- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tyrus Thomas couldn't help but stare.
The Chicago Bulls pre-game introductions were going on right in front of him, the same ones that he had been a part of so many times before, but for the first time in his career he watched them from the other end of the floor. The Charlotte Bobcats' forward stood underneath his new team's basket and just held onto the net. After spending four years in Chicago there is no doubt the experience had to be strange for him.
But as he heard one particular name during the introductions, he had to wonder what might have been.
That was the name of a certain 6-foot-9 forward out of USC: Taj Gibson.
The same Gibson who essentially took over Thomas' starting job after the Thomas broke his forearm earlier this season. The same Gibson who put together yet another double-double (14 points, 15 rebounds, his 17th of the season) during the Bulls' 96-88 victory over Thomas' Bobcats on Saturday night.
Thomas never seemed to want to leave Chicago. It always seemed as if he thought he was better than he was given credit for, especially under Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.
But if we learned anything on Saturday night, it was the same thing that most people around Chicago had already started to figure out before Thomas left town.
While Thomas may have more all-around talent, potential and upside, Gibson produces one thing that Thomas never consistently could: results.
That's why it becomes clearer as the games roll along this season that the Bulls made the right decision to trade away Thomas. Gibson is a better fit for the present and the future than Thomas would have been.
When I asked Del Negro where the Bulls would be this season without Gibson his response said it all.
"I don't even want to think about it," he said.
In so many ways, Gibson is the player that the Bulls always wanted Thomas to be.
"He's incredibly coachable," Del Negro said. "He comes to work every day, plays hard. He makes mistakes like everybody, but he plays so hard. If he has a fault it's that he helps too much defensively, which is a very, very rare thing. Especially for a rookie."
Coachable was not always a word you heard about Thomas' game, especially when it came to his rocky relationship with Del Negro. It's clear that Gibson has not only made an impact on the coaching staff but on his teammates as well.
"He's always been someone who will always listen," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "He just works really hard. It's not even just his rebounding. I think his positioning is really good. I think he's relentless. He doesn't give up just because somebody's in front of him. He always keeps trying to go after that basketball. I think even offensively, he's really getting better. He's getting a lot of playing time, so he's really making the best of his opportunity."
He did so again on Saturday by outplaying Thomas and once again helping the Bulls scratch out a much-needed victory. Even Gibson conceded that it felt like the old days in practice when he and Thomas used to battle it out at the Berto Center.
"Yeah," Gibson said with a smile. "It felt just like it. [Thomas] made a couple tough shots tonight. He played pretty well. But we just had to get this one. Guys just fought hard and understood attention to detail ... Everybody just stepped up late."
It's Gibson who has stepped up as much as anyone though, lately. This was his third straight double-double and sixth in the past seven games.
Where did the late-season push and the continuous attention to detail come from?
Del Negro points to that fact that Gibson played for four years at USC and posses a high basketball IQ.
"Ever since day one when he got here, he works every day. Whether it's in the weight room, whether it's on the court," Del Negro said. "Pregame, halftime, he's ready to go. And he's such a great kid. It's easy to root for a kid like that. You want him to do well, and he's been a huge factor for us, no question, with everything we've battled throughout the year."
Even Gibson concedes how much he has improved over the beginning of the season to now.
"I think I've improved a lot," he said. "It just came from working at it in the gym. Understanding detail and just playing hard. Never giving up. Every time the ball goes up, I'm going for a rebound. Listening to coaches. And just working on my game. Just building up encouragement and just playing hard."
Thomas still has a chance to become a solid player in the NBA, but it's Gibson who appears to have the brighter future. That was apparent once again on Saturday night and that's probably what made it even harder for Thomas to watch.
13dMatt Walks, ESPN.com