Taj Gibson remembers when he learned about the grind.
Like many NBA players, all it took was not having his number called. A snub can teach a youngster about how much the desire and commitment of experienced veterans matter to a leader.
But for Gibson, that came before he was a San Fernando Valley high school standout, USC star, the steal of the 2009 NBA draft and a nine-year veteran enjoying a career season at age 32 for Minnesota.
It came as a Brooklyn teenager when he took on his father’s trade as a carpenter and furniture mover to help family finances in the wake of 9/11.
“I was 15 working with grown men with felonies who had just got home,” Gibson said. “This was their last job, and they couldn’t afford another strike. Those are the guys I had to compete with. Every morning, the boss would only pick employees that he knew could do the job right. Every day, I’m waiting on pins and needles with 20 to 30 grown men, like, ‘What if he doesn’t call my number today?’ ”
After Gibson missed work to play club basketball, his number was not called for many days.
“There’s no work for you because you don’t have your priorities set,” Gibson said he was told by the boss.
That is something Gibson never heard from a coach. He never again wanted to feel outworked or undervalued.
It is the sort of drive that got him noticed by college recruiters once Gibson’s parents sent him cross-country on his own, as a 17-year-old sophomore with a scholarship, a sponsorship and a Simi Valley farm job to attend Stoneridge Prep for two years and Calvary Christian as a senior.
Gibson survived in a graduating class of two, got eligible for college through summer school, played three seasons at USC and became a rare 24-year-old, first-round draft pick.
The result, packaged with reuniting in Minnesota with his former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, is a season in which he entered Saturday’s game with career highs in field goal percentage (54.6), free throw percentage (81.6) and rebounding average (8.6).
His scoring average (11.6) is the second highest of his career despite having a career-low usage rate. The Timberwolves have jumped to fourth place in the West with the star trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins.
“It was all worth it,” Gibson said of his path, which included being traded from Chicago to Oklahoma City last season before agreeing to his first eight-figure salary this year with a two-year, $28-million contract in Minnesota. “I say to myself every day, ‘This is gravy.’ Whatever situation that I’m in with what I went through to get here, this is gravy.
“I tell guys all the time that I was a carpenter-slash-furniture mover. I understand how hard it is every day to wake up and fend for a job, to have a guy have to call your number out every day to see if you can get a job. I understand that the grind doesn’t stop. You have to always play hard. You always have to bring your hard hat. You never know. There is always someone coming a year from now or two years from now waiting to get your spot.”
Nobody has been able to get to Gibson’s job because his skill set evolved beyond work ethic, toughness and character. He developed a reliable mid-range jumper plus more three-pointers this season (five) than in his first eight seasons combined (four).
At 6-foot-9, he can guard every position, rebound beyond his size and be an effective pick-and-roll scorer. After responding to Thibodeau’s instructions for five years in Chicago, Gibson calls out defenses in Minnesota for Thibodeau.
The career of the 2009 draft’s No. 26 pick already has outlasted 14 of the 25 players who were taken ahead of him.
“His motor is great,” Thibodeau said. “As soon as he starts, he’s ready to go. You see that every day. When he comes into the gym to practice, he’s always got a bounce to him. It’s great energy, and I think the team can feed off that energy.”
Gibson is a stabilizer for a team after so much instability in his early life. He finds it easy to fit into a new situation, given that he’s lived in America’s three major cities and gone through the culture shock of changing coasts.
The San Fernando Valley has been his offseason home throughout his NBA career, and he can spend Christmas there this year before Minnesota plays the Lakers at Staples Center.
The Valley’s calmness suits him now, even though he said he experienced a “rude awakening” to Los Angeles culture as a teen unaware of the implications of an all-blue outfit.
The Timberwolves’ blue has been ideal, although it can be jolting for him to learn the reputation he has earned.
“The one thing that shocked me was a time when I was on the foul line and two rookies told me, ‘Yeah, homie, we’re going to box you out because you’re an animal,’ ” Gibson said. “I thought, ‘Who, me?’ That’s the craziest thing to me. I never thought I’d hear something like that because there are tons of guys even on my team that are twice the size of me.”
When he was a rookie, Gibson saw Kevin Garnett in that way. Garnett constantly trash-talked Gibson then. Now, he is a friend and mentor. They became better acquainted over summer meetings in Los Angeles, and Garnett’s affinity for Gibson grew when he chose to play for Garnett’s former team.
Less than two weeks ago, Garnett was watching a Minnesota-Philadelphia game when he felt compelled to text a Timberwolves coach with a defensive tip for Gibson.
“That means I came a long way,” Gibson said.