At this point, in the midst of what’s turning into another injury-riddled Bulls season, the lone constant the team can count on nightly has become the consistently stellar play of one Taj Gibson.
Not that he’s an unknown quantity around the league, but the Bulls’ top reserve has clearly taken his game to another level this campaign, complementing his already upper-echelon defense, high energy, above-the-rim play and work on the glass with a polished offensive game, featuring dynamic post moves and an accurate mid-range jumper, two things he showed glimpses of in the past. It’s still early in the regular season, but assuming Gibson can keep up his current pace — he’s averaging a career-high 12.4 points each contest, to go along with 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game — there’s reason to believe that he could be in the running for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award at season’s end.
“I’m just pushing forward to help my team step up in different ways. If they’re looking forward to giving me that or even recommend me, it would be great, but I’m just trying to step up and help my team win games,” said the easygoing fifth-year big man, when asked if he thought his play warranted inclusion in that discussion, though the honor typically goes to high-scoring, instant-offense reserve perimeter players. “I’m just working on my game hard with my teammates. Like we say, it’s going to take everybody as a whole to step their game up and I’m just trying to provide that off the bench.”
Accolades aside — some form of All-Defensive team recognition could also be in his future — it’s clear that following a campaign in which he was nagged by various injuries and felt pressure to live up to a long-term contract extension, Gibson has turned a corner. He credits not only his hard work, but the Bulls’ coaching staff — head coach Tom Thibodeau, but specifically assistant coach Mike Wilhelm, who works with him individually on a daily basis — for imbuing him with the confidence to elevate his game.
“It was basically in the summer, when I felt like I got stronger in the weight room. I just kept working out with Mike. I came in, Thibs just told me he wanted me to have a great training camp, be real physical. Training camp, it was great. Preseason was even better. I got a lot of confidence in my jump shot. The main thing is having confidence,” Gibson explained. “'You’re in this NBA for a reason’ — that’s what Mike just tells me every day — and ‘just keep pushing. Don’t worry about anything and whatever minutes you get, play like it’s your last.’ I’ve just been patient. Every day staying late, coming in early — just following what Derrick does because I worked out a lot with him this summer — but the main thing Coach Thibs told me, he said, ‘You’ve got to sacrifice a lot to get what you want. How bad do you want it? I told him I want it bad,’ and he said, ‘Show me.’ I’ve just been taking it from there.”
The soft-spoken Wilhelm, a holdover from ex-Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro’s regime, is one of the true nice guys around the league, never failing to greet people, even after a tough loss. That positivity jibes well with Gibson’s own often sunny demeanor.
“[Wilhelm is] like a father figure. We really have a great chemistry. He’s been around the league for a long time, so many different stories. He calls me at night, calls me in the morning, he gives me [Bible] Scriptures to read,” Gibson said of his relationship with the coach. “He really pushes me every morning. We work out before games, we work out early in the morning, we stay late at night. We do a lot of different stuff. Our routine is just crazy. Every day, we just figure out and do different things. We watch film on a lot of the great players and he’s helped me elevate my game.”
Other Bulls players have taken notice. When asked about the difference in Gibson’s game, All-Star center Joakim Noah answered without hesitation: “Mike Wilhelm. Mike Wilhelm, without question. They’re working really hard together every day, and they have a great routine going on. Taj has been really focused since the beginning of the year. You can tell he’s put a lot of work in during the offseason. He’s stronger, he’s more comfortable in the post. I’m happy for him because it’s well-deserved.”
But all of the preparation and encouragement in the world wouldn’t matter if Gibson wasn’t putting it into practice during games. Now, instead of rushing when he caught the ball on the low block and taking an off-balance shot, or settling for jumpers out of his comfort zone, Gibson looks calm and confident in the post, whether patiently muscling defenders to get inside, using his agile footwork to go around them or facing up to knock down a jumper 15 feet away from the basket.
Kirk Hinrich, who was on the Bulls during Gibson’s rookie year, like Noah, is thrilled for Gibson’s success.
“He’s been a beast for us. He’s been one of our more consistent players all year,” said the veteran, who acknowledge he seeks out Gibson in the post more now. “You can just see his confidence is sky-high right now and it’s great to see. He’s a great kid, he works hard and he’s just doing an unbelievable job for us.”
Thibodeau added: “Again, I think his work has really helped him. His preparation is much better. He had a great camp, great preseason and he’s gotten off to a very good start…I thought towards the end of two seasons ago he got real comfortable on the post. Last year, for whatever reason, he got off to a slow start. Then he started playing really well and he hurt his knee. This summer, he did a great job of getting himself ready, had a great training camp. You can see that he’s gotten to another level.”
That next level has resulted in stat lines like his career-high 26-point and 14-rebound performance in the Bulls’ triple-overtime defeat at the hands of New Orleans at the United Center last week, one of Gibson’s three 20-point games in his last five, all double-figure outings. When All-Star Luol Deng missed the team’s last game, Saturday’s home loss to the Pistons, Thibodeau even saw fit to utilize Gibson at small forward, which in retrospect, was unsurprising, given the big man’s ability to guard perimeter players, including reigning league MVP LeBron James.
Of the positional move — which had him matched up with 6-foot-9 Detroit small forward Josh Smith, who is more of a natural power forward anyway — Gibson said, “It wasn’t too bad. Every time we play the Miami Heat, I’m always switching off [on perimeter players]. [Thibodeau] makes me switch off — over the years I’ve been here — he’s made switch off on point guards, from one through five, so it’s no difference.”
Thibodeau felt similarly about the situation, as Gibson put up 21 points and 10 rebounds, serving as the Bulls’ lone bright spot on the night.
“He’s been terrific all year. So, this morning, we put him in at a new position and goes in, whatever you ask him to do, he does. So that was the first time he had ever played the three and so, that changes everything. He was trying to figure it out on the fly and we had one shootaround to try to get organized with hit, but I felt like that would give us our best chance at winning, so that’s what we did,” the coach explained. “It was different for him because what it also does is it impacts your spacing, because you have another big on the perimeter where you’re accustomed to having another shooter. But I thought he did a great job of doing what he was supposed to do and he’s all about the team.”
It just so happens that team-first mentality is now leading to increased individual appreciation.