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Bulls basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas was direct following the NBA draft when asked about rumors the Bulls were involved in trade talks with the Golden State Warriors, who held the No. 2 pick. The speculation was the Bulls were angling for bouncy center James Wiseman from Memphis. Perhaps Karnisovas figured he already had him.
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“I led (rookies) in blocks last year,” Daniel Gafford was mentioning to reporters Saturday during a Zoom video conference from Bulls training camp. “I’m trying to do that same thing, be that defensive guy and be able to help the team out on offense as well.
“My role is to be me, play defense like I always do, protect the rim,” said Gafford. “That’s my main thing and then worry about offense later. I want to be the type of guy who can take shots free throw line extended. I’m still working on taking those threes. I’m working on building my confidence to where I can start taking jump shots in games. Because sooner or later I’m going to need to be one of those guys we need down the stretch.”
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Gafford has been something of a mystery this first week of training camp amidst more storylines than an Agatha Christie novel, like Lauri’s restoration, Coby’s development, Zach’s adaptability, Wendell’s emergence and Otto’s renaissance. But the 6-10 pogo stick as the No. 38 draft pick may just be another surprise inheritance for Arturas and his guys.
“I finally got my routine down and what I need to do to take care of my body, what I need to do to get my mind right,” Gafford said. “My routine has gotten better. At first my routine was like I didn’t know what I was doing when I was coming in, I didn’t know if I needed to do this, I didn’t know if I needed to do that. Now I’ve got my routine packed in. My mental is better. I just come in and I’m ready to work every day. I make sure I take care of my body a lot more because last year I was slacking on that area. Just making sure my routine is top tier and perfect.”
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Otto Porter Jr. continued to shine in his reserve role. The veteran forward, playing against his old team, scored in double figures for the fourth straight time with 16 points. The Bulls had seven in double figures.
Porter has thrived in the wing-heavy lineup that coach Billy Donovan used despite Thad Young saying after the morning shootaround that he was available to make his season debut after battling a leg infection.
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Donovan has been starting Lauri Markkanen at power forward and then bringing him back at center in a small-ball lineup with Porter, Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky and either Chandler Hutchison or Coby White.
Porter has looked to exploit matchups in this lineup and also has shot the ball well in each game but the Pacers.
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In the third and fourth quarters, Donovan went to Daniel Gafford after Markkanen exited for good with 8 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third after re-aggravating the calf contusion that made him a gametime decision. Gafford provided his typical energy. He blocked a shot and got to the line four times, making three.
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The Bulls finally flashed ball security. They committed just 14 turnovers. The Wizards didn’t place a lot of defensive pressure on the Bulls or trap ballhandlers much, and the Bulls did a better job of making the simple play.
They entered the night leading the league in a statistic you don’t want to — turnovers. They had committed 19.7 per game.
Donovan has talked about wanting to play with pace. The Bulls are doing that, but it hasn’t been a big factor in this disappointing development in the season’s early going.
It just may result in a special find from the second round, which as Karnisovas knows can change a team. Karnisovas’ Denver Nuggets are led by second rounder Nikola Jokic.
Not to suggest Gafford has that variety of skills or abilities. But the second year center from Arkansas has the potential of a special defensive presence that could be vital to a Bulls team a little short in the size department up front with the 6-9 Carter and the perimeter oriented Markkanen.
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Gafford led all rookies in blocks last season at 1.3 per game despite playing fewer minutes than all the top rookies. He only averaged about 14 minutes per game and apparently accepting initiation for the Bulls he had a dislocated thumb and missed about a month, limiting him to 43 games after he wasn’t in the rotation early in the season.
But it wasn’t long before the long armed—7-2 wingspan—Gafford made an impact.
In just his fifth game against the top ranked Bucks he had 21 points in 20 minutes, basically putbacks and lob dunks, with a pair of blocks that included stuffing Giannis at the rim. He had six blocks against Charlotte in December and 14 points and seven rebounds against the Pistons in January when he frustrated Andre Drummond enough that Drummond threw a ball at Gafford and was ejected. He also was rookie leader making 70 percent of his shots and if he qualified in number of games per 36 minutes he would have ranked third in the NBA behind Mo Bamba and Hassan Whiteside in blocks. It’s Rudy Gobert type of stuff.
The Bulls were about three points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gafford. While Gafford was unusually adept for a rookie defending pick and roll. And it seems like his game will be even more effective in Billy Donovan’s system with more ability to defend the basket. Gafford told reporters Donovan has been adhering to drop coverages in which the defenders drop back to form a wall against drivers rather than former coach Jim Boylen’s perimeter trapping.
“We focus on being in the drop now,” Gafford confirmed. “That’s helping me out a lot because I can work to where I can be in verticality more instead of getting easy fouls from guards attacking me and certain things like that.”
Foul trouble was often Gafford’s plight, not unusual for aggressive rookies. But complicated by the trapping activity.
Though Gaff contributed a gaffe of his own when he appeared to condemn Boylen during what appeared to be a discussion with fans during a video game.
“I don’t like him a lot, but he OK,” Gafford said postseason in drawing some unnecessary attention. “Got some things he can work on, got some things he can get better at as a person and as a coach. I’m not going to hate on him. I’m not going to hate the man.”
It was fairly innocuous and moot since Boylen was replaced by Donovan and had nothing to do with the change. Gafford Saturday said he reached out to Boylen afterward and didn’t mean anything damaging.
“I had contact with Jim, just made sure I cleared the air that it wasn’t anything intentional,” Gafford explained. “I wasn’t meaning anything too mean or anything like that. Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, I’m bashing him. I’m being mean.’ That was just basically constructive criticism, in my opinion. Jim was a great coach when he was here. He did what he could. And he worked his tail off for the team. Everybody can work on themselves on and off the floor. I wasn’t going at him at all.”
And the 22-year-old Gafford was clear that he needs work, also. His work habits weren’t great last season, he didn’t spend enough time working on his shot, his body, his conditioning. And his understanding of the game needed work.
He’s certainly not there yet. But Gafford says he’s advanced from his rookie season, which could answer some questions for the Bulls about that defensive intimidation in the middle. Carter’s physicality and Gafford’s activity could produce some unexpected interior functionality.
“The atmosphere is great,” said Gafford. “The guys come in ready to work. Going to be a crazy atmosphere. Energy is going to be crazy energy. My life hasn’t changed at all (from the virus). I’m a guy who comes in and practices and after practice, I go home. I lie in my bed or I go play my (video) games. I’m an in-house guy. I’m an introvert. I’m looking to expand my game a lot more instead of just pick and roll situations which is like one of the best parts of my game. I’ve been in the weight room real hard. Basically trying to build on top of what I did last year.”