Can Daniel Gafford fill Moses Kingsley's shoes as a freshman?

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Monday, October 2, 2017
El Dorado's Daniel Gafford comes down with a rebound against Jonesboro during the Boys 6A Championship at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs on Friday, March 10, 2017.
El Dorado's Daniel Gafford comes down with a rebound against Jonesboro during the Boys 6A Championship at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs on Friday, March 10, 2017.

— SEC basketball writers didn’t do Moses Kingsley any favors by voting him the conference’s preseason player of the year last fall.

Kingsley was undoubtedly one of the best returning players in the league entering his senior year, but his game didn’t necessarily fit the POTY mold. His game and the makeup of the roster around him made him a long shot to win the postseason version of the award even before he fell short of matching the offensive production from his junior season.

His scoring fell from 15.9 points per game as a junior to 12 as a senior, in part because the Razorbacks were a deeper team with more scoring punch. But he also made just 46.9 percent of his 2-point shots as a senior after converting 54.8 the previous year. His post-up shooting dropped from 50 percent to an ugly 39.8.

As a result, Kingsley’s stock, both in the eyes of fans and draft pundits, dropped to the point where he likely became undervalued.

His defensive presence and work on the glass were still vital to a 26-win Arkansas team. His offensive impact was lessened and less effective, but he was probably the most important player on the roster. He still averaged 12, 7.7 and an SEC-best 2.6 blocks in his final season.

How well Arkansas can replace his production will likely go a long way toward determining whether it can make its first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since dancing three straight years from 2006-08.

Much of that task will fall to El Dorado native Daniel Gafford, a highly touted 6-foot-11 freshman with a 7-2 wingspan. There is a lot of optimism around the program about Gafford, for good reason.

He is taller and more athletic than Kingsley and his skill set is highly intriguing: a player who should have an ability to both switch and protect the rim at a high level on defense while operating as a low-usage, bouncy rim-runner on offense. He attacks the glass on both ends and plays with a high motor.

There are striking similarities between Gafford and the version of Kingsley that arrived in Fayetteville as a freshman.

Both began playing basketball later than most. Kingsley played soccer until he was 12 or 13. Gafford was in the band before taking up basketball in eighth grade. Like Kingsley, Gafford’s relative lack of experience means he is going to be a bit raw on offense in the early going, still learning how to face up and play outside of the block. But it also means he theoretically has more room to grow his game.

Both players possess good length, which helps them excel as rim protectors. Kingsley finished third in Arkansas history in career blocks. While Gafford will have to prove it at the next level, all the tools are there to suggest his shot blocking will translate to the college game. Each has the mobility to make them fits in Mike Anderson’s switchy system.

“He can run like a gazelle,” Anderson said of Gafford.

Both were similarly rated as recruits. ESPN ranked Kingsley the No. 43 player in the class of 2013. Gafford was the No. 47 player in the 2017 class by the same service.

But Kingsley had a distinct advantage over Gafford because he wasn't counted on to play a big role right off the bat. He, of course, arrived in Fayetteville at the same time as Bobby Portis, which allowed him to develop at his own pace. He averaged just 11.1 minutes his freshman and sophomore seasons before two All-SEC years as a junior and senior.

Trey Thompson will be a senior and is a skilled passer, solid finisher and underrated defender. He will almost certainly play a bigger role in his final season and his presence will take some pressure off Gafford. Thompson may start, something Gafford has expressed he’s OK with, especially early in the season knowing Mike Anderson’s penchant for seniors who’ve put in the time within his program.

“We expect a whole lot more out of Trey,” Anderson said. “We saw glimpses of it his sophomore year and even more of it his junior year.”

Still, Thompson doesn’t possess the ability to impact the game with his athleticism the way Kingsley did and Gafford should. Arkansas needs Gafford to make an immediate impact. But how realistic is it to expect him to match Kingsley’s senior production in his freshman campaign? It may be tough.

Gafford is heavier than Kingsley was as a freshman. He quickly gained close to 15 pounds after arriving on campus at 217 and it isn’t hard to imagine his frame comfortably filling out to between 240 and 250 down the road. But early on, he may have to rely on his athleticism as his strength catches up.

“I think (strength) coach Adam Pettway is doing a tremendous job in getting him to play a lot longer,” Anderson said. “In high school you can get away with some things. He’s taller than everybody. He’s always being triple-teamed, double-teamed.”

His best skill at this point is probably his ability to protect the rim. He averaged nearly 8 blocks a game as a senior at El Dorado. But how will he adjust to playing against far superior talent than he faced in Class 6A, learning defensive rotations and all the other factors that come with a step up in competition?

Kingsley led the SEC in blocks last year. Even in this one-and-done era of college basketball, freshmen have led the league in blocks just twice in the last decade — Anthony Davis and Jordan Mickey.

For all the similarities, there are a few marked differences in Kingsley and Gafford’s games on the offensive end of the court, ones that will affect Arkansas in different ways.

Kingsley was a capable shooter later in his career. As a senior, he shot 75.7 percent from the foul line and was a threat with his jumper. He shot 43.8 percent on a low volume of 3-pointers and was one of just 13 bigs in the SEC to attempt more than 50 jump shots, per Synergy Sports tracking data.

Of the 13, he ranked just 10th in efficiency, averaging just 0.791 points per possession, but the gravity of his ability to shoot helped open up the lane deeper in the season as defenses became more cognizant of his shooting.

Gafford, on the other hand, didn’t have a reliable jumper in his arsenal in high school and shot just 53 percent from the foul line as a senior. If he’s hanging out around the perimeter (which he probably won’t be), defenses are free to sag way off of him and clog the paint.

Gafford also doesn’t have the low-post scoring ability Kingsley did as a senior, at least not yet. Even with up-and-down results, Kingsley’s reputation often led to double teams from opposing defenses, which at times resulted in open shots for teammates. His percentages dipped, but there were still flashes of his skill on the block, ability Gafford is still working to improve.

That’s not necessarily bad that Arkansas might not be tempted to dump it to Gafford on the block on a regular basis. Post-ups are often an inefficient end result and Kingsley was the recipient of too many last year. Only six players in the SEC finished at least 150 post-up possessions last year. Kingsley’s 173 ranked fourth. His 0.763 points per possession were easily the worst of that group.

At least early, Gafford’s scoring figures to come in the form of dump-offs as a roll man, playing in the dunker position on the baseline, off offensive rebounds or in transition.

And that’s fine. Arkansas has offensive firepower. Gafford will be counted on to provide energy and to change the game with his athleticism. It’s a role he is willing to fill.

Within the program, the expectation is a return to the NCAA Tournament with the goal of making some noise. In order to do so, Arkansas needs Gafford to come in and produce right away in starter’s minutes or close to them.

“His skill set will continue to get better, but he’s battling,” Anderson said. “He’s fighting out there. He’s got a chance to be a very, very special player.”

Can Gafford replace some of what Kingsley brought to the table, even as a freshman? Absolutely. His physical profile suggests he will. Should he be expected to equal or even surpass Kingsley’s senior production this season? Probably not.

Put it like this: If Gafford leads the SEC in blocks, ranks fourth in rebounding and averages 12 a game as a freshman with his athleticism and length, there’s a good chance he'd be able to declare early and be a potential first-round pick in the NBA Draft after a single season in Fayetteville.

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