Commentary

Bulls get tough, draft Johnson, Gibson

Does crowded frontcourt signal Thomas' exit?

Originally Published: June 26, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD -- They've been Bulls for only a few hours, but it's safe to assume that James Johnson and Taj Gibson won't be household names like Derrick Rose next season.

James Johnson
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesJames Johnson is a big forward who can handle the ball and run the floor.

But just like last year, the Bulls said they took the best players available in Thursday's NBA draft. It just so happens those picks were at Nos. 16 and 26 in a draft that's been described as more shallow than the cast of "The Hills" and with more question marks than the Riddler's pajamas.

Just once, I'd like to hear a team say it took the best-looking or best-dressed player available. No one has ever been draft because he's the worst player available or the most palatable player available.

But the Bulls played it by the book and went with two big men they've supposedly craved more than a Lou Malnati's pizza: Johnson and Gibson, a 6-foot-9 former kickboxer and a 24-year-old college junior.

Did you have them in your mock draft? (If you actually wasted time filling out a mock draft, take off your flip-flops and smack yourself in the forehead a few times.)

If I were the general manager of the Bulls, I'd have taken the Pitt duo of DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, but since they went in the second round, after guys like Christian Eyenga and Rodrique Beaubois, I guess I'm in the minority.

Gar Forman, the Bulls' actual GM, was certainly happy with the results of the draft, which was his first since replacing John Paxson this spring. Then again, so was Jerry Krause in 2000 when he took Dalibor Bagaric and his unlimited growth plates. Let's watch some of Derrick Rose's passes bounce off their mitts before we start reserving tables at Manor.

"We're really excited how the draft turned out for us this evening," Forman said. "We had targeted James Johnson during the season and we did a lot of work on him. We followed him very closely. It was a consensus of our staff that James was one of the top 5-7 players in the draft.

"Taj is also a guy who is very versatile. He's got great length, which is a real benefit for us and something we need. He's 6-10 with a 7-4 wingspan."

Forman, who took a more public role with the franchise after the team's first-round playoff exit, while Paxson assumed a new role with the organization as Executive Vice President of Not Having to Talk to the Media, said the team explored trade opportunities up until it was time to make their pick. There was plenty of speculation about pre-draft deals, including one I just heard about, for last season's most-talked about target, Phoenix forward Amar'e Stoudemire. He's rumored to be going to Golden State on July 1.

Taj Gibson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTaj Gibson is a shot-blocking threat.

"We thought we were close to moving up a couple times," Forman said. "As the draft got underway, we thought we were real close to a deal moving up, and then when it got closer to our pick, we had some serious talks, but couldn't get over the hump."

Just to cover all of his bases, Forman said the team discussed moving up just so they could take Johnson. Funny how that works out.

By drafting Gibson at No. 26, instead of an available guard like Florida State's Toney Douglas, Forman is either showing confidence he can re-sign free agent Ben Gordon or that he thinks John Salmons could start at the 2-guard if the team can't land a replacement shooting guard on the open market, should Gordon sign elsewhere.

If these guys can actually play, it could allow the Bulls to trade Tyrus Thomas, who improved in his third season with the club, but isn't winning any personality contests. Since neither Gibson nor Johnson is a back-to-the-basket scorer, the team should still be in the market for Toronto's Chris Bosh, one of the expected free agents in the ballyhooed Class of 2010.

So what we do know about these guys?

Well, neither are raw. Both are 6-9, but the 245-pound Johnson is 20 pounds heavier than the slimmer Gibson, who set USC's all-time shot-blocking record during his three-year career, almost half of which came last season when he rejected 100 shots for a pretty good team. Both players can handle the ball and run the floor, which is a must when Rose is your point guard.

"Versatile is kind of the word," Forman said, as second-year Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro sat sidecar, mostly just nodding, careful not to jostle a hair out of place. "Because I think they're both versatile guys."

Versatile is important, sure, but does that mean they'll find numerous ways to frustrate Del Negro and Rose? That's to be determined.

Johnson averaged 15 points and 8.5 rebounds in his sophomore season, similar numbers to his freshman season. He led the Demon Deacons in field goal percentage (54.2 percent) and blocks (48) and was second with 44 steals.

Interestingly enough, he comes from a Cheyenne, Wyo., family of karate enthusiasts, and is a black belt himself, and also was a champion kickboxer and a one-time mixed martial arts competitor. He's a legitimate throwback to the days of basketball players being called "cagers," but some people said he lacked focus and took plays off at Wake.

Gibson set the Trojans' record with 253 blocks, third-best in Pac-10 history. He scored 14.3 points in his junior season, and led the team with nine rebounds, a 60.1 field-goal percentage and, of course, his 2.9 blocks per game. But he went to three high schools (one in Brooklyn, N.Y. and two in California) and is somehow a full year older than Thomas, who's already played three seasons in the NBA. He also was coached by our old buddy Tim Floyd in college, just like, gulp, Marcus Fizer.

"We don't think there will be a problem with their work ethic," Del Negro said during one of the few questions posed to him at the news conference. "It's their job to earn minutes, and there will be minutes to earn."

In a conference call with the media, Johnson said he's excited to join the Bulls.

"In my mind, I'm a small forward, but you can use me at the power forward," he said, graciously. "I can defend multiple players. I'm just happy the Bulls took me."

I can't say that just yet, but I'm just happy the Bulls didn't go with a project like Ohio State's B.J. Mullens or a foreign player they were going to hide overseas.

If there were good players available, it doesn't hurt to add them to a young, quick Bulls team that is just a few players short of competing in the Eastern Conference. Whether they'll make a difference is up to them, Del Negro and Forman.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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