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Bulls rookie forwards may be giving vets a helpful push
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Staff

Minnesota Timberwolves' Ramon Sessions, center, passes the ball between Chicago Bulls' James Johnson, left, and Taj Gibson during the fourth quarter of a preseason NBA basketball game in Chicago, Friday.

 

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Published: 10/17/2009 6:31 PM

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The Bulls didn't draft Taj Gibson to become the starting power forward. But no doubt they were hoping he'd play well enough to keep Tyrus Thomas on his toes.

Maybe that had something to do with Thomas' performance Friday. After sitting out four games with a bruised hip, Thomas exploded for 22 points and 13 rebounds in just 25 minutes of action.

"I think competition is good. It just makes us stronger and deeper," coach Vinny Del Negro said after the preseason win over Minnesota. "(Gibson) is a great kid and he's worked hard. But we need Tyrus to play at a high level like he did tonight."

In-house competition might also help the Bulls at the other forward spot. Rookie James Johnson has been erratic in the preseason, but he's an impressive athlete with a wide supply of skills who could end up pushing Luol Deng for playing time.

"Luol, he's a great player," Johnson said. "I don't want to take his starting job. He deserves it. I just want to work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can from him."

Thomas' injury gave Gibson a golden opportunity to grab playing time during the preseason and he's taken advantage. The 6-foot-9 forward from USC has averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and shot better than 50 percent from the field. His biggest weakness has been foul trouble.

While starting the past five games, Gibson praised Thomas for continuing to offer advice and encouragement.

"I'm a competitor," Thomas said. "I like to win, period. If I'm hurt and we lose, we all lose. If I'm hurt and we win, we all win. I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team win."

After the Bulls improved to 5-1 in the preseason by beating the Timberwolves, both Gibson and Johnson suggested the competition has stayed positive.

"On this team, everybody has the same kind of personality," Gibson said. "Everybody's real friendly, but everybody's real coachable. Everybody teaches everybody. That's one thing I like about this team - guys take responsibility. There's no pointing fingers. Everybody just steps up like a man and deals with it."

Added Johnson, "(Deng) is not the kind of guy, 'No, I'm not going to let you take my spot, so I'm not going to help you out with this or this.' That's not him. If I took his starting job, I believe he would still help me out with everything I need to be helped out with, because he likes winning more than he likes jealousy or anything like that."

The Bulls still haven't had a full contingent of players for any preseason game. After hosting an open scrimmage for fans Sunday at the United Center, they are hoping Derrick Rose (sore right ankle) will be ready to play Monday against Orlando.

Their leading scorer during the preseason is Rose (17.0 points), who has played in just one game. Second is Thomas (15.5 points), who's played in two games. Gibson ranks third, then five different players are averaging 11 points per game.

"We're doing a good job playing unselfish basketball," Deng said. "If we play together and set that tone early, I think it's going to rub off."