Five years ago, the Bulls took a chance on an experienced power forward - Southern Cal's Taj Gibson - they knew could step in and contribute immediately, and it paid off.
And this June, they'll have a similar opportunity to shore up their frontline with another versatile forward in Michigan State's Adreian Payne.
The 6-foot-9 senior was one of college basketball's best success stories this year, averaging 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds while dealing with personal hardships along the way. Once struggling to qualify academically while battling attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) while also dealing with the rigors of a Big Ten schedule, he has overcome his personal battles and has confidence that his maturity and experience will pay off at the next level.
"Staying four years helped me a lot on and off the court. I became a great person on the court and off the court, a great player. It just took time," he said at Thursday's NBA Draft Combine. "When you come into this league they said you’ve got to be mature, and the experience helped. So I got as much experience as I could in college in playing, and now it’s time to try and take it to the next level."
In 2009, Gibson declared for the draft after three seasons at Southern California, but he was 24 years old and had averaged nearly 33 minutes per game in 105 career games during his stint with the Trojans. Like Payne, Gibson was an experienced, ready contributor, and he fit in right away in Chicago, appearing in all 82 games (starting 70) while averaging 9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds. He was named to the NBA's All-Rookie team and hasn't looked back, agreeing in 2012 to a four-year, $38 million extension.
That 2009 draft also marked the last time the Bulls held two selections in the first round. They have that luxury this season after receiving the Bobcats' once-protected pick that dated all the way back to the Tyrus Thomas trade in 2010. In 2009 they took a chance on a young, athletic wing in sophomore James Johnson (No. 16 overall) while also taking a more sure bet in Gibson with the No. 26 pick.
There's reason to believe the Bulls may use one of their two first-round picks on an international player they can stash overseas - much like they are doing with Spanish forward Nikola Mirotic, who they traded for on draft night in 2011. It's unknown whether the Bulls will pay Mirotic's buyout with Real Madrid this offseason, but one of the top international players not in the NBA is certainly part of the team's future.
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And the Bulls, who averaged a league-worst 93.7 points per game this year, have been linked to players such as North Carolina State's T.J. Warren, Kentucky's James Young and Creighton's Doug McDermott, all of whom could provide a scoring punch on the wing that disappeared when the Bulls traded Luol Deng in January.
But if the Bulls feel they've found their scoring output with the No. 16 pick (or feel they can get him with the No. 19 pick), Payne could step in and provide a replacement on the second line if Gibson moves into the starting lineup post-Boozer.
The All-Big Ten selection carries a skillset that includes 3-point range (he shot better than 42 percent on 104 attempts from beyond the arc), an advanced post-up game (he scored 1.055 points per possession on such possessions, which put him in the 90th percentile nationally) and versatility to guard both inside and out defensively.
"I’m just trying to continue getting better in all areas of the game. I’m capable of guarding the perimeter. I want to get to the point where I can guard Durant’s and Chris Paul, just smaller guards and great players," Payne said. "So I’m capable of hitting the 3. I have stretched my range to the NBA 3-point line, so I’m just trying to get better at all areas of the game.
The Bulls were the only team in the NBA last year that did not receive a single 3-pointer from a listed power forward or center, and with Boozer's impending departure and the unknown of when Mirotic might arrive in Chicago leaves a void in the Bulls' frontcourt. With a team that, depending on Derrick Rose's health, is closer to an NBA Championship than the lottery, an experienced, versatile player such as Payne fits the bill for what Gar Forman and John Paxson will be looking for next month.
Just like when the Bulls selected the experienced and matured Gibson, Payne may be able to provide the same output if he's available after the lottery.
"I think I have advantages over a lot of players. I’m diverse, I can do a lot of things and I’m more mature, I can handle myself on and off the court and I don’t have to worry about any distractions. It’s me and basketball."