Taj Gibson is a rookie only in NBA experience


Feb 12

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It was a revealing scene Wednesday in the Bulls locker room before the last game before the All Star break.

Tyrus Thomas was sitting in the far left corner, talking with Lindsey Hunter, gesturing vehemently, trying to ignore reporters after his recent suspension for verbal abuse toward coach Vinny Del Negro over playing time. James Johnson, near the door was brightly joking with big Jerome James, talking about where he was going during the All Star break.

Farther down the row past Michael Jordan’s hallowed spot and where Scottie Pippen used to dress, Taj Gibson patiently and enthusiastically answered questions from reporters about the upcoming All Star weekend, which he was attending as a longshot rookie pick for the Rookie Challenge game Friday night.

Gibson, because of his plantar fasciitis, played just nine minutes as the rookie team won for the first time since 2002, 140-128. Gibson had six points in the wild, open game, but was thrilled with the experience.

“The coach liked my defense,” laughed Gibson, who couldn’t control his natural tendencies in the playground type game. “I was going to down John (Paxson) and Gar (Forman) wanted me to do, play five minutes each half. I was just happy to be out there. It was a great experience being in a game that I watched and always wanted to be in. I watched this game more than the regular All Star game because I liked to see the new players. It was a dream come true playing in it with some of the top players, DeJuan (Blair, with 22 points and 23 rebounds), Brandon (Jennings with 22 points and Russell Westbrook with 40).

“I would like to have taken a three because I told myself I’d shoot a three because bigs don’t get to shoot any threes,” joked Gibson. “It was a fun game. Coach gave me the signal to come out and I said to myself I was going to try to crossover somebody. I’m going to go out with a bang. I said to Marc (Gasol), ‘Why didn’t you let me go?’ He said, ‘I had to foul you. It was on national television.’ But I got two free throws made coach (Randy) Brown would be happy with me.”

Yes, always trying to do the right thing and get better.

Along with Derrick Rose, the prodigy who is expected to play in his first All Star game Sunday and attended Friday to support Gibson along with GM Forman, Gibson was the least likely of the Bulls young foursome to be in Dallas.

He was a bottom of the first round pick, No. 26, a thin power forward not much noticed in college and in very few of the projected first round mock drafts of a year ago. Many didn’t even have him being drafted given his low personal and basketball profile and playing on the West Coast at USC.

Thomas, of course, was the touted No. 4 overall pick in the 2006 draft, an LSU freshman with breathtaking athletic talents. Johnson was the Bulls’ top draft choice last summer, No. 16 overall, a versatile sophomore phenom who drew comparisons to Pippen.

Thomas and Johnson have had difficulties while Gibson has quietly emerged to own the Bulls starting power forward spot and the admiration of coaches around the league. In fact, one Western Conference coach when the Bulls were on their January trip told me he’s been asking his GM to try to trade for Gibson, that given Gibson’s fundamental knowledge and selfless, aggressive play he’s the kind of big man who can prosper in the NBA for a decade.

Gibson doesn’t draw any comparisons between himself and his teammates, whom he likes. But he does say being a four-year college basketball player and student has prepared him well for the NBA.

In a sense, he’s one of the best arguments in the ongoing debate over NB age limits and the best path to being a pro.

He hasn’t hit the so called rookie wall, and he goes to Dallas as a Bulls representative while his more celebrated teammates slog through their issues.

“It meant a big difference to me because when you listen to different coaches and understand how to take instructions and hold your emotions to yourself it comes a long way,” said Gibson. “Coach (Tim) Floyd and the coaches pushed me to my limits many times and they always tested me to see how I’d respond. I felt like they were molding me and preparing me for the next step.”

Yes, they’d yell at Gibson, and make sure he was there on time and stayed late and worked. And they’d pull him from games when it didn’t seem like it was warranted and make sure he was in the weight room and got to class and didn’t leave practice early and understood all these little things meant accountability and responsibility and being an adult.

“One game (at USC) I scored 25 points and was celebrating. The coaches got after me,” recalled Gibson. “In the NBA, it was totally different, they said. You score 25 points but you play the next night and have to do it again so you can’t really celebrate and I’ve thought about that.

“I talked to OJ (Mayo, USC product) last year,” said Gibson. “He taught me this game is stressful, the losing, how your production is. There are a lot of things that can affect you. How people react to it and what they say. There are a lot of things on you. You have to have a strong head and be mentally stable.

“I watched how he carried himself and I’d ask coach Floyd and different guys questions,” said Gibson. “It’s important to get in position to know what’s going to happen, and everything they told me it really goes on. So I was prepared.

“Being able to understand defense and being able to talk. Those two things are important,” Gibson said. “The coach told me some guys hit walls in not taking care of their bodies or they’re just lazy. By being there I was taking advantage of everything given to me in weight lifting and coaching. If you stay in college you have to get better either mentally or physically.

“Some guys are great on the basketball court but don’t have the capacity to understand it,” said Gibson. “You have to be well rounded off the court and on the court because your coach has to be able to talk to you and he has to be able to direct you for information and not many guys allow him to do that. It’s been working out good for me. I’m always eager to learn. Since my freshman, junior year there are things just from learning defense. In my freshman, year my defensive rotation was totally bad. High screen and roll I couldn’t play it well. But ever since my junior year I’m learning and now it’s been effective here. The coaches give me credit for it sometimes and it’s been working out good.

“Not everybody can step right in,” Gibson said. “One thing coming out of college everyone is grown men. It has an effect on you whether you realize it or not. Some guys aren’t ready for that stuff off the bat. Some people are sheltered. Coming into this league it’s a league filled with different characters and not everyone can deal with that.”

After that Wednesday game against the Magic, there was a big media contingent waiting around to hear more about Rose’s injury. Johnson had played for the first time (in how long) because the game was a blowout loss. Unlike Thomas, he’s never been hostile to reporters and generally has an open smile.

I asked him about finally getting some playing time again.

His answer surprised me.

“It’s been my fault,” he said. “I never want to get time when some one goes down. But if you are going to lose go out there and compete and lose with some dignity. You gotta come out there and want to be a pro and work like a pro, pay attention. I didn’t. Some of my immature ways, I let it go out the window. Ever since then I’ve been more focused and willing to learn and it’s been paying off some and I’ll just do what I do.”

It hasn’t been much discussed around the Bulls, but it not only was Johnson’s erratic play that got him benched again. He hasn’t always been punctual or responsible and enjoying the pro life a bit more much than accepting its responsibility. Like Thomas, he came out of school early from a program that wasn’t known for is discipline and from a small town background with great athletic ability and that dreaded potential.

So when NBA life hit him in the face he didn’t know what to do. So he responded badly. It ends up costing many their NBA careers.

There’s been this debate about the NBA’s age limit. It’s a one year college requirement now. Some say kids should be allowed to pursue the NBA immediately after high school. The NBA wants to extend the wait to at least two years. Some are ready after high school, like LeBron James, and some after a year in college, like Rose.

Most, I believe, are not, and I believe it lowers the level of play in the NBA and shortens the careers of many players because they are unprepared for NBA life and react badly as a result. And the NBA doesn’t wait because there always are more kids coming behind you trying to push you out of the way.

Gibson was on a limited playing time schedule for the rookie/sophomore game because of his plantar fasciitis, but the fact he was in Dallas was a testament to his preparation for a professional life. My guess is he has a longer NBA career than Thomas, and we’ll see if Johnson has learned.

It’s also why it’s so important that Gibson is in Dallas for the weekend at the NBA showcase.

He’ll never be a superstar player and likely never an All Star. But his commitment and perseverance serves as wonderful model of what is possible with education and maturity.

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