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Bulls' Taj Gibson living the dream
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 25
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It was way back at that first game of the season, Taj Gibson’s first game as a pro and, hello, welcome to the NBA, Taj, you’re playing Tim Duncan.
But the 24-year-old rookie from USC was serious. He came to play. But, geez, it was Tim Duncan, who was winning championships when Taj was just getting into high school.
“I came out and in two quarters I had like six points and five rebounds,” recalled Gibson, “and he says to me, ‘Now, Taj, I understand. They were telling me you were ready to play. But I didn’t know you’d come out scoring and rebounding. I think I’ll have to step up my game now.’
“As soon as he said that he put up like 30 points,” Gibson said with a laugh. “I was shocked he knew my name.”
The Bulls head into Utah Thursday, Thanksgiving night on national TV, to close the Western Conference part of their road trip and things aren’t very good. They’ve lost three straight games in which they’ve trailed by at least 24 points. Sorry, but that’s bad stuff. They are one of the worst offensive teams in the league, 27th in scoring, 26th in shooting and threes and 24th from the free throw line. And the defense has been slipping, now 14th in opponents’ field goal percentage.
Derrick Rose hasn’t been the same player he was as a rookie and it’s now closing in on two months since his ankle injury. And minutes have been piling up awfully early on a relatively short rotation. The record isn’t horrendous at 6-7 for a tough early schedule, but some signs remain worrisome.
But something for the Bulls to give thanks for on this Thanksgiving, at least from the first month of the season, has been the steady—and vital—play of Gibson, especially with Tyrus Thomas out perhaps another two to three weeks with a fractured left forearm. They didn’t get a turkey with this low first round draft pick.
Gibson, the 26th pick in the draft, is averaging seven points and 5.5 rebounds, the latter second on the team. Among rookie, Gibson is quietly one of the big surprises, 15th in scoring, second in rebounding and blocks, sixth in minutes played, eighth in shooting and ninth in steals.
Gibson has started 10 of the 13 games and been a nice complement with Joakim Noah for the team’s improved defense until the last few games.
“I thought coming in not to worry about numbers, just worry about playing hard and getting better,” said Gibson. “I listen to the veterans and when your time comes you work your minutes and play hard. It’s been fortunate for me it’s been able to come (playing time) quicker than expected.
“With working hard and understanding the coaching, I think they realize I can do things they didn’t think I could do, like shooting, guarding, playing other positions,” said Gibson. “It’s worked out well so far.”
It’s also been the trip of a lifetime for the kid from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was playing in the relative obscurity of Pac-10 basketball (too late at night for the East and Midwest) and finding himself in the starting lineup for a playoff hopeful team and playing against some of the game’s best and his own idols from his youth. He’s listed at 6-9, and is thin for the rugged power forward position. But he puts everything into the games.
“I’ve heard it said that if you can do one thing (well) in this league you can be around a long time,” says Gibson. “I’ve been watching these talented players and they do more than one thing. It’s real competitive. I know that. There are no days off. In this league, you can’t stop anybody. You can only contain them and slow them down.”
But, his buddies still want to know, what’s it like? How good is KG? How big is Duncan?
“I tell them they’re great, but it’s the small things,” said Gibson, an eager student of the game. “It’s not only the one or two plays, the dunk or blocked shot, it’s the things they do for the team.
“A lot of people don’t know what beats you,” says Gibson. “Against Boston, it was the way he (Garnett) screened the whole night, putting a body on the wings to free Ray Allen and the rest of the shooters. You take that and the talking, the communication on the court.”
Though a rookie, coach Vinny Del Negro says Gibson has become one of the most verbal of Bulls players on the court, warning of screens, of coverages.
“He’s one of the most quiet off the court,” says Del Negro. “But on the court he’s always talking, helping Jo, stuff like, ‘I’ve got your back.’ ‘Here comes (a screen)’ ‘I’ll pick up.’ It’s like that with some guys. He listens and he learns and then he’s not afraid to speak up. I like that.”
But Gibson also understands what the teams needs from him.
“Right now, I’m a rookie and my main focus is defense,” Gibson says. “If you play defense, that’s the main thing that gets you on the court. I’m not on the court to make shots, but I’ll take them. My minutes come from me being able to contain the top players. I understand how it works. I’m grateful for the opportunity and when I get the opportunity I cherish it.
“It’s a long season and anything can happen,” says Gibson. “So you continue to go out and work hard and play. Chicago is a great city and I love basketball. I have great coaches who push me every day. I’m happy here and this is a winning team. This team isn’t one of those ordinary teams where we lose and guys are, ‘All right. Cool.’ Some teams slack off and may go laugh on the bench. This team doesn’t do that. When we lose we take it personally.”
And Gibson still has to pinch himself some times and give thanks in how own way for his good fortune.
As a kid growing up in New York City, he said he got to go to one Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.
“I remember looking down on the court,” Gibson recalled. “It was so far away, but I remember the music. And now it’s the same music and I’m out there.
“I get teary eyed before every game,” Gibson admits. “I look up in the stands at all the kids. Man, dreams do come true.”