Arkansas center Daniel Gafford is widely expected to leave school for the NBA after just one season with the Razorbacks. But the freshman hasn’t yet made his intentions known, leaving some hope among Arkansas fans he may be back.
Don’t let those hopes get too high, though. One NBA draft expert recently told SEC Country he believes Gafford will be among the top 14 overall picks this June if he decides to turn pro.
“I’m a pretty big fan,” said Sam Vecenie, who covers the NBA Draft for The Athletic. “I have him as a lottery pick right now. The reason that I do is I love the springy athleticism, I love the motor, I love the instincts that he seems to have and I love his mentality.”
Vecenie estimates the consensus among draft experts is Gafford would be taken somewhere from No. 13-20, and is virtually a lock to go in the first round. In 35 games a freshman, Gafford averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. He also had 76 blocks, averaging better than 2 per game.
Gafford wasn’t necessarily thought of as a one-and-done player when he arrived at Arkansas. But Vecenie says the improvement he displayed over the course of his freshman season is a big reason Gafford’s stock has continually increased.
“Every month he kept adding to his game,” Vecenie said. “In January, it was defensive rotation he started to seem a lot more comfortable with. In February, he started to look very confident shooting mid-range jumpers. That says his trajectory is pointing upward. That’s the kind of guy that I am a big fan of tying myself to if I’m an NBA franchise.”
Vecenie has also noticed Gafford’s willingness to do little things that may not directly contribute to his stats line. He’s active with his hands on the defensive end, and is a strong screen-setter for this point in his development. He also has an edge in mentality with a relentless approach to running the floor and willingness to not take plays off.
“Whenever you mix that elite-level motor with the fact he has elite-level tools, that’s great for his NBA potential,” Vecenie said.
One fact that could help keep Gafford at Arkansas is the level of high-end post players expected in the 2018 draft. Some experts project as many as five big men projected to go in the top seven picks.
Vecenie cautions against the line of thinking that Gafford should avoid going into such a deep pool of big men, though. There’s no guarantee he would increase his draft stock with another year at Arkansas. In fact, Vecenie has a hard time seeing how he would.
“What I would say is that he’s the kind of player where I’m not really sure how much his stock would rise going forward for a couple of reasons,” Vecenie said. “First, he would need to take a pretty sizable jump in his ability to create offense for himself. And quite honestly, that’s not even a role teams really see him in. Second, for his numbers to jump he would need consistent guards to get him the ball. With [Daryl] Macon and [Jaylen] Barford leaving, I just wonder if Arkansas is going to get the guard play that would allow him to be as consistently strong as he’s been since January onward.”
Even if Gafford were to increase his stock with another year at Arkansas, the monetary difference would likely not be significant enough to make another year of college worth it.
“I would prefer to go 17 in the 2018 draft instead of 10 or so in the 2019 draft, because you’re starting your clock a year earlier,” Vecenie said. “You’re getting paid for an extra year. The difference in rookie salary exists, but the numbers are just not high enough to make such a sizable difference. If you believe in yourself and believe you’re going to make it as an NBA player, it behooves to get in the NBA a little bit earlier as long as you’re ready for that responsibility.”
Following Arkansas’ season-ending loss to Butler last Friday, Gafford told SEC Country his focus remained on the Razorbacks as it had been all season.
“Right now, [the NBA is] out of the discussion,” Gafford said. “I’m just trying to worry about my guys, the seniors that are leaving.”