DEERFIELD – For the Bulls, last year’s draft was about changing the franchise’s direction.
This year was about continuing to build on what the team started last year when it made Derrick Rose the No. 1 pick.
The Bulls felt confident that they achieved that objective Thursday night, making what they considered two worthy additions to their frontcourt.
Adding Wake Forest’s James Johnson with the No. 16 pick and USC’s Taj Gibson at No. 26, the Bulls got two players they think can contribute as rookies.
Not least, according to the team, both players are athletic enough to keep pace with the high-octane Rose.
“When the night started, if we knew this would be the outcome, we’d have taken it right from the get-go,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said.
Johnson and Gibson join a crowded frontcourt that includes Luol Deng, John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas. Playing time could be tough to come by if everybody sticks around next season.
But the goal was to take the best available player at both picks.
Forman said the Bulls kept close tabs on Johnson during the college season and were of the consensus opinion that he was a top-seven prospect in the draft.
As the Bulls explored trading up, Johnson was among the players they had in mind because of his versatility. At 6-foot-8, 257 pounds, Johnson has the size and skills to play effectively down low and the athleticism to flourish in a more wide-open game.
“He’s kind of unique for a guy that size,” Forman said. “He can handle it, he’s crossing guys over to get into the lane, he’s passing on the move.”
Johnson, who spent two seasons at Wake Forest, is considered a premier athlete. He has been a successful kickboxer at the amateur level, which he said helped his balance and agility.
The Bulls think Johnson can handle the ball, shoot from mid-range or even farther and create plays for his teammates. Johnson said his style would fit in well with the Bulls.
“I’m going to run the floor with them, get to the rim when I can,” Johnson said. “I feel like I can help Derrick Rose out.”
It is unclear which forward position Johnson projects at long-term. Forman said he could play either depending on the situation.
“In my mind I’m a small forward, but if they need me at the strong forward position, that’s what I’ll be,” Johnson said.
Johnson still must hone his low-post skills and, at this point, is more of a face-up scorer with a good shooting touch. He could push Thomas for playing time.
At No. 26, the Bulls chose Gibson over Pittsburgh power forward DeJuan Blair, who surprisingly remained available.
Gibson is more of a typical big man than Johnson, more likely to stay in the paint than to display perimeter skills. But Forman said Gibson, 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, is athletic enough to run the floor and handle the ball.
The Bulls plan to put an emphasis on improving defensively next season, and Gibson could help with that process. He set a USC record with 253 blocked shots, averaging 2.4 a game as a junior last season.
As with Johnson, according to Forman, the Bulls were surprised Gibson was around when they picked him.
Forman called Johnson and Gibson “complements,” but the Bulls expect both to vie for roles immediately.
“We know they’re talented enough,” coach Vinny Del Negro said.