SEC schedule. The SEC’s four teams in The Associated Press poll are No. 8 Kentucky, No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 20 Tennessee and No. 22 Florida, and the Razorbacks’ play three of those teams only once. Arkansas’ only home and home is with A&M.

The schedule is one more factor that supports the conclusion that anything less than a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance will be disappointing.

A version of this story previously appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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