3 Standout Big Men Daniel Gafford should Study this Off-Season

Daniel Gafford, Washington Wizards. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)
Daniel Gafford, Washington Wizards. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images) /

After coming off his first full year with the Washington Wizards, there were plenty of bright spots to take away from the season of Daniel Gafford.

Part of what makes him so valuable to the Wizards is his interior defense. We only have about 100 games to evaluate from Gafford’s Wizards tenure, but it’s pretty safe to say he might be the best defender the team has seen, since Manute Bol in the mid 80s. It’s truly remarkable that this is a conversation worth having this early into his career, and it also speaks volumes to how disappointing the Wizards have been on the defensive end for decades.

Gafford played limited minutes last year, but his greatest strength is most certainly his defense. Looking at defensive metrics that track a player’s helpside defense and rim protection, Gafford ranks near the top of the league in almost all of them. BBall-Index’s Rim Rim Dfg% vs expected metric, which is a great indicator of the best rim protectors in the game, ranks him 6th amongst all active players (minimum 1250 minutes).

So with an entire year of games under his belt, how does the big man get better? Who are the players he should study this offseason to improve?

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The one concerning issue with Gafford’s defense last year was his constant foul trouble.

Many games last season he struggled with staying vertical while defending the rim. Gafford has a very high block rate and loves to contest every shot in his path. He hates getting scored on. It’s a great mentality to have, but sometimes this can get him in foul trouble.

Of all players who played at least 1400 minutes last season, Gafford ranked 10th in the entire league in fouls committed per 75 possessions. Last season, it was a common occurrence for Gafford to pick up two fouls in the first quarter, and without a legitimate backup center, the Wizards were forced to play the much smaller Montrezl Harrell and Anthony Gill, which posed serious matchup problems for Washington.

On this play against the Toronto Raptors in December, he gets beat by Pascal Siakam’s signature spin move and commits an unnecessary take foul. With one foul already, taking a second foul this early into the ballgame hurts the team more than giving up the layup.

Gafford does a fantastic job rejecting shots when the attacking player is facing him. In the 2021 play-in tournament, Gafford absolutely erased dunk attempts from Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott. Notice how the body of the driver is facing Gafford which makes it easy for him to elevate and create a jaw-dropping highlight.

His timing on blocks can be inconsistent at times, especially when contesting from behind. However when he times it correctly, getting blown by faster guards no longer means a take foul, but rather an emphatic block.

There is nobody better at timing blocks and staying vertical defensively than Draymond Green. He is quite possibly the best defender of this generation. Watching his defense from this past NBA Finals, it was impressive how disciplined he remained. Observe how Green stays vertical on Derrick White in Game five of the Finals to avoid a foul, yet still contest the shot. In the very same series, he keeps his hands in the air to avoid picking up a foul on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum despite running backwards.

At his size, Draymond shouldn’t be capable of this type of defensive impact. Part of the reason the Warriors boasted the league’s best defense last year was because of his awareness, verticality, and discipline on plays like these. Attention to detail is what Green has perfected, and is a player Gafford should certainly take some valuable tips from.


Modeling your game after a top 10 defender of all time will certainly lead to positive results. Gafford’s energy on the defensive end was seen immediately after he was traded. From the moment he was traded to Washington in March of 2021, the Wizards improved from a bottom five defense in the league to a fringe top 10 defense in the following weeks.

Garnett had the same impact on his Minnesota Timberwolves. From 2003-2004, the Timberwolves had a top 10 defense with Garnett on the floor, but without him, they played like a bottom five defense. Minnesota in those seasons played at a 63-win pace with Garnett on the court, yet played at a horrendous seven win pace without him. This level of impact will likely never be seen again, but Garnett’s greatness is absolutely something worth studying.

Staying with defenders in space was an area of concern for Gafford at times last season, so Garnett is the perfect player to study for improvement. Since Gafford loves to stay in the paint and protect the rim, he sometimes looked uncomfortable on the perimeter and struggled defending in the open court.

Kevin Garnett was able to use his alien-like 7-foot-5 wingspan to contest shots at the rim he couldn’t reach. Observe how he is able to chase down the 6-foot-4 Voshon Leonard in transition to block the shot out of bounds. The following play he tracks down Doug Christie and Mike Bibby from beyond the three-point line to block their shot.

Not only did he use his long arms to defend the basket, but he also used them to play the passing lanes to perfection and provide historically good defensive value from his helpside defense.

His ability to also change direction with his quick feet made impossible contests look easy to defend. So although it is doubtful Gafford will be able to duplicate Garnett’s energetic motor defensively, it is very possible he could enter the Defensive Player of the Year conversation in the near future.


According to nba.com, last season, the Wizards ranked 4th in the NBA in points per possession in the pick and roll when the roll man received the ball with 1.20. Since the average half court possession is worth just under a point, the Wizards have separated themselves from the majority of the league in that aspect.

One team that is ranked higher than Washington would be the Phoenix Suns. Part of what makes the Phoenix Suns so effective is Chris Paul’s playmaking ability and threat to attack downhill. However, the finisher of a lot of these offensive sets has been Deandre Ayton. Against teams that pack the paint, Ayton flashed his improved shooting from outside the restricted area, which is a point of emphasis as to where Gafford can improve.

In 2022, Daniel Gafford hardly attempted any shots outside of 5 feet, taking less than 0.5 shots a game from 5-9 feet and shooting it at an abysmal 26%. Compare that to Ayton, who is shooting 58% in the exact same range on just over 3 attempts a game. Gafford will not be expected to be a huge focal point of the offense, so adding a soft floater or hook shot to the repertoire is another way to provide some scoring value to a team that struggled to put up points last year.

There’s not much to detail about the Suns’ pick and roll, but notice how on some of these plays, Ayton finds the open space and shows off the nice, soft floater. These plays are high percentage shots, all set up by an elite guard who can get downhill. It’s worth noting that the Wizards also have a pretty talented guard who can create for others.

At 23 years old and headed into his 5th season in the NBA, Daniel Gafford is poised for a breakout year. He’s already shown flashes of elite defense, so with time and steady improvement over the offseason, the sky’s the limit for his potential in the league.

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