Old Friends, New City

Luol Deng sits to Taj Gibson’s right in the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room, waiting for his chance to play after two idle seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He’s been great. He’s a voice of reason,” says Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau about Deng. “He says the right things, does the right things. I’m sure he’ll be ready to go. He’s sort of in the role of Kurt Thomas when I was in Chicago. We knew he’d be ready. He filled in and did a great job. He’s not in the rotation and he comes in every night to shoot. I think that example is key for our players.”

Luol Deng of the Minnesota Timberwolves

Off to Gibson’s left is Derrick Rose, who now comes off the bench for the Timberwolves in an unexpected career rebirth to most. Perhaps except for Rose, who had 22 points and with two of four on threes is in the top 10 in the NBA in three-point shooting. Rose also with a team best plus/minus team ranking and perhaps the warmest ovation from hometown fans in Minneapolis led a third quarter Timberwolves surge in their 111-96 victory over the Bulls.

“With everything and all the adversity I’ve been through, it’s rewarding,” Rose said. “I’ve always had a belief and it’s a blessing to be in a situation like this with Thibs, who has given me the freedom to play. I feel like I was the same player the last couple of years, but it’s all opportunity. Coming here, Thibs believed in me. For a coach to give you that confidence means a lot. That’s all I needed, one more chance and he did that. I just have to be ready.”

Thibodeau was more correct than most regarding Rose, especially with Rose’s breakthrough 50-point game earlier this month.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Thibodeau added about Rose. “I’ve said this before. I’d been watching him. The only time Derrick hasn’t played well is when he’s been injured. You can look at the entire time in Chicago. You can look at the year in New York. And people forget how young he is. There’s always a beginning, middle and end for everyone. I think the end is going to be great for him. He had everything going at a very young age, played in the championship game his freshman year of college, was Rookie of the Year, an NBA All-Star, MVP at 22. And then you go through three consecutive years of major injuries. To be able to lift yourself up, that tells you a lot about somebody. It’s a great story.”

Derrick Rose Talks to the media after scoring 50 points for the Minnesota Timerwolves

Rose’s story has been one of the most poignant in the NBA this season, and perhaps overlooked — which so often happens with him — is the remarkable journey of Gibson from 2009 Bulls low first round draft pick slated for bench duty who a decade later remains a strong survivor. He had a quiet game Saturday with just six points, but he’s continued to average in double figures and is second on the Timberwolves in rebounding, a veteran rock unaffected by the slashing waves of controversy often weathering the best in the NBA.

Fellow first round draft pick James Johnson is hanging in and doing well with his sixth team, the Miami Heat. But Gibson all this time later has basically risen above everyone from his rookie Bulls team. Joakim Noah is trying to get back into the league, rumored to be negotiating for a minimum role with the Memphis Grizzlies. The rest from Gibson’s start with the Bulls are out of basketball, bigger names, higher draft picks, those more promoted like Tyrus Thomas, John Salmons, Brad Miller, Carlos Boozer.

Taj Gibson talks to the media after being drafted by the Bulls

While Gibson, 33, remains just about everyone’s favorite teammate and a bright light of the NBA.

“Man, I’m still in the NBA,” Gibson enthusiastically told Chicago reporters Saturday. “Every day is a blessing, every day is fun. Get up, work out, play the game I love, which I would do for free on any given day. Be around great guys and still grow. I’m having a great time. Everybody’s journey is different. You look at my rookie year, my draft class, so many guys gone. So many guys not playing basketball anymore. Look at the guys that were starting ahead of me when I was on the Bulls. I was coming off the bench, and now a lot of them aren’t even in the NBA. I’m very thankful of the moment, of the opportunity that I get, and how I learn every day. I’m enjoying it. I’ve got Luol Deng in the corner, I’ve got Derrick Rose right here. We’ve switched situations. Now Lu is on the bench, Derrick comes off the bench. It’s a lot different, but I’m always ready for any situation. I’m just loving playing the game."

The rugged 6-9 forward also has become someone to lean on for many. He had ankle surgery similar to what Denzel Valentine is enduring and said Valentine and he talked before Valentine decided on the surgery.

“I remember John Paxson telling me, ‘Once you get this done, it’s like a new ankle,’” Gibson recalled about his 2015 surgery. “I was scared. I didn’t know how my career would turn out because there was a lot of uncertainty. I told Valentine that it was the right thing to do. ‘You’ve got to take care of your body, understand that I know you want to play, you’re young, but this is bigger than basketball right now. This is your career. So take that time off and you can come back for Summer League, maybe play that, maybe not, but you’ll be in good form coming into next year.’”

Gibson says he also stays in contact with former teammate Jimmy Butler even after all the issues before Butler was traded and is proud to work with the team’s young players.

“I can flourish in any role,” Gibson says. “I just play with 110 percent effort. I’m a good teammate. When you give off good energy it comes back to you, so I never really ever hated on anybody, never tried to say anything negative. Just waited my turn, did what I had to do as far as coming off the bench or starting. I just wanted to help my team, help my teammates, and that’s just positive energy. I’m always happy, I’m always smiling.”

And why not? When you think about Taj Gibson you cannot help but smile.