8 things I like and don't like, featuring the Daniel Gafford show

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Arkansas freshman center Daniel Gafford during the Razorbacks' 83-75 win over Fresno State Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas freshman center Daniel Gafford during the Razorbacks' 83-75 win over Fresno State Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Daniel Detonation

— I mean, seriously, where else did you think I would start?

Holy smokes.

There were whispers from within the program throughout the summer about freshman center Daniel Gafford, an eager hopefulness based on his upside and elite athleticism for his size. Early October looks into practice served as a teaser, providing glimpses of the impact he could make once the season rolled around.

The Red-White game, the two exhibitions and the season-opening wins over Samford and Bucknell were appetizers, featuring more signs of Gafford’s potential.

Friday’s 83-75 win over Fresno State served to put people on notice: Gafford is a problem.

His stat line was eye-catching: 25 points, eight rebounds, six dunks, three blocks and two steals in 30 minutes. But it may not have done justice to how impressive the 6-foot-11, 234-pound El Dorado native was.

He simply took over the game midway through the second half. For your enjoyment:

No wonder Fresno State coach Rodney Terry suggested Gafford head to the NBA, like, now after the game. Color commentator Manny Watkins asking how many dunks Gafford had was reflective of the conversation taking place on press row. Thank goodness for play-by-play data. They added up fast.

In a span of less than five minutes, Gafford had 11 points (on five dunks!), a rebound, one block that counted and a volleyball spike of a chase down that did not thanks to a blocking foul.

The most impressive play may have been him sealing his man, who tried unsuccesfully to front him, catching the ball on the right block, taking one power dribble and reverse dunking with authority with 7:11 left.

Someone please explain how he was not ranked among the top 40 recruits in the nation.

Gafford was a monster, taking advantage of Trey Thompson’s foul trouble and producing in the extra minutes. And therein lies a big development in and of itself: Gafford was able to mostly steer clear of his own foul issues in extended run after fouling out of the first two games in a combined 33 minutes.

He displayed markedly better discipline on the defensive end, both guarding high pick-and-rolls and protecting the basket.

Gafford still switched onto guards at times, but also soft hedged (or pushed) at the level of the screen or dropped back.

He soft hedges at the level of the screen, buying Jaylen Barford time to get back into position before recovering back to his man. This approach allowed him to avoid any silly reach-in fouls on the perimeter while keeping him planted in the paint, in position to protect the rim.

He’s in an aggressive drop, high enough to discourage a jumper without putting himself in a compromising position but not too tight to allow an easy blow-by. As a result, C.J. Jones has time to fight over the screen and get in position to contest the short jumper.

There have been several times early this year when Gafford appeared to be out of position, failing to hedge or offer any sort of determent on ball screens. In reality, he's wound up stalking the ballhandler, tracking them to the rim and swatting their shots off the backboard. He will be a defensive anchor in time, perhaps sooner than later.

No one will confuse Gafford with Roy Hibbert, the former NBA All-Star center who popularized the concept of verticality, defending the rim with arms extended straight up instead of going for blocks, a position that theoretically enables the defender to absorb contact without being whistled. Hibbert used verticality because he was athletically limited. Gafford is quite the opposite.

But using the practice occasionally can serve to keep Gafford out of foul trouble. The coaching staff has worked with him on it and it was on display more prevalently against Fresno State than on the opening weekend.

The ballhandler went into his body to try to incite contact, but Gafford went straight up, relying on his massive 7-2 wingspan to impact the shot. Miss. Good defense.

Gafford being able to stay on the floor for big minutes was key. His production in said minutes was downright scary. There will still be growing pains for the youngster, to be sure, but his ability can’t be denied.

He’ll have a chance to put himself on the national map this week in Portland.

Late-clock prowess

Everything Arkansas does on offense begins and ends with Macon and Barford. Literally.

The Razorbacks have been elite late in the shot clock, averaging a staggering 1.5 points per possession with four or fewer seconds left on the clock, per Synergy Sports tracking data, a massive number that puts them in the 99th percentile nationally.

Arkansas has hit 9 of 13 shots in those situations and the seniors have dominated those possessions: Macon is 2 of 4 with 7 points, Barford is 2 of 3 with 4 points. They’ve also assisted on several more makes, drawing the defense and setting teammates up.

Oh, the luxury of having veteran guards capable of creating something good out of a possession gone awry.

Last year, the Hogs managed just 0.618 points per possession in those situations, ranking in the 18th percentile.

Even when the numbers almost assuredly normalize and slide down a bit, Barford and Macon are obviously more comfortable and in command in year two in Fayetteville. Both are talented one-on-one playmakers, more than able to conjure up a halfway decent look in a bind.

It’s extremely valuable for teams to have one of those type of players. Arkansas has two.

Traps paying off

Like all those turnovers Arkansas at times forces in the halfcourt? Many are a result of the coaching staff’s edict to double-team opponent post-ups, converging on poor big men, many of whom are seldom ready to be thrust into having to make a decision under pressure.

Hate all those open 3-pointers Arkansas can sometimes allow in the halfcourt? That can be the price the Hogs pay when they are unsuccessful and the big gets rid of the ball, inciting quick swing-swing ball movement sequences for open shots if rotations aren't precise and executed fast enough.

The pendulum has tilted more toward the former early this season. Arkansas is hounding opposing bigs and making life tough when the ball is entered into the post.

Darious Hall’s man clears to make way for the post-up, but Hall, sensing it, lingers, waiting to pounce. He and Daniel Gafford form about the longest double-team tandem Arkansas can throw at a post-up, a forest of long arms and freshman tenacity.

The Hogs defend well off-ball, too. Hall springing the trap allows Jaylen Barford to stay at home on the strongside wing, while C.J. Jones sinks to take away the dish to Hall’s man on the opposite block.

Samford coughs it up, sparking an easy fast-break layup for Gafford.

Arkansas doubles the post to take opponents out of their comfort zone and force them to waste precious seconds recalibrating the possession. Turnovers are a bonus.

Open shots are available if opposing bigs can handle the pressure and make quick, accurate passes away from the double team. That puts the pressure on Arkansas’ remaining defenders to zone up and rotate properly while the trapper recovers.

That has been an issue in the past, but the Razorback guards have shown encouraging signs early in the season, particularly Barford and Beard. This isn’t a post-up, but watch Beard nail the rotations on this pick-and-roll.

The Razorbacks switch the pick-and-roll, but Barford is lagging a bit behind. Beard’s man is in the corner, but he has to sink down and tag the roll man to dissuade the easy pocket pass for a dunk until Barford is back in position. He does his job as a help defender while simultaneously anticipating the skip pass to the corner, breaking back out at precisely the right moment to steal it. That’s a unit working in tandem.

Length, trapping and smart rotations are the markings of a tough defense. Armed with veterans and spindly youngsters, Arkansas is forcing turnovers on more than 23 percent of opponent possessions, nearly top-50 status nationally and a massive jump back up after being in the teens the past two years.

Arkansas’ sheer length overwhelmed its first three opponents at times, leading to a slew of turnovers and forced shots.

That won’t always happen. The Razorbacks’ rotations will be tested by better opponents with bigger, better athletes, starting this week. Will the defense hold up?

Big minutes for senior guards

Barford was jokingly upset with the media for going against his instructions from the prior week and not requesting to bring Jonathan Holmes to the post-game podium following the Fresno State win.

Macon shot back that Holmes didn’t play Friday night.

“It don’t matter!” was Barford’s retort. That duo has personality and has let it show early on this year.

They’re also getting a chance to show their conditioning.

Thanks to Fresno State going on an offensive tear to make it a three-possession game late, Holmes and fellow walk-on J.T. Plummer didn’t get a chance to play for the first time in the opening three games. They combined for eight minutes (and one wild Holmes sequence) in the Samford and Bucknell wins.

Instead, Barford played a season-high 35 minutes with Macon right behind him at 34. If that is a sign of their typical workload against good competition, fatigue, both in-game and progressive, could become an issue.

Maybe it’s feasible for teams playing at slower paces, but Arkansas ranks in the top 35 nationally in offensive pace. And it isn’t even just about that.

The Razorbacks extend pressure, both full court and in the halfcourt, a style that demands maximum effort in order to be effective.

Add in the offensive burden Barford and Macon are tasked with shouldering and it’s fair to wonder if they will wear down if they consistently play high minutes. One game isn’t a big deal, of course, but three games in four days in Portland is. Thirty-plus games over the course of a season adds up.

The Razorbacks need more from sophomore C.J. Jones and freshman Darious Hall. Those underclassmen round out the five-man backcourt/wing rotation and need to prove to Anderson they are ready and capable of handling bigger minutes. Jones is averaging just 19 and Hall only 14.3 despite the Hogs having had two blowouts and owning a big lead most of the game against Fresno State.

Jones’ main skill is shooting, but he’s just 2 of 8 from 3-point range so far this year. Still, he is the kind of player who can break out and get hot quickly. The percentage on such a small sample size isn’t worrisome, but the attempts need to be higher. He’s shown an improved ability to put the ball on the floor and some interesting vision with the ball in his hands, but he needs to have a big game to earn a bump in playing time.

It'll boil down to what he does on the other end. His length has allowed him to factor in passing lanes, but his defense as a whole has to keep getting better.

He senses the screen coming and alters his stance to force the ballhandler to the sideline, with Gafford positioned to either trap, switch or hedge. But he still gets beat the other way, allowing penetration that leads to a wide-open 3-pointer. That can’t happen. His off-ball awareness has to improve, too.

Hall has been disruptive on defense, coming up with three steals and two blocks in his modest minutes. His length and ability to comfortably guard 1 through 4 are commodities and have instantly transferred to the college game.

But he’s a work in progress on the offensive end, sans the crazy highlight dunk late in the Bucknell game. He has the look of a player who isn't yet confident in his ability to drive left, doesn’t provide floor-spacing and has been careless with the basketball, a big no-no for a low-usage player.

Both young players have the tools to help Arkansas in their own ways. The Hogs need them to earn more minutes in order to reduce some of the load for the seniors.

Mixing it up

In the halfcourt, Arkansas mostly operates in a free-flowing motion system designed to space the floor and put playmakers in position to attack.

But the Razorbacks will occasionally employ set plays, especially coming out of timeouts. Here is a sampling of what they ran against Fresno State.

Up first, they run a floppy set, designed to free up shooters.

Beard and Macon begin the play near each block and receive pindown screens from the two bigs as they cut to the wings. Many times in floppy, the guards will screen for each other beneath the basket before using the pindowns. Here, they don’t.

Neither screen is especially effective and the set is snuffed out, but the Hogs keep the floor spaced and Barford creates an open look with a spin move into a step-back long-2, a tough shot that he’s hit with regularity early this year.

Up next, the Razorbacks run ‘Strong’ out of a timeout.

Macon dribbles to the strong-side wing and passes to Bailey at the top of the key to initiate the action. Bailey reverses the ball to Barford and then joins Macon in setting a stagger screen for Beard, who curls from the corner to the top of the key. The result is a wide-open 3 Beard misses.

Later in the half, the Hogs run some ‘Flex’ action.

Jones sets a cross screen for Gafford, then makes a flex cut to the top of the key, receiving a screen from Gabe Osabuohien for the jumper, which he misses. It would’ve been nice to see him go ahead and pop all the way behind the arc and attempt a 3-pointer instead, but a nice action nonetheless.

Less than a minute later, Arkansas runs a ‘Double Drag’ set.

Macon brings the ball upcourt and receives staggered ball screens from the two bigs, Osabuohien and Gafford. Generally, in this set, one big pops and the other rolls. The two screens give Macon daylight and force Gafford’s man to step up to try and corral the drive, opening up the lob to the freshman. Note that Jones is positioned in the strong-side corner, while freshman wing Darious Hall rotates from the weak-side corner to the top of the key, a manuever called a shake, to free himself up for a pass while also being in good position to get back on defense.

In the second half, the Hogs ran the same play with a different result.

By this time, Fresno State had started hard hedging or blitzing ball screens to try to disrupt Arkansas’ offense, so Barford didn’t have an alley to the lane. But the Hogs immediately shift into a popular counter for the double drag, a staggered screen for the player in the weakside corner. In this case, it’s Beard. He isn’t open and neither is Macon after he comes off a stagger of his own, so Barford takes a pull-up 3. Not a great shot, but the Razorbacks ran through solid options before taking it.

Arkansas’ motion offense is often effective and serves to put its playmakers in advantageous situations, whether coming off pindowns, back cuts or via spacing and an uncluttered lane. But the Razorbacks have a handful of solid sets they can go to when they desire.

Draw of Jolly Ranchers

Barford may have a career in marketing once his basketball days are done.

Monday, four days prior to the Fresno State game, he pledged a Jolly Rancher for fans who showed up to the primetime Friday matchup. Upon learning there were less than 200 tickets remaining in the lower deck as of Wednesday, Barford headed to Walmart to make good on his promise.

I count four bags of Jolly Ranchers in his hands and several more in the seat of the cart. And that wasn’t all of them: Barford purchased 24 pounds worth of Jolly Ranchers in total.

Arkansas’ students heeded the call, showing up early to pick up some candy, hand-delivered by the senior guard at 5:30 Friday evening. There have been several other recent examples of full student sections in November, but most of those were owed to pep rallies and Greek life obligations.

Friday, they were there for candy and a glimpse at an exciting basketball team. Barford came through on his promise and the Hogs put on a show. The student section was solid.

All signs point toward Barford playing basketball for the foreseeable future, but he moonlighted as a promoter seamlessly last week.

Osabuohien’s defensive instincts

Four charges drawn in 26 minutes over three games. That’s what freshman Gabe Osabuohien has produced.

The rest of his teammates have combined to draw one charge in 574 minutes.

Osabuohien was always an intriguing defensive prospect thanks to his 6-8, 219-pound frame, reported 7-1 wingspan and ability to slide seamlessly between positions, a must in Anderson’s switchy system. Those kind of physical gifts can’t be taught.

The intuition he’s displayed on the defensive end so far has been a bit unexpected, easily the bright spot of his first three games.

Osabuohien and Beard are synced with perfect communication. Gafford switches on the ball screen as Beard is slow getting over it, leaving Samford’s big with what would have been a free roll to the hoop if Osabuohien hadn’t anticipated and switched off the weakside wing onto the roller. To top it off, he anticipates the drive, slides over and sacrifices his body. These are the kind of smart plays and selfless sacrifices that endear players to coaches.

Here, he rotates over, trapping the box in NBA parlance, planting his feet just outside the lane to absorb the contact. Great rotation.

Osabuohien only briefly played in the first exhibition game and didn’t appear in the second, but has operated as the ninth man in the rotation the first three games, appearing in a super-long, young lineup Anderson has rolled out to destroy opposing offenses.

The grouping includes any one of the three senior guards along with the 6-5 Jones, 6-6 Darious Hall, Osabuohien and 6-11 Gafford, the last three of whom all have wingspans of at least 7 feet. That’s a ton of length.

Check out this possession against Bucknell.

Gafford drops slightly against the ball screen but stays up high enough to prevent a pull-up jumper and positions himself well enough to take away any driving lanes. Hall stunts, filling to the nail to remove any potential crevice of daylight. There’s nothing there. Hall recovers to his man, then switches the dribble hand-off with Osabuohien.

There are 15 seconds left and the Bison have yet to threaten to get inside the 3-point line. They eventually settle for a long hook shot flung up from around 10 feet. No bueno.

The four-man group of Jones, Hall, Osabuohien and Gafford has been a wrecking crew on the defensive end so far, holding teams to a minuscule 60 points per 100 possessions and forcing turnovers on an astounding 43 percent (!) of possessions. Goodness.

Both numbers are unsustainable in the long haul and the group has, predictably, struggled on the offensive end, averaging just 77.4 points per 100 possessions with turnovers on a quarter of possessions and zero made 3-pointers. Whichever senior guard plays with them shoulders a massive playmaking load as the only shot creator of the bunch.

It’s been a slog and the group may not be tenable against better competition. There’s also the question of what happens to Osabuohien’s role with senior forward Dustin Thomas slated to return from a suspension in Portland. Osabuohien is a better defender and probably a more capable rebounder, but doesn’t have near the experience or offensive ability Thomas does.

It’s a safe bet Thomas takes all of Osabuohien’s minutes and eats into Bailey’s. The four-man young gun grouping may wind up being short-lived this year, but Jones, just a sophomore, is the elder statesman.

The quartet could wind up being a terror in the future.

Fewer clogging post-ups

Daniel Gafford had a few nifty post-up moves Friday against Samford, scoring several buckets on a variety of nice moves.

He drop-stepped on the left block and extended for an easy score early in the game. Midway through the first half, he posted up on the right block, spun and used his soft touch to flick in a 6-footer. Of course, in the second half, he took advantage of a poorly positioned defender for a reverse dunk.

Gafford has shown promise in the post early in the season, using length and touch to convert around the rim. His ability should only grow as he gets more comfortable and adds strength.

Through three games, he is averaging an obscene 1.429 points per post-up, per Synergy, a number that would be tops in the nation if he kept it up all year. He won’t. It’s based off of seven possessions finished with post-ups, a tiny sample size. He’ll face tougher defenders, starting this week.

The amount of post-ups are noteworthy. Gafford isn’t posting up as often as his predecessor, Moses Kingsley, did a year ago.

Only six players in the SEC finished 150 or more possessions with post-ups last season. Kingsley was one of them, averaging nearly five post-up possessions per game. But he was terribly inefficient, averaging just 0.763 points per possession, easily the worst among that group.

His 173 post-ups also don’t take into account possessions where he received the ball and had to give it back up or ones where he didn’t wind up with the rock despite attempting to seal his man and moving from block to block, arm extended upward calling for a touch. Those happened frequently and often gummed up the offense, clogging the lane and slowing ball movement as guards paused to consider an entry pass.

Gafford has been much more willing to perform other roles early in the year. He’ll look to post up early in a possession, but if it isn’t there, he’s been more than happy to abandon the paint and pop out to the perimeter to either set a ball screen or operate with the ball from the high post or perimeter, where he’s shown signs of solid passing.

The result has been more open driving lanes for Arkansas’ guards, who often encounter a lane sans a rim protector. Gafford’s lack of an outside shot may change this in time, but defenders are following him to the perimeter for now.

Arkansas is finishing just 2.7 post-up possessions per game early on, a sizable dip from the 6.6 it averaged a year ago.

Something to watch: Thomas may return to action this week. He regularly tried to post up last year. His 31 post-up possessions ranked second on the team behind Kingsley and he routinely attempted to set up shop on the block early in the clock despite being a bit undersized and struggling to finish around the basket at times.

A good passer, Thomas would probably be more valuable around the perimeter, where his playmaking could potentially show up. It will be interesting to see if he follow’s Gafford’s lead when he returns.


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