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.