On June 20, a future Daniel Gafford had long wanted finally arrived.
In one way, getting picked by the Chicago Bulls in the 2019 NBA Draft was the start of a new journey for the former star Razorback. It was also the end of another.
Gafford didn’t just battle other jaw-droppingly athletic big men to get to the NBA. He battled himself. The fight began in his hometown of El Dorado as a willowy 6’6” eighth grader, when coaches encouraged him to give basketball a serious effort.
At first, it was very tough. “I didn’t know the game of basketball at all,” Gafford recalled. “I was always the biggest kid out there, but I didn’t know what to do,” he told The Stadium. “I was always running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”
For years, Gafford struggled with confidence. How could he excel when he could barely dribble with his dominant hand? Of course, he wanted to play for the Razorbacks, but that seemed like the longest of shots. And the NBA?
Forget about it.
On top of that, Gafford was shy, more comfortable with playing clarinet and bass drum in the Wildcats’ school band. “I used to put myself down a lot in high school. I almost quit basketball.”
But that’s where his people stepped in. Friends and family gave him the support he needed. “They’re all encouraging people. My dad [Wayne Gafford] is the wisest man I know. He helps me out a lot,” Gafford told THV 11’s Dorian Craft. “My mom — she’s more on the crazier side. She has a crazy temper, but she has a more calm side also. And that calm side helps me out a lot.”
As Gafford grew in height, eventually reaching nearly 6’11”, so did his game rise.
To the point where, this week, Gafford was starting his new life in Chicago in grand style. There was a first pitch he threw out this past weekend at an MLB game. The only hitch was he didn’t know if it was for the White Sox or the Cubs (it was for the White Sox).
Daniel Gafford also wasn’t aware that the Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is also chairman of the White Sox. “I haven’t watched a game of baseball at all, so be patient with me,” Gafford, smiling, told the Chicago Tribune.
A natural line of questioning for Gafford was how he felt following in the footsteps of Bobby Portis, the former Arkansas native big man-turned-All-SEC-center-turned-Chicago-Bull-draft pick. Portis, of course, was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.
Years ago, I spoke to Portis about how he learned so much of his game from Corliss Williamson, when Williamson lived in Little Rock and coached AAU basketball.
So it was especially cool to hear from Gafford how Portis, in turn, has influenced him. This insight just goes to show there is a direct lineage from Williamson, the greatest post player in program history (and the most accomplished prep star in state history) to the best native Arkansan big men of the 21st century.
Daniel Gafford and Bobby Portis
Gafford has already spoken to Portis about what it will take to succeed in Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Just having somebody like [Portis] on your side, to be able to talk to him . . . it helps you push yourself a lot more,’’ Gafford said. “I used to kind of shape my game after Bobby before I went to Arkansas. I watched one game, and I was a Bobby fan instantly, just like that.
‘‘Just seeing that he gave me somewhat of a shout-out on Twitter basically made me feel good.’’
Bulls coach Jim Boylen added: “His spirit of who he was in the interview, at the pre-draft camp, to where he came in and worked out for us, it was a Bobby-like spirit. Competitive, toughness, take coaching, take correction, learn on the fly. We changed his free throw a little bit when he came in for the workout. He was able to pick it up, things like that.”
Read more about ties between NBA players, Razorbacks and Arkansas native sons in my post below:
The above is a preview segment from upcoming feature on OnlyInArk.com.
Best 38th Picks in NBA History
The Bulls nabbed Daniel Gafford with the 38th pick of the 2019 NBA Draft. That’s one year after Philadelphia picked someone named Khyri Thomas in the same position.
Is Daniel destined for the same kind of weird-Kyrie spelling anonymity? Or will he become one of the best ever picks in that slot?
Who are some of the best-ever picks at that position — guys he can look to for inspiration? I’ve boldfaced some of the most accomplished ones below:
2017 Jordan Bell, Oregon – Chicago Bulls (good role pl
2016 Patrick McCaw, UNLV – Milwaukee Bucks
2015 Darrun Hilliard, Villanova – Detroit Pistons
2014 Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado – Detroit Pistons
2013 Nate Wolters, South Dakota State – Washington Wizards
2012 Quincy Miller, Baylor – Denver Nuggets
2011 Chandler Parsons, University of Florida – Houston Rockets (once averaged 16.5 points a game and hit 10 three-pointers in one half)
2010 Andy Rautins, Syracuse University – New York Knicks
2009 Jon Brockman, University of Washington – Portland Trail Blazers
2008 Kyle Weaver, Washington State University – Charlotte Bobcats
2007 Kyrylo Fesenko, Ukraine – Philadelphia 76ers
2006 Kosta Perovic, Croatia – Golden State Warriors
2005 Travis Diener, Marquette University – Orlando Magic
2004 Chris Duhon, Duke University – Chicago Bulls
2003 Steve Blake, University of Maryland – Washington Wizards (13-year veteran)
2002 Tito Maddox, California State University, Fresno – Houston Rockets
2001 Michael Wright, University of Arizona – New York Knicks
2000 Eduardo Najera, University of Oklahoma – Houston Rockets (1st Mexican player to be drafted, 12 years in the League)
1999 Laron Profit, University of Maryland – Orlando Magic
1998 DeMarco Johnson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte – New York Knicks
1997 Jerald Honeycutt, Tulane University – Milwaukee Bucks
1996 Steve Hamer, University of Tennessee – Boston Celtics
1995 Rashard Griffith, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee Bucks
1994 Darrin Hancock, University of Kansas – Charlotte Hornets
1993 Conrad McRae, Syracuse University – Washington Bullets
1992 Elmer Bennett, University of Notre Dame – Atlanta Hawks
1991 Joe Wylie, University of Miami – L.A. Clippers
1990 Jud Buechler, University of Arizona – Seattle Supersonics
1989 Doug West, Villanova University – Minnesota Timberwolves (nearly averaged 20 points per game in 1992-1993; the most like Gafford in his ability to terrorize the rim)
1988 Dean Garrett, Indiana University – Phoenix Suns
1987 Norris Coleman, Kansas State University – L.A. Clippers
1986 Lemone Lampley, DePaul University – Seattle Supersonics
1985 Fernando Martin, Spain – New Jersey Nets
1984 Charlie Sitton, Oregon State University – Dallas Mavericks
1983 Chris McNealy, San Jose State University – Kansas City Kings
1982 Wayne Sappleton, Loyola University of Chicago – Golden State Warriors
1981 Clyde Bradshaw, DePaul University – Atlanta Hawks
1980 Terry Stotts, University of Oklahoma – Houston Rockets
1979 Larry Wilson, Nicholls State University – Atlanta Hawks
1978 Lew Massey, University of North Carolina at Charlotte – L.A. Lakers
1977 Ricky Love, University of Alabama at Huntsville – Golden State Warriors