Gafford’s return of sophomore season surprising, exciting news for Hog fans

Daniel Gafford / Photo:

The Windmill is making another revolution with the Arkansas Razorbacks.

OK, OK that’s a little corny, or maybe it’s a lot corny, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m a happy Hog fan right now.

“The Windmill” is, of course, a reference to those windmill dunks Daniel Gafford thrilled Hog fans with this year, and “another revolution” is a reference to the 6-11 forward’s decision to return for his sophomore season with the Razorbacks.

Every Arkansas basketball fan should be ecstatic by the young man’s decision, which he announced in a video released by the UA Sports Relations Department on Monday.

There had been a rumor from “those in the know” that Gafford planned to stay for his sophomore season, but I have to admit, I thought the lure of the NBA and the financial security that comes with being a first-round draft pick might be too strong. It would be for many of us, I would guess, if we were in a similar situation.

Gafford, though, is a rare talent for the Razorbacks’ basketball program. That was obvious two or three games into the season. The Hogs have had better players, for certain, but the Razorbacks have not had a player with the height and athletic ability that Gafford possesses since I began watching Razorback basketball in 1977.

His 11.6 ppg. and 6.1 rpg. averages don’t tell the tale. Gafford truly plays above the rim, and his length and wingspan make him a formidable defender and rim protector. He is a good rebounder who gets to boards outside his area, and he is a quick leaper, who doesn’t have to gather himself before making a second jump.

Add that to the fact that he is a hard worker, coachable, and competitive, and he has the makings of being a truly great player as a sophomore with the Razorbacks, which undoubtedly will be his final year in the program.

Gafford’s athletic ability is on par with the one-and-dones that Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski sign every year; however, his skills were raw when he arrived in Fayetteville and frankly they still are after a year in Arkansas coach Mike Anderson’s system.

That’s not a knock on Gafford or Anderson. Gafford improved greatly over the course of the season even though he did not play his best in the Hogs’ last couple of games. A player can only learn and develop so much within a season.

I think there is a lot Gafford can learn from another season at Arkansas under Anderson and Melvin Watkins’ tutelage that will help in his NBA career, but had he opted to go to the NBA, Gafford could have developed there, too, while getting paid handsomely.

There is every opportunity for Gafford to improve his draft stock by playing another year with the Razorbacks. We know already next year’s group of big men aren’t as accomplished as this year’s. That could moves him up the ladder a few spots if he has a good season next year with the Hogs.

If Gafford has a stellar season, he could vault even higher. If he plays well enough next year to be considered a dominant player rather than just being potentially dominant, his brand becomes more and more attractive and maybe he jumps into a lottery position or possibly even the top 10.

A move like that would make an enormous difference in his first NBA contract, and that first contract bares weight with his second contract because it sets a bar where future negotiations begin.

But, to be honest, few players make that kind of jump. It’s the goal for a player making the decision to return for another college season, but variables always come into to play.

I do think improving his draft stock for next season played a role in Gafford’s decision, but I believe there is something more to it.

Some have speculated that he wants to play with his friends in the incoming Razorback recruiting class, and if it is, you have to love that as a Hog fan. That would mean there is already a bond between the players on a team experiencing a ton of turnover.

The Hogs lose seven seniors from this year’s team, and while there are very good players coming in, you can’t replace the type of experience Arkansas is losing even if the talent coming in happens to be better than what’s departing. And until the players get on campus, it’s hard to truly know if the talent is better or not. Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford had greatly productive two-year careers with the Razorbacks.

With so much turnover, it’s hard to say what to expect from next year’s team. Some in the media are already ruling out a return to the NCAA Tournament for the Razorbacks because of their inexperience.

As a Razorback fan, I think there should always be an expectation for Arkansas to make the tournament, but that expectation should be governed with the knowledge that reality doesn’t always allow expectations to be met.

Either way, next year should be a better and more entertaining season with Gafford on the floor.

As for Anderson and his staff, my respect for them only grows. For Gafford even to consider coming back for another season shows that Anderson runs a program players not only enjoy being a part of but also one in which they see value.

Now, much was made about Moses Kingsley deciding to return for his senior year two years ago, and Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon doing the same last year. However, in all honesty, their choice was very different than Gafford’s.

As good a college players as Kingsley, Barford and Macon were, they weren’t going to be drafted. Their option was return to college or play basketball abroad.

On the other hand, Gafford would be selected if he entered the NBA Draft. He would be a millionaire by the middle of June.

The jury is going to be out on whether his decision was the right one or not until down the road.

After watching how much Bobby Portis improved from his freshman season to his sophomore year when he was named SEC Player of the Year, it’s easy to see how much improvement a player can make in one offseason under Anderson and his staff’s guidance. Portis improved every aspect of his game, and he has done very well for himself the past two seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

One hopes Gafford will follow in Portis’ footsteps.

But, every player as his own unique story, and as a Hog fan, I’m thrilled that Gafford’s story includes another season with the Razorbacks. I hope he’s able to accomplish everything he wants out of another year On the Hill.

And I think we all will enjoy seeing a few more windmill dunks before Gafford takes off his Razorback jersey for good.