DEERFIELD — Between getting a last-minute long-term contract extension at the outset of the campaign and suffering through myriad nagging injuries, Bulls reserve big man Taj Gibson experienced highs and lows during the 2012-13 season.
But despite being unable to repeat his 2012 participation in USA Basketball’s Select Team mini-camp this past summer — at which Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant coach for the national team, was present — due to a July ankle injury, the affable Gibson is determined not to let that derail his upcoming season.
“I was laid up for quite a while. It was frustrating because I missed USA (camp). I was training for that hard. It’s one of those things where you have to put the team first,” he explained recently. “I sat out, but as soon as it happened, I went out to (Athlete’s Performance, the California facility where teammate Derrick Rose rehabilitated from ACL surgery) and worked with Jen (Swanson, the Bulls’ newly-hired director of athletic performance and a former employee at the aforementioned facility) and I got to working right away with Derrick, just strength and conditioning.”
The injury sidelined Gibson, temporarily interrupting his offseason workout plans, but he insists that he’s back to his normal, high-energy self on the floor as the Bulls proceed with training camp.
“(Gibson was sidelined for) a couple of weeks because that (cortisone) shot was really painful. I didn’t expect the shot to be so painful. But they said it would take some time, and everything is OK right now,” he said. “(Gibson began working out again) probably last month. It was really hard to cut on it, there was a lot of swelling. It went down. Thibs really kept track of it, Jen really kept track on it, and it’s been great. “
Even with his ankle bothering him, Gibson was still able to get in the weight room and added additional strength to help him battle in the paint this season.
“I bulked up a little bit more. Being in the playoffs the last couple of years, it gets more and more physical. I bulked up, put on a ton of weight. I mostly went out (to LA), lifted, worked out with Derrick. I’m 240 pounds now, just trying to build confidence. I know the plays, know the offense, I know players’ strong suits. Just confidence, once you get confidence in this league, you take off. It’s all about confidence,” he explained. “To start the summer, I was about 225 or something like that. Thibs came out to California and watched me work out. He was a little bit worried about my weight. He didn’t want me to get kind of fat. He wanted me to be lean, more muscle, and it’s been great. These two days of practice have been fun and great, just learning a lot of new things. It’s been fun.”
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Known more for being one of the better interior defenders in the league, Gibson also used the summer to extend his shooting range to beyond the arc from the corners, though with the likes of Rose and new backcourt partner Jimmy Butler, All-Star small forward Luol Deng, veteran reserve guard Kirk Hinrich, offseason acquisition Mike Dunleavy Jr. and even rookie stretch four Erik Murphy, it’s hard to envision him being one of the Bulls’ primary three-point shooting options. Still, if it translates to Gibson becoming a more consistent mid-range jump-shooter from the elbows and baseline, two of the spots where he tends to get open opportunities, it will be a plus.
“The coaches wanted me to do it. It’s all about Derrick wanting me to shoot it, confidence. One thing I’ve noticed, when you bulk up, things tend to get a little easier. Right now, I’m just focused on what things I can do to help the team and how to find my niche here and there. It’s been great, knowing you have Derrick and Hinrich out there, guys that are really knowing where you want the ball and figuring out how to get you the ball,” he explained. “It’s great. I’m getting the same good looks I used to get in the past. My corner jump shot has been fantastic these last two days. Just how (Rose has) been finding guys and guys been finding each other, it’s just magnificent.
“I can’t lie, it’s been fun.”
Thibodeau has utilized Gibson with the starting lineup in training-camp scrimmages, allowing him to play next to Joakim Noah, as well as reprise his role as center when he’s on the floor with Carlos Boozer.
“We’ve kept him with the first unit. He has had an opportunity to play with Jo and Carlos. I’ve liked that. It’s worked out well with those three on the first unit together,” the coach said. “Mike Dunleavy has been on the first unit as well. Kirk, too. That’s been good for us.”
Regardless of who he’s playing with, Gibson is excited about the potential of this healthy Bulls team.
“It’s a lot easier now. We got mostly everybody back. We have ‘Captain Kirk’ back. He’s on the second unit now, and he’s one of the guys I have a lot of chemistry with, especially in these last two days of practice. It’s been great. The way Thibs is running practice, we’re basically all on one team. Mostly me, Mike and Kirk, but mostly on the same team as the starters, so we get the same kind of reps, same kind of confidence and same kind of looks on shots. It’s great playing with Derrick, and it’s been fun,” he said. We really haven’t skipped a beat. We’ve been kind of up and down on defense a little bit, but that’s the first couple of days. Guys are going to figure that out. Guys are still familiar with the plays, familiar with the offense. It’s about guys getting more in condition and we’ll be okay.
“Just get back to the basics, just let the game come to me, especially with Derrick out there, Kirk Hinrich. Just shoot the ball with confidence, take my normal looks. But just have confidence, be out there with more confidence. We have a goal and whatever it takes, just go out there and play my game,” Gibson continued. “It’s going to be exciting to see some live competition. Right now, especially in the preseason, it’s about guys getting confidence, guys getting their look, ready for the season, conditioned. That’s the main thing.
“It’s mostly just conditioning and really practicing that game pace that we have during the regular season. It was a beast. I’m not going to lie and I’m in great shape, but it (the Bulls’ weekend two-a-day sessions) was a beast.”