There have been a lot of interesting stories this season. Deng making a quiet but consistent return from injury. The riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that is Tyrus Thomas. The relentlessness of Noah, the reemergence of Hinrich and Salmons, the reanimation of Miller, and the driving narrative of the ascendancy of Rose. One of the quieter stories has been Taj's quiet play, but his performance this year as a twenty four year old rookie has caused me to rethink the way I think about potential.
There aren't very many 24 year old rookies to compare Taj with, but the obvious comparison, in this case, is also the most apt. I'm talking about PJ Brown, who came into the league in 1993 as a 6'11" 225 pound rookie and left in 2008 as an NBA champion. Here are their respective rookie year stats:
Taj Gibson (Through 45 games):
For the PER junkies out there, PJ finished at 12.2 while Taj is currently at 13.4.
What's my takeaway from these stats? First off, I hope that Taj can have as long and productive a career as PJ Brown did. But moreover, when I looked at the long arc of PJ's career and saw that he posted his best PER at 33 (17.6), I realized that evaluating a player's potential is much more than a rough calculation of a player's athletic ability divided by their age coming into the league.
The mental aspect of becoming an expert at any task is probably the hardest to evaluate on a case by case basis but matters a lot-I don't think basketball players, writers, or anybody else ever stop learning about what they do. In basketball, it is a race against time, as your increasing knowledge gets pitted against your aging body, but if one comes into the league mentally ready to learn, like Taj has done, they have a head start that might be hard for other players with more physical potential to ever catch up to.
Take James Johnson. When comparing the two rookies physically, James is a much more intriguing specimen, and his skillset certainly has more upside. But he has come into the league "with some assembly required", to say the least-he needs to understand how to play defense and develop his shot into a real threat before he can become a player that helps his team win. Taj was ready to go out of the box and has played great defense as a rookie big. If he hadn't been around when Tyrus broke his arm, this team would have been in even a deeper hole, but he has played well enough that I can call him a contributor and a good piece for the future with a straight face.
James Johnson could still catch Taj in the future, but for that to happen he'll have to play catch up by putting in monstrous offseason of work on his game and coming back from the summer in great physical shape. Taj already has momentum and has gotten solid minutes: all he needs to do is keep that momentum moving forward.
I'll admit, I was surprised by the pick on draft day. I was hoping to hear Blair's name called at #26, and when Taj got picked instead it felt like a mistake. But right now, I'd argue Taj is the better player for these Bulls. Blair is a beast, but wouldn't be able switch on picks and defend like Taj and would have duplicated too much of what Noah does and where he likes to be on offense for the two of them to work in tandem. With picks of Tyrus, Noah, Asik, and now Gibson, the Bulls seem to like their bigs to be long shotblockers and have favored footspeed over bulk and size. With the Gibson pick at #26, it's looking like they got that one right.