Arkansas basketball preview:

Center of attention: Gafford flying under no one's radar

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2018
Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford (10) reaches to dunk the ball over Missouri forward Jordan Barnett Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena. Visit nwadg.com/photos to see more photographs from the game.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford (10) reaches to dunk the ball over Missouri forward Jordan Barnett Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, during the second half in Bud Walton Arena. Visit nwadg.com/photos to see more photographs from the game.

FAYETTEVILLE — Daniel Gafford turned 20 years old on Oct. 1, the day of Arkansas basketball’s annual media day.

He wore a bright, confident smile as he walked into the Bud Walton Arena interview room and sat down in his chair on the raised platform alongside junior Adrio Bailey — the team’s most veteran player — before a room full of reporters and television cameras. While the sophomore may be a year older, more mature and viewed as coach Mike Anderson’s unquestioned leader, Gafford remains a bit naive in a way.

Gafford was asked of his plan to handle the added attention he is sure to attract this season from opposing teams.

“I’m going to be on the scouting report now,” said Gafford, named to the SEC All-Freshman team in the spring after averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in conference play. “Last year, I don’t know if I was really on it.”

Gafford was very much on the radar of coaches across the country as a freshman. The El Dorado native, who recorded 11 triple-doubles, 18 double-doubles and eleven 10-block games in his senior season, grew to be a household name early on in his Arkansas career, making his first start on national television against then-No. 14 Minnesota. He needed only 21 minutes to finish with 16 points on 8-of-8 from the floor, grab seven rebounds and block six shots.

But even before that memorable December night, Gafford dropped 25 points on Fresno State on just 11 shots and led the charge in the Razorbacks’ defense allowing just .77 points per possession when on the floor against two high-powered offenses in Oklahoma and North Carolina, and Connecticut in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland.

If that were not enough to make those on the fence believers, Gafford went on to record at least three blocks in 10 more games and become the first freshman in program history to score 400 points, bring down 200 rebounds and block 60 shots in a season, according to HogStats.com. Despite the notoriety and subsequent talk of jumping to the NBA right away, the 6-11 sensation opted to bypass the NBA Combine and the draft altogether and return to Arkansas.

“What motivated me was basically my mom and my dad,” Gafford said. “I had a long sit-down talk with them, and they basically brought me back down to earth because it was crazy at the time with the process going on. The decision I made, I’m proud of it because I’m maturing more and it’s helping me become a better player and a person.”

Gafford’s announcement delivered palpable excitement back to a program that had disappointingly been bounced out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament by 10-seed Butler in Detroit just weeks before. It also meant Gafford, soon to be surrounded by immense youth and nine newcomers, would be the face of Anderson’s eighth team as coach of the Razorbacks.

Anderson, at SEC Media Day in Birmingham in mid-October, said it doesn’t take the smartest man in the world to know Gafford is his cornerstone. The pieces around him, however, will need to be ironed out sooner rather than later in hopes of earning a fourth NCAA Tournament berth in the last five seasons.

“I thought (Gafford’s return) was huge for our basketball program, and a good place to start,” Anderson added. “In terms of the other guys, they’re going to have to work for it. They know they have to bring it in practice and then they’ll have to bring it in a game to have an opportunity to play.

“I want this to be a balanced team. If you get multiple guys scoring 10, 12, 14 points, then Daniel doesn’t have to be the target. That’s when our teams have been really, really good.”

New Mexico transfer guard Jalen Harris is the likely choice at point guard after gaining seasoning against All-SEC guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford during his redshirt year. Fort Smith Northside standout Isaiah Joe, a 3-point marksman with NBA range, will be counted on to provide perimeter scoring, as will junior college transfer Mason Jones.

Other key pieces include Bailey, Keyshawn Embery-Simpson, an IMG Academy product and prolific scorer at Midwest City High School in Oklahoma, and Reggie Chaney, who, at 6-8 and 230 pounds, brings potential on the offensive end and a mentality ideal for crashing the glass. Jonesboro star Desi Sills will be Anderson’s lockdown perimeter defender, and Jordan Phillips, sidelined to begin the season as he recovers from a meniscus tear, will likely play a key role once healthy. Sophomore Gabe Osabuohien hopes to grow from his freshman campaign while Ethan Henderson of Parkview in Little Rock and Ibby Ali, a Maumelle alum, add length to complement Gafford.

Anderson has stated the team’s youth won’t be an excuse this season. Bailey and Gafford, who will be charged with leading the largely inexperienced and unproven group, are relishing their opportunity.

“If any challenges come our way, we’re going to take them head on. We’re not going to back down,” Gafford said. “We’re going to come out with our heads high and hit the ground running. … This is basically going to test our leadership skills, and they’re going to see that we have to step in the footsteps of the older guys. Me and Adrio have to be vocal with them, and show them the right things to do and tell them the wrong things not to do.”

In preparation for his sophomore season, and to showcase his extraterrestrial abilities, Gafford camped at the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles in August. Anderson said in the days following the camp, he received call after call about his star’s performance with and against a number of NBA stars and the nation’s best college players, including Iowa forward Tyler Cook, Villanova senior Eric Paschall and 7-2 Oregon freshman Bol Bol.

It took Gafford a day to acclimate himself to the level of play, though, he said, after essentially taking the weeks leading up to the camp for granted.

“I was running like I was an old man out there the first day,” Gafford added. “But I got back used to it, and I just played like I always play for the rest of the camp.”

Developing team chemistry with so many new faces will be crucial to Arkansas’ success this season. It appears Gafford already has that with Harris, who dished out at least four assists in seven games in his one season at New Mexico. Gafford says Harris tells him regularly he will reward big men for running the floor and often yells at forwards to sprint in transition.

Harris is eager to compete alongside Gafford, who he considers the best big man in the country.

“It was real exciting for me knowing I get to play with him,” Harris said. “I really like dishing the ball out, so being able to throw it up to Dan and knowing he’s going to go get it from anywhere is real exciting.”

In the Razorbacks’ annual Red-White game on Oct. 19, Gafford won the team’s dunk contest with ease, capping his performance with a casual between-the-legs slam. He then added 24 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes in the glorified scrimmage and dunked or finished 11-of-14 shots inside the restricted area.

Gafford scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Tusculum in the Razorbacks' first exhibition despite battling early foul trouble. The following week he added 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 18 minutes against Southwest Baptist in Arkansas' final preseason tuneup.

To the surprise of few, Gafford was named first-team All-SEC at Media Day in Birmingham on Oct. 17. He is also a consensus top-15 selection on 2019 mock draft boards and No. 10 on The Athletic's Sam Vecenie's initial big board, but Anderson has not seen any of the praise go to his head. Instead, he has improved upon an already impressive game and taken the necessary steps to become one of the country’s most indefensible bigs.

“He will continue to do what got him all this notoriety: running the floor, offensive rebounds, running the break,” Anderson said. “He has a great pair of hands and I think he’s added 8-10 pounds, so he’s gotten stronger. Hopefully this year, we’ll see a kid that’s not only going to have one move, but show some counter moves. If you stop my left hand, I’m going to be able to spin right.

“Now, you’re going to be considered one of the best players not only in the SEC, but in the country. I think he’s got the right mindset thus far. He’s going to be the center of attention.”

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