While Arkansas lost out on the best 2016 basketball prospect in the state, it sure doesn’t appear that will be the case with the best talent in the 2017 class.
That is due in large part because the Razorbacks landed the top one in 2014 in Bobby Portis.
El Dorado junior center Daniel Gafford (6-10, 220) — one of the nation’s top 40 prospects in the 2017 class and the headliner at the Rumble of the Ridge in Forrest City which begins today — is solidly committed to Arkansas and wants to follow in the beloved Portis’ footsteps.
“I remember he had was sitting and keeping the clock for me this summer at a junior high camp and he has just gotten offer from West Virginia or Virginia Tech, I forget which one,” El Dorado head coach Gary Simmons said.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’ He said ‘I want to be the next Bobby Portis.’
“I asked him, ‘Well, where do you want to go to school because you have your choice of any school out there now?’
“He said, ‘Arkansas.’ I then told him that it seems to me like you have things all figured out.’”
Within days of that discussion, Gafford was committed to Arkansas — ironically on Aug. 1, the same day Portis had done so three years earlier.
He chose the Razorbacks over Kansas, Florida, Vanderbilt and a host of other offers.
“I just don’t think that it ever got to his head,” Simmons said. “He didn’t lay down at night worrying about. He just wants to be a Razorback and he wants to follow in Bobby’s footsteps.”
Gafford, who had a big spring and summer for the Arkansas Wings 16 and under AAU squad, is ranked as the 38th-best junior in the country by Scout.com and No. 45 by ESPN.
He is coming off a sophomore season where he averaged 13.3 points, 14.4 rebounds and blocked six shots per game.
“This is a kid who has not played very much basketball and whose best days are ahead of him,” Simmons said. “It is also one that broke the school rebounding record by over 200 rebounds as a sophomore. Just think about that.
“Daniel is really a sponge. He soaks up anything that you want to teach him. So the more we have him in the gym, the more developed he gets.
“The more time he spent in the gym during AAU, you could see him getting better. He picks up on stuff really quickly.
“One of the things that we did during the spring was for him to go through the guard drills so he could improve on his ball handling and shooting. It helped him as did the level of competition he played against in AAU basketball this spring and summer.”
Gafford and Simmons were both on hand for Arkansas’ season-opening 86-68 win over Southern on Nov. 13 and got to see a walk on they both care about check into the game.
That would be freshman guard Tristan Simmons, the coach’s son and Gafford’s former teammate.
“That was a pretty cool deal,” Simmons said. “Like most people growing up in this state, I wanted to play for the Razorbacks and that didn’t work out, but it is just as special if not more to see my son out there.”
El Dorado will open play in the Rumble on the Ridge Thanksgiving Day when it takes on Hoover, Ala., at 5 p.m. in the opening round of the three-day event.
The other first-round match-ups have East Poinsett Country meeting Huntsville, Ala., Lee at 3 p.m., host Forrest City taking on Marietta, Ga., Osborne at 6:30 and Union City, Tenn., and Montgomery, Ala., George Washington Carver playing at 8 p.m.
The Wildcats will play in Northwest Arkansas in the Crabtree Invitational in Bentonville on Dec. 3-4 against Huntington, La., and Little Rock Mills.
They will be back in Bentonville on Jan. 22 to take on Kentucky signee Malik Monk and his team in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN.
The Wildcats, who were 21-7 last season, also feature another Division I prospect in 6-2 junior guard Czar Perry, who had 20 points and 10 assists in a 99-47 benefit win over Rogers Providence Academy.
“It’s exciting for us all to have that chance to play on ESPN,” Simmons said. “We are looking forward to this season and hopefully come March we can be playing for a title.