How Daniel Gafford’s role could change and expand in 2023-24 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Daniel Gafford has had an evolving role the past few seasons, between starter and backup, but his status as a starter may now be more secure than ever before. He played his way into the lineup down the stretch of last season, performed well, and then the Wizards traded away Kristaps Porzingis.
Barring something unforeseen, it appears Gafford will not only be the Wizards’ starting center but also take on more responsibilities. With that in mind, here are three ways his role could change this season:
Gafford has surely been in the weight room this summer, trying to add muscle for the upcoming season. That work may be put to the test quite often this year, as he stands to be far and away their best screen-setter. Last season, Gafford was 18th in the NBA in total screen assists (240) with Porzingis at 31st (184). Porzingis is now in Boston, while the next player on the Wizards’ roster in that category was Gafford’s projected backup, Mike Muscala, who ranked 104th in screen assists (55). Though Danilo Gallinari could be an underrated resource there (he was 103rd in screen assists two years ago), much of it is naturally going to fall on Gafford.
On top of that, the Wizards added some players this offseason who ran a lot of pick-and-rolls last year. Jordan Poole was the ball-handler for 472 pick-and-rolls last season with the Warriors and that was 140 more than anyone on the Wizards’ roster initiated (Bradley Beal led the team with 332). Tyus Jones ran nearly a hundred more pick-and-rolls last year (318) as the Grizzlies’ backup than Monte Morris did as the Wizards’ starter (220). If head coach Wes Unseld Jr. decides to incorporate more of those actions to adapt to his new personnel, then someone has to set the screens.
There are a few reasons to believe the Wizards could play faster this season than they did last year when they ranked 17th in pace (possessions per 48 minutes) per Basketball Reference. New general manager Will Dawkins comes over from the Thunder, who were sixth in pace and 12th in fastbreak points last year. The Grizzlies were second in pace with Jones in the mix and the Warriors were 13th with Poole in the fold. Though Ja Morant and Stephen Curry contributed to those rankings, the Wizards’ new backcourt will feature guys who are used to that style of play.
Jones was also 15th in the NBA last season in percentage of points on the fastbreak (21.9%) and boasted an impressive 1.28 points per possession (PPP) on transition plays, which accounted for 20% of his offense. Being good in transition is a trend for the Wizards’ projected rotation. Corey Kispert was 10th in the NBA in PPP (1.41), while Kyle Kuzma was 13th in transition plays per game (4.2, 1.08 PPP) and Poole was right behind in 14th (4.1, 1.12 PPP).
None of them, however, were quite as good as Gafford, who was the most efficient player in the entire NBA on transition plays at 1.66 points per possession. The more the Wizards run, the better it will be for Gafford who is fast for his position and, of course, has a knack for finishing around and above the rim.
Protecting the rim
The most obvious area Gafford will be relied upon more may be in protecting the paint. The Wizards had a unique shot-blocking combination between Porzingis and Gafford, who each ranked top-15 in the NBA among qualified players in blocks per game. Put another way, they had two big men who ranked in the top half of the league for their position in that category. But Porzingis is now elsewhere and the Wizards didn’t add any players for whom shot-blocking is a clear strength.
One player who could help is Bilal Coulibaly, who showed his ability to block shots in the Summer League and is accustomed to covering for big men in help defense. But Gafford will likely have to do quite a bit more as the Wizards’ primary rim-protector all while trying to stay out of foul trouble. That last part may be especially important when the Wizards go up against the larger centers in the league, as Gafford is set to be tied for the tallest player on the roster (6-foot-10).