2018 NBA Draft: Analyzing Daniel Gafford’s decision to return to Arkansas

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images /

Despite the strong likelihood of being a first round pick, Daniel Gafford is the first big name to decide to go back to school rather than declare for the 2018 NBA Draft.

Last year it was Miles Bridges and Robert Williams. Seemingly, the 2018 poster boy for going back to school is Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford. Gafford was one of a few freshmen who blew up onto the scene and established himself as a first round pick. Despite helping Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament and putting up strong numbers, he’s going back to school.

Gafford is a 6’11” center with long arms and great mobility. He has ridiculous bounce, a little bit of touch and a knack for blocking shots. His vision has come in flashes, but he still needs a lot of work on decision-making and his handle. During his freshman year, Gafford averaged 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in less than 30 minutes per game. We saw Zach Collins of Gonzaga get picked 10th with less than that.

With all that in mind, he’s a bit of a no-brainer as a first round pick, mostly because of his combination of athleticism and a high motor. He has a very clear path to being a useful NBA player. Like Bridges and Williams’ decisions, we can’t help but wonder if this is the best move for Gafford from a draft perspective. He was most certainly going to be taken in the first round.

Coming back to school hasn’t always led to players improving their stock. Just ask Ivan Rabb. Now, Bridges and Williams went back to school despite a very strong potential freshman class coming in. Bridges had a fine year and is projected to go in the back end of the lottery. Williams didn’t impress much, but is still a solid first round pick. They didn’t exactly make poor decisions. Yet, they didn’t cement themselves as high lottery picks either.

Gafford’s case is a little more interesting. Where Bridges and Williams returned despite a strong group of freshmen coming in, the 2018 high school class is not that. You have one alpha dog in Duke’s R.J. Barrett and then there are a lot of question marks. Maybe Gafford’s decision to return isn’t so crazy. Maybe it’s a sign of a coming trend.

The 2019 NBA Draft class has teams worried. There is not a lot of star power and more talent than ever seems to be coming out earlier than expected in 2018. Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and more breakout freshmen made that possible. Mitchell Robinson, De’Anthony Melton and Anfernee Simons all made this 2018 class stronger by leaving early. This 2019 class, on the other hand, could be one of the weakest in recent memory.

So perhaps when Gafford was mulling over his options, that truth came to mind. Where it was difficult to see Robert Williams break the top 10 or top five, Gafford might have a real chance if he improves. We’ll have to see, but it wouldn’t be surprising if more first round picks or guys on that first-to-second round bubble make the same decision as Gafford. Prime candidates would include Zhaire Smith of Texas Tech, DeAndre Hunter of Virginia and even Jaren Jackson Jr. of Michigan State.

Jackson is the most interesting because he’s basically a lock to go top-10, but theoretically could push himself into the top 3 and maybe go No. 1 in 2019. Don’t count out Wendell Carter Jr. either. Mohamed Bamba, Deandre Ayton, Trae Young and Marvin Bagley III are all NBA-bound already. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that their counterparts are taking their time a bit more.

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Ultimately, this seems like a relatively safe choice for Gafford. Well, at least relative to those who came beforehand. Gafford could suffer an unforeseen setback and see his stock drop. That happened to Maryland’s Justin Jackson this year and many more before him. But in the context of looking to future draft classes, we could be about to see a major shakeup and a strong returning group of upperclassmen.