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Razorbacks’ former star center, key figure for NBA Playoff team

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Since most people had never heard of El Dorado, Daniel Gafford’s play with the Dallas Mavericks now in the Western Conference finals has suddenly put it on the radio. For those of that southern Arkansas town known for finding oil in the early 1900s, it’s a time to enjoy a little bit of the spotlight.

Quite a few quality athletes came through El Dorado during that period. As my teammates prepared for our first pee-wee game, our group was touted as future state champions by fellow former Southern Arkansas residents Will Crowder and Jon Clawson.

Those guys certainly knew what they were talking about. My Class of 2010 won the Arkansas 6A State Championship over a very good Pine Bluff team led by dual-threat Claude Johnson. That win came a year after falling short as Lake Hamilton’s runner-up, led by Phillip Butterfield, Josh Proffit and Tauno Vannucci.

El Dorado played in four consecutive state title games from 2008 to 2012, winning a fourth title in five years in 2014. Football set a championship-level trend that spilled over into basketball, baseball, golf, tennis and others for both boys and girls.

Led by former Arkansas quarterback Taylor Reed (Class of 2011), that team started a trend of college-level student athletes in the district. Several others, such as linebackers Jimmy Ford (Arkansas Tech), Luke Lansdell (Southern Arkansas), wide receiver Clay Murphy (Central Arkansas) and defensive end Cornelius Watson, who played one season of high school ball before attending college at SAU.

Watson was a quality hooper himself. However, just a few years later, a physical specimen entered his bloodline, shooting to stardom in just a short time. That’s Gafford, who has become a highlight-reel dunker.

Known as “Landlord” for his ownership of the paint, Gafford has become one of the most exciting players in the NBA. He was dunking windmills and beating his opponents during high school, which came after he joined the Barton Junior High band. No, he hasn’t played competitive basketball in ten years. He still had a lot of ground to make up, but his God-given size and natural athletic ability and Southern Arkansas work ethic accelerated the process.

The potential of his game was seen across the country. He proved early on that paint was his domain. As a senior, Gafford nearly led the Wildcats to a state championship in 2017, but lost to undefeated Jonesboro and future Arkansas teammate Desi Sills.

Gafford was ranked 35th overall in the 247sports composite rankings and averaged 17 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks per game for El Dorado in his final high school dance. He recorded 11 triple-doubles and 27 double-doubles for the Wildcats that season, which aided his recruiting evaluation. He eventually signed with Arkansas under Mike Anderson over Florida, Kansas and others.

By the time he ended his career with the Razorbacks after two seasons, Gafford was named to the AP All-American Honorable Mention team. He was just the sixth player from Arkansas to be named first-team All-SEC. As a sophomore, he finished fifth in the nation in field goal percentage at 66.0% and led the SEC in stats with nearly 10%.

He showed dominance during his second collegiate season as he was the SEC’s only player to finish in the top five in scoring (No. 4) with 17 points per game, nine rebounds per game (No. 2), field goal percentage (No. . 1) at 66%, blocked shots (No. 2) at two per game, offensive rebounds per game (No. 2) at almost three per game and defensive rebounds (No. 3) at six per game.

Players like Gafford don’t come through the state of Arkansas very often. Union County has produced countless athletes over the years, but a very low percentage of them make it to the professional level, let alone start and star in the NBA Playoffs or other major sporting events.

Fortunately, Gafford continues to develop for the Mavericks. Which doesn’t hurt when you’re playing with the ultimate floor-spreading weapon like Luke Doncic. It certainly hasn’t always been easy for Gafford either, considering the franchises he had to play for before he could compete for a title. Through three games in the Western Conference finals, Gafford is putting up 10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and shooting 65% from the floor per game.

Since taking his title with the Bulls and Wizards, Gafford has certainly earned the right to his nickname, spot in the league and one of the best athletes to come out of the halls of El Dorado High. At just 25 years old, we still have plenty of miles to go to inspire athletes from southern Arkansas and around the world to always strive to be great, no matter where you are at that moment. The sky is always the limit. Gafford has really proven so much.

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