He might be playing professional basketball about 2,000 miles from his old college stomping grounds, but, at heart Chicago Bulls rookie Taj Gibson is still very much a USC Trojan.
“I miss going to class, meeting new people everyday and the games at the Galen Center,” Gibson said before a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “I miss it a lot.”
Gibson still carries a backpack, but, instead of holding school supplies, the bright pink backpack Gibson is forced to wear by his teammates as a form of NBA rookie initiation is designed to serve as a constant reminder that he is merely a first-year player.
Gibson might only be a rookie, but he is not playing like one. He has started the majority of the Bulls’ games and is ranked second among NBA rookies in rebounds per game. He was also selected to play in the annual T-Mobile Rookie Challenge Game during All-Star Weekend.
“Taj really brings energy,” Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. “He is someone who plays hard, gets rebounds and knows how to score.”
Part of the reason Gibson has been able to have such an immediate impact in the NBA is because he played for three years at USC under coach Tim Floyd, who was a head coach in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets.
“Going to USC got me mentally and physically prepared. [Coach Tim Floyd] taught me a lot about the NBA style of play,” Gibson said. “It is a big adjustment. You have to play against different guys, pay attention to details and take care of your body.”
When the Bulls drafted Gibson with the 26th pick in the first round of the 2009 NBA draft, Gibson left behind an extensive legacy at USC. He helped the Trojans achieve school records with three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and 20-win seasons. Gibson was the 2009 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career as USC’s all-time leader in blocked shots and second on USC’s all-time rebounding list.
“[Gibson] was a [three] year player at USC, which helped his maturity coming into the league,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He is a great kid. He is always bringing effort. He will make a number of mistakes because he is young, but it is not for a lack of effort or intensity.”
USC’s streak of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances will end this season as a result of self-imposed sanctions, stemming from NCAA rule violations involving Gibson’s former USC teammate, O.J. Mayo.
“I was kind of pissed,” Gibson said about his reaction to the sanctions. “I was really upset because half of the guys there this year did not have anything to do with that. There are a bunch of new guys. I felt especially bad for the seniors.”
When Gibson has been in town to play against the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, he has gone to the Galen Center to see his former teammates.
“I saw them on campus the other day,” Gibson said. “They are still keeping their heads high, trying to win the Pac-10. The team is good. They have a bunch of good players that will have a bright future in the NBA. It is a shame that, when everybody finally got healthy, they announced the sanctions.”
The post positions have been an area of strength for this year’s Trojans, largely because of the experience that the players gained from competing with Gibson in practice last season.
“Practicing against Taj helped me a lot,” USC forward Nikola Vucevic said. “In the beginning, when I was guarding him, there was not a lot I could do to stop him. He is a great player, and he is strong. Over time, I was able to stop him a little more. We used to play one-on-one during practice, and he would play hard, push me and foul me. It really helped me improve.”
Anyone who believed distance is weakening the bond between Gibson and USC would be mistaken.
“I am really looking forward to football season and seeing what [coach Lane] Kiffin is going to do,” Gibson said.
To hear Seth Rubinroit’s full interview with Taj Gibson, click here.