June 29, 2011

Gibbs ready to lead way for Pitt

At one point, Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs had planned to spend last Thursday night - the night of the NBA draft - waiting by the phone.

At one point, he had told friends and media members he intended to remain in the draft despite a lukewarm reception from NBA teams. Gibbs entered the draft during the Final Four weekend and didn't announce his decision to stay in school until the final day underclassmen could pull their names out of consideration.

"When I put my name in, I put my name in for a reason and that was to get drafted," Gibbs says. "Anybody who declares for the draft, that's what they prepare for. That's why I told people I was staying in the draft because at that time, I was.

"I was 100 percent staying in the draft and I was training as if I was staying in the draft."

But in the end, Gibbs did everything a player in his position should do. He never hired an agent, keeping his amateur status intact. Some friends tried to convince him to stay in the draft, even though Gibbs had scheduled only one workout with an NBA team. The prediction was that he'd be a late second-round pick, which meant a non-guaranteed contract.

It was a long process, and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon wasn't surprised by the outcome.

"Pretty much everything happened the way we told him it would happen," Dixon says.

Even if Dixon could predict Gibbs would stay in school, he can't be certain how Gibbs' senior season will shake out. Gibbs will have a new job: With Brad Wanamaker gone, Gibbs will have to be the Panthers' top playmaker and facilitator.

The work, Gibbs says, starts now.

He has played the point in the past, but last season, he was one of Pitt's few outside threats. Gibbs hit 102 of the Panthers' 202 3-point attempts. The Panthers led the Big East in 3-point shooting efficiency at 39.5 percent, largely because Gibbs shot 49 percent from beyond the arc. Only Ohio State's Jon Diebler and SMU's Robert Nyakundi were more efficient.

That was just fine for Pittsburgh because Wanamaker developed into a standout distributor. He averaged 5.1 assists last season. Gibbs, who averaged 2.8 assists, became more proficient on pick-and-rolls and at the free throw line, where he shot 88.9 percent.

"Brad was more of a playmaker last year because that was his strength," says Gibbs, who averaged 16.8 points per game. "I can definitely do it. It was just that shooting the ball is what we needed last year. We didn't have very many outside shooters so that was my job last year.

"I played point guard my whole life, but I've always been the best shooter on my team. I've always taken a lot of shots, so people mistake me for a shooting guard."

Pittsburgh can't afford Gibbs being mistaken for a shooting guard next season. That's why he is thinking about what he needs to do to become a better point guard. He already has learned from experience that a productive offseason can bring big returns.

His breakout sophomore season was preceded by a standout performance in the FIBA World Championships. At that point, Gibbs was a virtual unknown outside of Pittsburgh when Dixon added him to the U.S. Under-19 team. The team eventually won the gold medal.

Gibbs aims to use this summer as a similar springboard to what he did in 2009. Gibbs spent part of last week at the Deron Williams Skills Academy, a camp in Chicago attended by 14 of the nation's top college point guards. Gibbs also has been invited to the World University Games tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the end of July.

"I'm working on different pick-and-roll situations and getting my teammates involved," Gibbs says. "It's a balance of when to shoot and when not to shoot. As a point guard, decision-making is key. It takes time and it's all experience. If I work on it every day, I'll see improvement sooner or later."

Dixon is quick to remind Gibbs that he's also supposed to have fun on these trips. Sure, he needs to focus on conditioning and strength training over the offseason, but the real work is a long-term process.

"It's more of a reward than anything," Dixon says. "I'm not one of those guys who makes a three-day camp more valuable than a five-month offseason."

The offseason didn't begin easily. Pittsburgh, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, lost in the second round to Butler. In that game, Butler guard Shelvin Mack fouled Pitt's Gilbert Brown in the final two seconds. Brown made the first free throw to tie the score at 70. But Nasir Robinson fouled Bulldogs forward Matt Howard on the rebound of Brown's missed free throw, and Howard won the game on a free throw with less than a second left.

Butler advanced to the Sweet 16 and played for the national title before losing to Connecticut in the championship game.

"I just have to move on from it," Gibbs says. "It's something I don't really think about too much or like to think about too much. In the end, it's basketball; people lose games that way."

Gibbs and Robinson are among the Panthers' returning players. Gibbs still should be one of the team's best shooters, and he should have more support from guard Travon Woodall, a part-time player last season. The frontcourt also will be worth watching as former McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor looks to take an increased role. He and five-star freshman Khem Birch will give the Panthers a rare pairing of players who arrived at Pittsburgh as top-20 prep prospects.

The key, though, is Gibbs, who may have been humbled by his NBA draft experience. He says he's better for it.

"Everything doesn't work in your favor all the time," he says. "It was just my best bet to come back to school and get my degree as well and spend time with my fellow seniors. I don't think it will hurt me.

"We'll have a pretty good team. It's my turn to lead the team and try to make a run."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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