Steph's Successor: Jack Gibbs may not be a future NBA MVP, but he is having a spectacular season at Davidson
DAVIDSON, N.C. — Settlers of Catan is a strategy-based board game that casts players as explorers who have stumbled onto an uncharted island. Once they come ashore at "Catan," players use strategy to gain supremacy of their newfound territory. Jack Gibbs, a junior point guard at Davidson College, prides himself as one of the most ruthless settlers of Catan. "It's the board game of our generation," he says. Gibbs and his teammates share four adjacent apartments on Davidson's campus, and during the Wildcats' down time, the apartment complex routinely transforms into the mythical island. And just like on the court, Gibbs loves taking his opponents to task. "It gets pretty competitive," Gibbs says. "I won the last game; I would say I'm one of the better players on the team."
Gibbs is one of the better players in the entire country at another game: basketball. He averages 25.3 points per game, tops in the Atlantic-10 and third nationally behind Howard's James Daniel (27.7) and Oklahoma's Buddy Hield (25.4). In his third season at Davidson, the 6-foot, 195-pound Gibbs has conjured up comparisons to another undersized Davidson alum. Before becoming an NBA MVP as a member of the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry blew up box scores at Davidson from 2005–06 to '08–09. Now Gibbs is looking to put the finishing touches on one of the program's best all-around seasons since Curry departed the Davidson campus, 22 miles from Charlotte.
Gibbs's tremendous scoring ability came as a surprise to Bob McKillop, who is in his 27th season as head coach of the Wildcats. In Jan. 2012, McKillop dispatched his son Matt, an assistant coach, to scout Gibbs for a game at Westerville North High School, located 15 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. Seeing Gibbs play in person for the first time, the younger McKillop watched the sharpshooting prospect suffer a torn ACL in his left knee, which ended his junior season. But Matt McKillop had seen enough from Gibbs; he called his father said, "We have to stay on this kid." The next day, Matt McKillop phoned Gibbs to assured him he remained a priority for Davidson.
After a number of programs soured on Gibbs's recruitment, he rebounded as a senior to average 16.8 points, 4.8 steals and 4.1 assists, leading the Warriors to a 21–2 finish and a berth in the district semifinals. He capped the year by winning the 2012–13 Gatorade Boys Player of the Year in Ohio.
By the time Gibbs arrived as a healthy freshman at Davidson, McKillop saw more than he expected. "I was shocked how well he could shoot the ball," McKillop says. During the 2013–14 season Gibbs averaged 6.8 points per game in 20.2 minutes a night of backup duty behind senior point guard Tom Droney. Headed into Gibbs's second season, McKillop tabbed the guard as a team captain. Gibbs was the first Davidson sophomore to earn that title in McKillop's tenure.
McKillop hoped his decision would simultaneously help Gibbs grow as a leader and allow his teammates to look to him as one. Despite missing seven games in January and February due to a torn meniscus in the same knee, Gibbs chipped in 16.2 points per game and earned second-team all-A-10 honors. He scored 20 points six times and 30 twice, including a career-high 37—on 15-of-17 shooting—in a 95–69 win over UCF on Nov. 26, 2014. Gibbs finished the season as the first Davidson player with multiple 30-point games in a single season since Curry.
As a junior, Gibbs has evolved into one of the biggest scoring threats in college basketball. This season he has already notched nine 30-point games and reached the 40-point plateau three times, seamlessly replacing graduated guard Tyler Kalinoski, the reigning A-10 Player of the Year. One of Gibbs's most lethal shooting nights came in a Dec. 1 road matchup at Charlotte. Curry and the Warriors were scheduled for a game against the Charlotte Hornets the next day, so Curry took an early charter to cheer on his alma mater in person. With the reigning MVP seated behind Davidson's bench, Gibbs hit his first 14 shots en route to 41 points in a 109–74 Wildcats win.
Afterward, Curry pulled Gibbs aside. "He said, 'You shot it well today,'" Gibbs says. "It was pretty cool to hear that from arguably the best shooter in the world."
Those around the Davidson program use Curry comparisons cautiously. "There's only one Stephen Curry," says McKillop. "Jack Gibbs can be compared to a lot of people, but I don't think there's anybody that can be compared to Curry." Likewise, Gibbs pushes back on the parallels. "I'm grateful for the comparisons, but I don't think they're very warranted right now," he says. Curry has his own on the wall at the school's Baker Sports Complex—home of McKillop Court, Davidson's home arena—which prominently lists the former Wildcats' numerous NBA accolades. It's a not-so-subtle reminder to Gibbs and his teammates that mid-major programs can produce greatness.
Growing up an Ohio State fan in Big Ten country, Gibbs harbored dreams of playing major college basketball. But bigger programs shied away from Gibbs partially due to his size. Now Curry, another lanky, undersized guard who played at Davidson, is spearheading a new era in the NBA. Gibbs sees Curry as an example of debunking the status quo. "Obviously something is working when he's not the strongest, fastest or quickest guy on the court," Gibbs says, "but he can still score the way he does."
Gibbs is often surprised by his own similar scoring ability. "I never thought this would happen," Gibbs says. "I'm grateful to have made a lot of the shots I've taken." But in McKillop's fast-paced offense, which ranks first in the A-10 in adjusted efficiency, Gibbs manages to lead the league in scoring while simultaneously ranking fourth in assists (4.9). When Gibbs starts to develop a shooting groove—what he calls "riding the wave"—he pretends he's knocking down jumpers on the Wildcats' practice court. I've made these shots a thousand times in practice, he reminds himself.
That approach can still spark a push-and-pull game with his head coach. McKillop says he flirts with cardiac arrest every time he watches Gibbs's swashbuckling shot selection. "Same thing with some of his passes," the coach says. Despite his unselfishness, Gibbs will sometimes force plays; that's when McKillop has to reel in his star. The coach constantly reminds Gibbs of the three Ds: Decisions, details and discipline. "He wants so badly to play well and do the right thing," McKillop says. "He get so upset with himself when he doesn't do the right thing."
But Gibbs has found a formula that works, and his teammates see his style as a major advantage. "When you're locked in, or ultra-competitive, you start overthinking stuff," senior guard Brian Sullivan says. "He just goes out there and plays. I honestly think that's his greatest gift." Some defenders try to hone in on Gibbs early, working desperately to trash-talk their way into his head. Gibbs's preferred response? "They'll pick him up full court, and Jack just starts laughing," Sullivan says. "It drives people nuts."
Yet that bravado contrasts with Gibbs's low-key life as a student-athlete. He's more apt to blend into campus than draw attention—if he leaves his apartment at all. A running joke in Davidson's locker room is that Gibbs deserves to be the subject of a day-long documentary, which would likely put viewers to sleep watching the junior go about his daily life. "Not only would you not think he's an athlete," Sullivan says, "you'd never guess he's a top-five scorer in college basketball." Case in point: Teammates say Gibbs takes pride in his Netflix binges; he finished White Collar last semester and recently started the first season of Person of Interest. Recently, one roommate walked in to see him lying on his bed, remote in hand, while eating goldfish off his stomach. "Sometimes you want to take a load off," Gibbs says.
But Gibbs knows how to transition from the couch to the hardwood. With him leading the way, the Wildcats are first in the A-10 in scoring (80.7 points per game), and heading into Tuesday's home game against Rhode Island, are just four games behind VCU at the top of the Atlantic-10 standings. Four games remain in the regular season before Gibbs and company enter the conference tournament, where they lost to the Rams in the semifinals last season.
With a league tourney title, the Wildcats would lock up a spot in the Big Dance, and in a down year for the A-10, that might be Davidson's best hope. That's the primary goal in mind for Gibbs, more important than binging Netflix, winning Settlers of Catan or even becoming the next Steph Curry. At this moment, no one can keep Gibbs from riding the wave.