When I walked into the Rookie/Sophomore practice last weekend in Dallas, I couldn't find Taj Gibson.
It seemed like every other rookie or sophomore had at least a few reporters in front of him. Jonny Flynn and Tyreke Evans were among many of the guys I passed who were standing in front of a small horde of vide0 cameras and recorders.
A few minutes passed by and I started to get nervous. Had I missed him?
Finally, as I hurriedly shuffled around the court, I noticed him sitting at the end of the bench. There was just one reporter standing in front of him with a flip cam -- asking him questions about his days at USC.
In many ways, this scene exemplified Gibson's short career up to this point. Coming out of USC, the 24-year-old forward was an afterthought to most. As the 26th pick in last year's draft, it was clear that numerous teams didn’t value his particular skill set as much as others. Heck, even the Bulls passed over him once, considering they took Wake Forest product James Johnson with the 16th pick last year.
While Gibson's game isn't always exciting to watch and he may not be as flashy as some of the other rookies, you'd be hard-pressed to find many rookies who are as important to their team as he is. Gibson proved that once again on Saturday night, as he scored 20 points and 13 rebounds in the Bulls 122-90 blowout of the Sixers. The irony is that by continuing to play so steadily throughout the season, the soft-spoken forward has brought even more attention on to himself. Gibson, the same guy who hardly anyone seemed to notice last weekend, had a small horde of press waiting for him at his locker late Saturday night.
When you hear him speak, you can understand how he has found success so quickly in a league that young players usually have a hard time figuring out. His attitude towards the game is reflective to how he plays out on the court.
"Like [Lindsey Hunter] and the rest of the veterans tell me, you're only as good as your last game," Gibson says. "Never get too high, never get too low. Just always try to get better and work on your game. I've just been taking that information and what they've been telling me and just working on my game. I never take any off days. I always go to the Berto [Center] and try to work on something. Try to get better. So far it's been great."
Gibson is averaging eight points and seven rebounds a game and looks to be a fixture in the Bulls lineup for years to come. While Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro didn't come right out and say it, both he and the organization have to be a little surprised with how well the rookie is playing.
"He works," Del Negro said. "He's such a great kid. He's very coachable. He wants to learn. He's always working. Taj has got great activity on the defensive end and offensively he was moving around the basket and he's long. He's longer than you think."
Obviously, he's a lot more talented than people thought as well.
Don't expect all the accolades to get to Gibson's head though. Gibson doesn't just play like a veteran -- he sounds like one too. He knows that he and his teammates can still improve a lot more.
"We've been having fun. It's just us keeping it consistent. Knowing when to be serious and knowing that we're in a playoff hunt right now. It's the second half [of the season] and guys are really trying to get things together. Like Joakim [Noah] told me: The first half is over. We had a decent first half. We're in the mix. Now it's time to bring it home and make a run for the playoffs."
That run to the playoffs suddenly looks a lot brighter than it did a few weeks ago.
If Gibson continues to play like he has been lately, the days of him sitting at the end of the bench by himself -- without any fanfare -- will be long gone as well.