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Bulls go back to Arkansas to land high-energy big man in second round

Daniel Gafford has some serious work to do outside the paint if he wants to improve his game, but he’s more than capable around the rim.

The last time the Bulls drafted a high-energy big man from Arkansas, it was Bobby Portis.

Second-round pick Daniel Gafford, selected Thursday night, isn’t expected to have the impact Portis did, especially early on, but that doesn’t mean the 6-11 rim-runner won’t be pushing for backup minutes.

“He’s a defensive rolling center, high energy, can run the floor,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said of Gafford, who was taken 38th overall. “He’s very athletic. His rebounding numbers, analytically, his shot-blocking numbers were really high. He played in a really difficult conference [the Southeastern Conference] and produced.

“He’s a young man that’s going to have to earn his stripes. But we like him as a basketball player.”

What’s not to like?

Gafford finished first-team All-SEC last season, averaging 16.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. His athleticism in the paint is that of a late-first-round talent, but his lack of any sort of shooting touch outside the paint — not to mention his free-throw shooting — relegated him to the second round.

His selection by the Bulls all but guarantees center Robin Lopez won’t be coming back in free agency, not that anyone should be shocked by that. But now there’s also pressure on Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. to step up, as Gafford is already more athletic than backup big man Cristiano Felicio.

There are minutes to be won for Gafford, even if the Bulls add more depth to the frontcourt in free agency.

“We’re still very young,” Paxson said. “We’ve recognized that for the last couple years. We know this offseason, we have to address some veteran players that can fit into the group that we have, help us win basketball games. It’s something that’s exciting for us.

“Talking [on Thursday night] as we sat as a group, [general manager] Gar [Forman] and [coach] Jim Boylen, we’re really excited about the possibilities. Jim often talks about [how] he wants the competitive guys — he wants the tough guys, the tough-minded people. I think we got two tough-minded young people [in Gafford and first-round pick Coby White]. We have to approach it the same way as we get into free agency.”

Staying mum

With free agency less than 10 days away, Paxson remained mum on details of what the Bulls will be shopping for.

“We’ve already had a ton of dialogue as a staff,” he said. “We have a very good understanding of the direction we want to go and how we want to use our money. We’re going to attack that at the proper time.

“We have ideas in free agency. They’ve got to be the right type of guys for us.’’

Shortly after the end of the season, the Bulls were eyeing second- and third-tier point guards for free agency, and White’s selection hasn’t changed that. Patrick Beverley would be a great fit, but a source again told the Sun-Times on Thursday that the cost could be high. The same can be said for veterans Ricky Rubio and Darren Collison.

Meanwhile, Cory Joseph and Ish Smith are two names that continue to come up on the Bulls’ radar.