NBA franchises and internet draftniks alike are often consumed with the search for basketball’s next unicorn. The league’s newest future 3-point shooting rim protector has the potential to be a game changer in the small-ball era, allowing yet another roster to play big defensively while maintaining the offensive advantages of going small.

However, not every big man prospect can be a so-called unicorn. In fact, not every big man needs to be. There are only 17 centers in the NBA this season(min. 500 minutes played) attempting more than 0.5 3-pointers per game. They play for 13 teams, which means about half the league is currently sorting out how to play full-time without a floor-spacing big man.

That’s good news for someone like Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford, a 6-11 freshman who hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer all season. In fact, according to Synergy, he’s only taken 18 jumpers in 30 games.

If you’re looking for a two-hour viewing session that encapsulates Gafford’s NBA potential, go check out the Razorbacks’ 91-82 win over Auburn. Gafford tallied 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks against the No. 14 team in the nation. He made 10 field goals, and seven of them were dunks.

Still, center prospects who don’t shoot 3s have a narrower path for adding value to an NBA team, so in evaluating a player like Gafford, it’s important to know what we should be looking for. To help, I snagged the top five centers in the league according to VORP (min. 500 minutes played) who have attempted fewer than 0.5 3s per game this season. The resulting sample — Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan and Enes Kanter — seemed serviceable.

A bit of poking around on NBA.com helped identify some consistent traits. For starters, three of the five — Adams, Capela and Jordan — rank in the top four league-wide in efficiency as dive men out of the pick-and-roll. The other two, along with Adams and Jordan, are four of the five highest volume shooters on putbacks.

All five of them rate out as elite offensive rebounders, and four of the five lead the league in defensive rebound rate. The fifth — Adams — tops the league in box outs and is famous for letting Russell Westbrook grab defensive boards.

All of these things logically makes sense, but it’s good to have them laid out clearly. Gafford has the potential to check all those boxes, and then some.

The 19-year-old’s length and athleticism shines in the pick-and-roll game where he’s averaging 1.364 points per possession (91st percentile) as the dive man this season, per Synergy. Gafford shows a good understanding of how to get into space, wait for the pass and then finish:

Gafford’s possessions here are somewhat limited as they are for many college centers. Arkansas runs a ton of post-ups for him, and when the offense breaks down, it devolves into searching for entry passes or one-on-one isolations rather than pick-and-rolls. Gafford should benefit from NBA offensive schemes and better spacing with more area inside the 3-point line and more shooters surrounding him. This season, he’s thriving on a roster that lacks shooting from the 4 spot.

To become an elite roll man at the next level, Gafford will need to develop the ability to make plays on the short roll, including simple passing reads, quick one- or two-dribble moves and even the occasional midrange jumper. He’s flashed a bit of each this season in various non-ball screen contexts:

Gafford has potential to score in other ways that should translate to the NBA as well. He’s a good (but not great) offensive rebounder, posting an 11.3 percent offensive rebounding rate. For perspective, that’s similar to Jordan’s rate as a freshman at Texas A&M, but well below rates for Adams and Drummond. Although Gafford’s athleticism and size plays well on the boards in college, he has a tendency to get displaced by stronger opponents who can move him off his spot.

That’s less of a concern on offense where motor and effort are more important than technique, but it does matter on the defensive end where Gafford either frequently misses box outs or gets displaced:

Of course, Gafford is still young and developing his basketball instincts, but he’ll need to add significant strength, as most NBA centers weigh at least 20 pounds more than him right now. Simply line up the big men projected to go in June’s lottery, and it’s easy to see Gafford lags behind the elite tier as a rebounder:

Player Total rebounds per 40 minutes
Robert Williams 14.2
Wendell Carter Jr. 13.9
Mohamed Bamba 13.8
Marvin Bagley III 13.5
Deandre Ayton 13.4
Daniel Gafford 11.2
Jaren Jackson Jr. 10.5

 

What the Arkansas freshman lacks as a rebounder, he can help make up for as a rim protector. Gafford is averaging 3.8 blocks per 40 minutes this season, and his presence on the floor makes the Razorbacks’ overall defense better. The team concedes five points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the floor, per Hoop Lens, and allows opponents to shoot just 45.8 percent on 2s compared to 51.4 percent with him on the bench.

Gafford’s long arms give him incredible range when chasing guards from the perimeter. He has a good feel for when to rotate over from the weak side, and he does a nice job timing his challenges by waiting for the offensive player to leave the floor:

Gafford’s combine measurements could be important for determining how well his shot blocking will translate at the next level. Last measured at 6-11 with a 7-2 wingspan, he lags behind most of the NBA’s elite non-shooting centers in terms of length:

Player Standing reach Wingspan Weight
Andre Drummond 9-1.5 7-6.25 279
Steven Adams 9-1.5 7-4.5 255
Clint Capela 9-2.5 7-4.5 222
DeAndre Jordan 9-5.5 7-6 250
Enes Kanter 9-1.5 7-1.5 259

At this point, the Arkansas freshman would slot in with a late lottery grade — somewhere between picks 11 and 14 — on my draft board, but front offices should rightfully evaluate whether they can achieve similar value with another center later in the draft. Both Capela and Jordan were draft day steals, for example, with the former going to the Rockets late in the first round and the latter to the Clippers early in the second.

However, Gafford’s potential rim protection is an important wrinkle that allows him to bring value to an NBA team in a way similar to Capela as an elite rim-running, rim-protecting center. Despite having less margin for error, those centers are still valuable for many teams in the league.

All statistics sourced from Sports-Reference and current as of March 1, 2018 unless otherwise noted.