LOS ANGELES—Taj Gibson is a proud Brooklyn native, but this part of the country is where he made his name as a basketball player, emerging as a top prep-school recruit at Stoneridge Prep after leaving New York before matriculating to USC and being drafted by the Bulls after a stellar career in what was then known as the Pac-12.
Gibson started Sunday’s 96-82 Bulls win over the Lakers at the Staples Center in place of Carlos Boozer, who missed his second consecutive game with a left-calf-injury, but it’s his performance as a upper-echelon sixth man that has garnered attention in this, his fifth NBA season. At the same time, the former late first-round draft pick will likely also be under consideration for Most Improved Player honors at season’s end, not to mention the league’s All-Defensive Team, an accolade that would earn him a bonus in his contract, something CSNChicago.com reported last week.
“All of the above. You could pick All-Defense, Sixth Man, Most Improved. I think he has made that case by his actions and what he’s done, the way he’s performed. He’s invaluable to us,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The way he works, he’s by far our best practice player. He worked extremely hard this summer. We have a lot of confidence in him and I still think there’s room for growth for him.
“Taj, to me, is a starter. He’s had a fantastic year. He can score the ball, he defends, he can play multiple positions. Whatever you ask him to do, he does. I think he’s gotten real comfortable in the post. His post game is very, very strong and we can play off that, and now he’s also starting to make plays. He’s reading defenses well. His defense has always been a strength. But he’s had a terrific season, so I’m hopeful. He’s deserving of [Sixth Man of the Year] consideration,” the coach went on to explain. “I think he has a lot of respect in the league because of how hard he plays and because he’s so selfless. He doesn’t play for himself, he plays for the team. He doesn’t worry about his own individual statistics. Whatever you want him to do, he does. As I said, you could start him. He’s great there. You can bring him off the bench, he’s great. Not many guys can do both as well as he can. It doesn’t take him five minutes to warm up. As soon as you put him in the game, the motor’s running. He’s flying around.
“In my eyes, he is [an All-Defensive Team candidate] because I see what he does every night. There’s not one aspect of his defense, if you look at low-post defense, pick-and-roll defense, the ability to switch, the blocked shots, the anticipation, multiple effort. He’s got great feet, great anticipation. So I don’t see why not.”
Now, Thibodeau has implied that he understands that Gibson’s potential bonus, something that the Bulls’ front office has to believe is at least a strong possibility, is a reason that his team remains short-handed and could even make a trade before the Feb. 20 league-wide deadline, perhaps jettisoning the likes of either Kirk Hinrich or Mike Dunleavy to ensure they stay below the punitive luxury-tax threshold, something the organization managed to sneak under with the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland.
But his pleasure in Gibson’s development in this breakout season is something he separates from the Bulls’ financial realities, simply enjoying the fact that his prized pupil, through diligence, has expanded his game and bounced back from last year’s inconsistent, injury-riddled campaign, which started off with the distraction of negotiations for a long-term contract just before the beginning of the season.
“Yeah, part of it in hindsight is probably the contract itself. As much as you try to block it out, it ran right up into the season. Then, I think he was somewhat distracted starting the season. He didn’t get off to as a good a start as we would have liked. He had a stretch where he was really playing well right before he got hurt in Oklahoma City and that was midway through the season,” the coach explained. “It was an up-and-down year for him. He went into the summer with a clear head. He wanted to get off to a great start, so I thought he prepared himself well and he has just continued on from the start of the season all the way through.”
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Gibson has blossomed into perhaps the Bulls’ most consistent offensive player since Deng was traded and certainly a go-to guy for the team with his blend strong and athletic finishing around the basket, low-post scoring and more reliable mid-range jumper. There was a time when an effort like his 18-point, six-rebound performance against the Lakers would have been considered an above-average outing for Gibson, but it’s become quite commonplace for him this season—he’s notched his career-high of 26 points on three separate occasions now—particularly when given a starting nod.
“It’s a big difference. People don’t understand when you start and come off the bench. It’s a totally big difference. Coming off the bench, you have to really be ready, locked in. Stiff, you have to be just ready to jump in the game right away. When you start the game, you already have a nice sweat going. You’re just ready to go and the sky’s the limit when your teammates believe in you,” explained Gibson, who started for much of his rookie season, inheriting the spot from Tyrus Thomas, and early in his second year, when Boozer was sidelined with a training-camp injury. “I feel if I get that opportunity, I think I can get 20 and 10 in a lot of games. Every other night, I think, or either a double-double. It’s not hard, I don’t think, if you get the right amount of minutes and right amount of attempts. You don’t understand. When you’re on the bench for so long and you get those attempts, it’s just mind-blowing. If you get the right opportunity and the right team around you, everything’s possible.”
Thibodeau sees the Bulls’ power-forward tandem as a major advantage, although he admitted that Gibson could probably be even more effective if he was a full-time starter.
“I think that’s one of our great strengths. I think our power forward position—I look at what Carlos does every night and I look at what Taj does every night and I feel very good about that, and I think that’s a big advantage that we have. We try to take advantage of it,” the coach explained. “There’s going to be more production when you add the minutes up. When [Gibson] comes off the bench, he’s more in that 28-minute area. When he starts, it’s more the 36. You just add on. He’s going to get more shots. He’s very active going to the board. The more you go, the more you get so he’s always going to be a pretty good rebounder. I think it allows you to do a lot more defensively. And he’s gotten more comfortable in the post. The guys are more comfortable searching him out. He’ll get you a good shot. And he’s also really improved as a passer. When the double-team comes, he’s making great plays out of the double-team.”
But Gibson isn’t harping on the fact that he’s a reserve—although Boozer’s comments about his lack of fourth-quarter playing time has ignited discussion about whether the much-maligned starter deserves to start, let alone finish games—and in fact embraces it, realizing he could be in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award as a rare defensive-oriented big man with a consistent scoring game, as opposed to the typical high-scoring perimeter bench players, such as Lakers instant-offense scorer Nick Young, his former USC teammate.
“I’d like to think (I'm a candidate for the award). I like to look at it is as, you look at a sixth man as a guy that comes in and helps his team in any kind of situation. I play defense, I rebound, do a lot of different things to help my team. I’m not just looking at scoring, even though my scoring has improved. It’s all about helping your team and that’s what I look at as being a sixth man. A guy that chips in, does it all. Not just score,” he said. “I really haven’t heard anything, really. There’s always chatter, but you never really know until it’s close to coaches picking it.”
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Young, who was sidelined for Sunday’s contest, had a huge game when the Lakers traveled in Chicago last month, though it was in vain when Gibson made a buzzer-beating layup for an overtime win at the United Center.
“It’s always fun seeing the guys I played with, guys that come back to L.A.,” said the personable Young, who attended Saturday night’s USC home loss to rival UCLA with Gibson. “I don’t want him coming for me, trying to steal my Sixth Man award. Whatever happens, happens. But he’s been balling. I’m proud of him. Plus, he’s a Trojan. I want to see all of them do well: him, DeMar [DeRozan], O.J. [Mayo], Nikola [Vucevic].”
Back in their college days, Gibson was regarded as a defensive presence, one who was awarded the conference’s defensive player of the year awarded as a junior, before declaring for the NBA Draft. So it’s almost jarring to see the Bulls run play after play for him to in the post, on the baseline, in the mid-range area or out of pick-and-rolls, regardless of the opponent or individual defender.
“I would like to think [he’s a go-to scorer for the Bulls]. When [Thibodeau is] drawing plays up—especially the Lakers game, he drew a play up for me and I didn’t even know [it was coming]—it just shows the confidence that Coach has in you. He’s leaving me in the games late, even if I mess up. It just shows that he’s rolling with me late and I’m just striving with it. I’m just taking my time. My teammates are looking for me. Joakim especially is looking for me late, with the jump shot and I’m just having fun. I’m having a lot of fun,” the affable Gibson explained. “I just feel extremely confident in my game. As far as the post, I feel I always have a good shot at getting a bucket because I really take time and I work on my footwork. And teams, they do different things to try to slow me down and I’m just adjusting, and it’s all good things. I’m having a lot of fun. That’s the main thing. Every time I score, I’m just smiling because I can’t believe half the things I’m doing and a great player, [former NBA player and current Bulls assistant coach] Ed Pinckney, once told me, ‘When you’re in the zone, sometimes you don’t even think about who’s guarding you. You just go,’ and that’s the way I’m feeling right now. I really don’t care or think about who’s guarding me. I just go and play with a good amount of confidence.
“As the years went on, I got stronger, I got better, I got to understand how to pick my points and different things like that. But it’s all about just knowing where you can get your spots and knowing how to be a lot more physical. But I’m just having fun. With our team, with Joakim and different guys like that, you’re going to get offensive rebounds, you’re going to get extra putbacks because he draws multiple guys to him and plus, being around Carlos, I’ve been able to study him for the last three-and-a-half years, so I’ve been learning from some of the best,” he went on to say about his improvement. “I just wanted to always just improve myself offensively, but first off, just be one of those guys off the bench that can score. It’s already tough as it is to come off the bench, but if you come off the bench, and you can provide for your team and help, that’s all I want to do because it’s even better if you can help your team and so far, it’s been okay. I’ve just been learning, a lot. I’ve never really thought about the NBA schemes of how they play you, how they double-team you, but Thibs and the coaching staff keep me on edge. But I’m just having fun. This year, I’m really having a lot of fun, just trying to find ways to score and it’s great.
“One thing about it, I remember Derrick said, ‘Some people don’t know how good they are,’ and Joakim’s been on me from Day 1. He said, ‘You can handle the ball. We’re from New York, we can handle the ball.’ But sometimes, you kind of shy away because you don’t want Thibs to yell at you, you don’t want to mess up. But I work on all these things on a daily basis. I’m in the gym from the top of the morning to late at night, so it’s all about guys putting the work in and just using it in the game because in the NBA, guys shy away and a lot of people say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ and you really just want to do the right thing to help the team, and that’s the kind of person I am.”
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When it comes to postseason accolades, Gibson, who has participated in USA Basketball’s Select Team program in the past, would like to receive his due, but it’s not something that overly concerns the team-first big man, especially now that he has some security in the first year of a four-year deal inked on the evening of the Bulls’ season opener last season, a deal that looks like a bargain now for the 28-year-old, who could also garner Most Improved Player consideration and as one of the main cogs in the Bulls’ acclaimed, stingy defense, an All-Defensive Team candidate.
“I’d like to hopefully be thought of as Sixth Man or Most Improved,” said Gibson, who was then informed that his questioners would be the ones charged with nominating him. “Oh, you guys [the media] do? I would love to be picked as the Sixth Man. That would be great because it’s already hard as it is to come off the bench, but being a big man off the bench, it’s tough because you’re only going to get so many touches. You have to rebound the ball with the lack of minutes you get. But I’m just striving with it. Like I said before, I’m just having fun and trying to help our team win, and it’s never a down time. I’m always learning and trying to get a win.
“You already know I’m a defense-first kind of guy. I’ll pass up a shot and give it to somebody else before I take it, as long as we win the game, as long as we get a stop on defense. That’s the kind of player I am.”