FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford luckily avoided a technical foul when he surprised himself by dunking during pre-game warmups as an eighth-grader.
These days, the Arkansas freshman is doing much more than narrowly throwing down in a moment that doesn’t matter.
He is turning college basketball into his own personal dunk party, much to the excitement of a fan base that believes the 6-foot-11 forward is the final piece to a team with hopes of making a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Gafford enters the holiday break third on the team with an average of 12.2 points per game. His scoring, however, only tells a small part of the early season dominance of the wildly athletic forward who leads the Razorbacks (9-2) with 26 dunks through 11 games.
“Yeah, he needs to go to the NBA now,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry joked after Gafford scored 25 points in a win over Bulldogs on Nov. 17. “(Gafford) looked like an NBA guy right off the bat.”
Gafford is shooting 69.4 percent from the field and averaging 5.7 rebounds and two blocks per game. And he is doing it in only 19.8 minutes, partially because of foul concerns and also because it took him until three games ago to work his way into the starting lineup.
When he’s been on the court, Gafford’s dominance has been enough to remind some of former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Bobby Portis. Armed with a fierce sense of determination to go along with his 36-inch vertical jump, 7-foot-2 wing span and 12-foot-4 maximum jump, the first-year comparisons appear well justified.
“I will say this, he’s got a chance to be one of the most athletic big guys we’ve had,” coach Mike Anderson said. “Now, the other stuff has got to come along, the skill part and all that stuff, but you cannot knock the desire. The desire is there to be a great player.”
While many tall players struggle at times with coordination while going through growth spurts during their formative years, Gafford has had the benefit of always being tall for his age — courtesy of his 6-4 father and 6-3 ½ mother. When he wasn’t hitting head on one doorway or another while growing up in El Dorado, Arkansas, Gafford was busy taking part in several activities other than basketball. He was a wide receiver until ninth grade, and he also stood out on the field as the tallest drummer in the band.
Gafford credits his time marching and dancing in the band for aiding in the development of his skills on the court, just as he says football helped him become more physical. He committed to play at Arkansas as a ninth-grader, later turning down interest from schools such as LSU, Alabama and Florida. Still, he felt a bit overlooked.
Those days of anonymity are long gone, especially as one visiting coach after another comes to Fayetteville and sees his talent.
“If he works hard and is a good kid, (Gafford) could be a first-round pick,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after the freshman went 8 of 8 from the field in a win over the Golden Gophers on Dec. 9.
Neither Anderson nor Gafford are close to having a conversation about his professional prospects. Gafford is only 11 games into his collegiate career, and he was nowhere to be found on mock draft lists before the season.
That’s changed quickly since Gafford has emerged as an interior force for the Razorbacks, and even he hasn’t been able to ignore the projections — which he feels are an indicator of the rapid progress he’s made.
“When I see that, it makes me want to work harder and get higher on the board, to be honest,” Gafford said. “If I continue to work hard, pretty soon I might be the No. 1 pick.”
For now, Gafford is focused on helping an Arkansas team that’s nearing its first ranking since the end of the 2014-15 season, one that’s spent much of the season in the NCAA’s top 10 of the RPI ratings.
The Razorbacks are well on their way to reaching the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons, but Gafford is planning on more than just making the postseason.
“I think we can win it all,” he said.
Follow Kurt Voigt on Twitter at @Kurt_Voigt_AP