Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

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Beyond the Arc: Rookies Making an Impression

Tuesday, October 6th

OK, I know it's only two meaningless preseason games, but you can't help but be encouraged by what we've seen so far from Bulls rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson. NBA observers shrugged when the Bulls grabbed the two power forwards in Round 1 of the draft back in June, with some of the so-called experts saying the team made a big mistake not taking Pittsburgh big man DeJuan Blair. Blair looked good in summer league play with San Antonio, and there's no question he has some scoring ability in the low post. But like so many other teams, the Bulls were scared off by his lack of height and medical reports on his surgically repaired knees.

But back to Johnson and Gibson. Bulls GM Gar Forman told us back on draft night that the Bulls had Johnson ranked as the fifth-best player on their draft board and they were thrilled to get him with the 16th pick overall. He has good quickness and ball-handling ability for a big man, and decent shooting range out to the three-point line. But during the summer, Johnson didn't exactly burn up inferior competition in Las Vegas. He was carrying too much weight at around 265 pounds and didn't look nearly quick enough to play small forward in the NBA. Obviously, Johnson got the message. The former kick-boxing champion worked hard to get his weight down to around 250, and he looks noticeably slimmer and quicker so far in the preseason. Playing against the likes of Utah's Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, Johnson found a way to put up 18 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. He also made the big plays down the stretch, including the game winning jumper at the buzzer. Vinny Del Negro plans to give Johnson playing time at both forward positions and he looks like the kind of player who can grow into a scoring role off the bench.

As for Gibson, a lot of mock drafts had him falling into the second round, but here at Beyond the Arc, we were campaigning for the Bulls to select the hard-working big man out of USC with that 22nd overall pick they got in the Thabo Sefolosha trade. I really liked Gibson's relentless work on the boards at USC playing for Tim Floyd, and he also showed a nice shooting touch and the ability to be a shot blocker at the NBA level. The only real knock on Gibson was that he was too thin, at 225 pounds. But the Bulls have a terrific weight-training staff led by Erik Helland, and they'll work hard with Gibson to help him build the strength he'll need to survive in the NBA, much like they did with Horace Grant before the Bulls' first three-peat. Gibson started the game against Utah with Tyrus Thomas out because of injury, and put up 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, including an emphatic rejection of Millsap. He was even better in the preseason opener against Indiana, leading the Bulls with 19 points off the bench, while adding nine rebounds. Entering training camp, it looked like Gibson might have a tough time finding minutes behind Joakim Noah, Brad Miller, Thomas and Johnson, but he was the first big man off the bench against Indiana and has impressed the coaching staff with his hustle and determination on the boards.

Things could change once the regular season begins, as the Bulls face the likes of San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland in the early going, but the early returns suggest Johnson and Gibson will work their way into Vinny's rotation and maybe contribute more as rookies than anyone around the NBA expected.

Fast Break Morning Update: Where do Bulls stand as trade deadline looms?

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USA TODAY

Fast Break Morning Update: Where do Bulls stand as trade deadline looms?

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Bulls' Jimmy Butler mum on trade talk as deadline approaches

Bulls' Jimmy Butler mum on trade talk as deadline approaches

NEW ORLEANS—The trade talk is swirling and unavoidable, as it’ll be a topic of discussion through All-Star weekend as Jimmy Butler enters his third All-Star weekend and first as a starter.

Certainly not the only one who has to deal with such a thing, as Carmelo Anthony has a bigger mess on his hands with the Knicks and Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins is always mentioned as being in the periphery of changing addresses.

In his true politically-correct mode, Butler couldn’t decide if the constant trade talk was a compliment, a distraction or none of the above.

“I don’t know. I think that as long as somebody is reading, talking about something it makes for a great story,” Butler said at All-Star availability in New Orleans Friday afternoon. “I don’t know if I deserve to be traded? I don’t know. It’s not my job. It’s my job to play basketball to the best of my abilities.”

He took slight umbrage to the notion that the Bulls were a better team when Butler got there and before he emerged as an All-Star player compared to them hovering around .500 for the last two seasons.

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“So I should get worse and the team will be better?” he queried.

But there is a big school of thought that the return on a Butler trade will be better for the Bulls in the long run, as if he’s holding the development of the franchise back with his play.

The Boston Celtics are Butler’s biggest suitor but certainly haven’t put all their resources to the center of the table, leaving Butler dangling in a sense. A reporter who worked for the Celtics brought up the emergence of Isaiah Thomas, the NBA’s leading scorer, and called Thomas “a teammate” of Butler’s.

Knowing how the comment would be taken if it wasn’t corrected, Butler said Thomas was his teammate “this weekend” and not trying to speak any speculation into existence.

Although he spoke glowingly of Thomas when prompted, he wasn’t going to give any conversation any more real estate than necessary. He hears enough trade talk on the regular and it’s hard for even the best person to tune it out.

“I don’t pay attention to it. Obviously it comes up. Control what you can control,” Butler said. “You can’t control what people write, what people think should happen. Majority of the time, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it does, majority of the time it doesn’t.”