The New Horace and Scottie?


Jun 29

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One’s from a big family, seven brothers and a sister, a remarkably skilled guy who came on fast because of his unique ball handling abilities for a big man, a bit on the practiced side, somewhat uncommunicative. He says he’s a small forward. Played point guard in high school.

The other guy is a skinny big kid, long armed and quick, blocking shots and running the court with a fast smile and enthusiastic personality.

Is this 1987?

Because that’s when the Bulls struck NBA Draft gold that began their march to six championships. They drafted Scottie Pippen, a uniquely skilled big kid from a huge family of 10 kids, a versatile small forward who was painfully shy and suspicious and who was a high school point guard who grew into an NBA forward. They also drafted Horace Grant, a 209-pound sliver of a power forward who was quick and energetic and with an outsized smile and personality.

Hey, we can dream, eh?

The Bulls Monday introduced their two 2009 No. 1 draft picks, versatile ball handling forward James Johnson from Wake Forest and lanky 214-pound power forward Taj Gibson.

They’re not Scottie and Horace, who were selected Nos. 5 and 10 in the 1987 draft and went on to be the forwards for three championship teams in the early 1990’s.

But I was at that 1987 draft, and the similarities are remarkable.

Johnson is the talented question mark, much like Scottie. He’s got amazing skills with his ability at 6-8 and about 260 to rebound, handle the ball, go full court and finish strong. Just for skills, several teams had him ranked among the top three in the draft. So how did he get to No. 16?

No one is quite sure how hard he will play or how much he wants to play. Those were the questions about him in college. You don’t want to read anything into an introductory press conference after more than a month of airplane flights everywhere around the country and the excitement of draft night. But Johnson often came across Monday like a 33-year veteran accountant waiting for the 6:15 home like he has every day.

He’ll need to be pushed, and those who’ve worked him out around the league this spring say while he didn’t always dominate workouts he was impressive and coachable and seemed willing to learn. He was a tough interview Monday at the press conference in the United Center, even saying at one time how he’d work hard to get into the rotation and if he couldn’t he’d be a great practice player.

My guess is someone told him to say that. Wrong answer.

I understand about not being too arrogant or overconfident, like Brandon Jennings has been in calling Ricky Rubio a fraud and appearing on a video last week run by Sporting News in which Jennings trashed the Bucks guards. Actually, he sounded a bit like Scott Skiles when he was drafted by the Bucks and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t starting ahead of Ricky Pierce, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief. OK, no one really wants too much brash and cocky. But a bit of earnestness would be nice.

That said, I believe the kid has special talents from what I’ve been told by scouts and coaches in the ACC. They say he’s a monster to play against. I like the pick a lot at No. 16 and think he has a chance to be a star and draft surprise. There had been talk the Bulls might take Tyler Hansbrough, and I think they lucked out when Hansbrough was taken No. 13 by Indiana. Hansbrough should be a fine player. But never elite. Johnson may not be, either. But he can be. I like the idea of taking a shot with a guy who could be special.

With his size and speed Johnson could also play against the small power forwards who’ve become the rage these days in the NBA, and it seems incumbent Bulls power forward Tyrus Thomas has taken notice.

Two power forwards drafted. Hmmmm. Wonder what that means?

Someone pointed out to me Tyrus’ blog, which had this posting: “The draft! I keep getting the question ‘What’s up with the two forwards?’ Let me say this, I’m the starting power forward and I don’t plan on playing anywhere but Chicago. Some may say I’m arrogant, or full of myself, some may even say I’m crazy! I’m just giving yall the truth.”

Tyrus and me bloggers. Go figure. I knew we were alike.

Some competition, which Tyrus seems keenly aware of, could be a very good thing for Tyrus.

The other forward doesn’t have the mobility and is more the NBA power forward type, if not so powerful. Yet.

We said this about Grant, who showed up the ACC player of the year and we wondered how that could be when he turned sideways and disappeared.

I caught up with Grant Monday. He’s living quietly in Northern California now and running basketball camps, this week the prestigious Four Rings Basketball in San Luis Obispo.

“I saw some highlights and if he’s from the South (he’s not, Brooklyn, N.Y.), he has some potential to be a young Horace Grant,” Grant joked. “From the looks of him, he has a ways to go in terms of building his body up for a grueling 82-game schedule.

“But he can do it,” Grant said. “I came in at 209 and it was a rude awakening. I learned fast you can be as quick as you want. But if you don’t have strength behind you, you won’t make it at power forward.

“For me, it changed after my first year when coach (Doug) Collins brought me in and showed me films of (Bill) Laimbeer and Karl Malone hitting me and with one blow I’d be out of the picture. It made a point on my ego,” said Grant. “You think you don’t want that happening again.

“I got with Al Vermeil (former Bulls strength coach), who I consider the best strength coach ever in the NBA and we worked up a plan and for two summers I did nothing but lifting and running,” said Grant. “I promised myself that would never happen again.

“I don’t want to sound like some old guy, but kids coming in today seem to feel like they are entitled,” said Grant, who started on four championship teams (one with the Lakers and three with the Bulls) and was in the Finals with three different teams (also the Magic). “Do they want to work? You can tell him for me, anytime he wants to come up here I’ll be glad to work with him.”

Gibson played three years at USC and is 24. He seemed much more into the moment of the day. He looked ready to go after a stray basketball and throw it back in someone’s face. He said he was well aware of Bulls history and was anxious to shoot against GM John Paxson, who was at the press conference. Johnson had actually requested No. 5, which was Paxson’s. It’s not retired, but the Bulls suggested Johnson take another number. He got 16, worn by Barry Clemens, Al Tucker, Ed Manning and Quentin Dailey for one game (Dailey mostly wore 44 but probably was hiding from authorities that day). Gibson got No. 22, worn previously by Jimmy Collins, Ray Blume, Rod Higgins, Steve Colter, Charles Davis, Rodney McCray, John Salley, Keith Booth, Chris Anstey, Trenton Hassell and Jay Williams.

I think the Bulls do like the kid, though that could be the unluckiest number in team history. Of course, if he is good there won’t be any competition to have it retired.

Like Johnson, whose father was a world kick boxing champion, Gibson’s father was a young athlete and played basketball for the U.S. Army national team. Both have strong family backgrounds.

Gibson said during the press conference that he’d just recently begun to spend time with Johnson and found Johnson light hearted and funny. Maybe he did that old, “”You can call me Ray and you can call me Jay but don’t call me Johnson” bit for Gibson. Look, after six weeks of airplane trips, I’m usually in traction. And after my trips I go straight to the press room food, not to work out against a half dozen guys who want my job.

He’ll probably loosen up, though I’m guessing the Bulls don’t yet have that vocal and verbal locker room presence they always talk about missing.

Gibson, meanwhile, is an intriguing selection for so far down in the first round in a draft not highly regarded. He’s about 6-9 with long arms and a shot blocker, very similar to Thomas. He’s not likely as explosive because hardly anyone is. But if Gibson can get a bit stronger, the Bulls will have a nice alternative at power forward.

We love those comparisons, and Gibson has been likened to P.J. Brown, who wasn’t highly thought of coming out of college and who developed into a solid power forward. Johnson draws comparisons even to the likes of Charles Barkley without the explosiveness. I’ve also heard the name Antoine Walker for Johnson’s ballhandling at that size and postup ability as a three, though without the unorthodox shot. And we have to assume without the shimmy shake.

Horace and Scottie? Probably not. But they’ll be interesting to watch develop.

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