LAS VEGAS — Kicking off his latest comeback attempt in style, Derrick Rose threw down dunks, tossed in three-pointers and whipped no-look passes at the UNLV practice court on Monday, before shifting into a captivating media session that saw mix funny one-liners with reflections on his recent knee injuries. His performance during and after USA Basketball’s first day of training camp was an assault on the senses, as his athletic flashes brought the memories flooding back while his wide-ranging and clearly-elucidated thoughts projected a fresh serenity.
Rose’s first high-profile, public basketball show in months led one observer, a high school player, to turn to his friend and declare, “That boy’s back.” His overall play prompted USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to openly declared that Rose “shocked everybody by how ready he was.” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski added that he was “ecstatic” watching Rose, who looked “better than four years ago,” when he started for the gold medal-winning 2010 World Championship team. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who is serving as an assistant under Krzyzewski, praised Rose’s newfound “patience” and said that the 2011 MVP got off to a “very good start.”
It was striking, amid all these good vibrations, that no one was no walking on egg shells, a phenomenon that frequently surrounds rehabilitating athletes. Rose pledged to change his game, but he didn’t seemed daunted or nervous. Colangelo and Krzyzewski opted for pure praise, dispensing with any management of expectations. And, perhaps most telling, Rose joined fellow All-Stars James Harden, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis in a tantalizing scrimmage group that served as the de-facto day one starting lineup. Anyone expecting the egg shells, or kid gloves, or a gradual ramping up of responsibility was instead greeted with a running start.
“My confidence is crazy,” Rose told reporters, stating that he was fully healthy, that he trusted his legs, and that he simply needed to work on his conditioning. “I know how hard I worked. I believe I’m one of the hardest workers in the league. I’ve been preparing for this for a long time. I dedicated my whole summer for this moment. … [I spent] every day working my a– off. Torturing my body every single day. My wind is the last thing I need. I played probably a total of nine minutes [in Monday’s scrimmages]. I work out three or four hours a day [so] that ain’t s—.”
He smiled at his own humorous deployment of profanity, and an easiness broke across a face that looks like it has aged four or five years since he last took the court. That same easiness came across on the court, as he drained his first shot after a large media horde was let into the gym, worked to set up Durant for one-on-one scoring opportunities, and glided back and forth between offense and defense.
Rose is hoping to land one of 12 roster spots for USA Basketball’s FIBA World Cup team that will head to Spain next month, seeking to extend the program’s gold medal streak that dates back to the 2008 Olympics. The 25-year-old point guard is taking on this challenge even though he has played in just 10 game combined over the last two seasons after undergoing two season-ending knee surgeries. Rose is gunning for another gold even though he hasn’t played in an NBA game since he left the Moda Center in Portland on crutches after tearing the meniscus in his right knee during a Nov. 22, 2013, game against the Blazers.
“I’m totally different,” Rose declared. “When I came back the last time [in 2013], I wanted to prove everybody wrong. I just wanted it too, too bad. I was forcing the game. This time around, I’m just trying to let the game come to me. Of course, be aggressive, but at the same time, have control of the game, be smarter, and be able to run a team.”
No one, outside of Rose and his immediate family, has more invested in the success of this comeback than Thibodeau, who has been forced to stitch together one-way rosters during his superstar point guard’s absence. After winning one playoff series during the last three seasons combined, Thibodeau’s Bulls now have a legitimate shot at making the 2015 Finals if Rose is back in the fold. Chicago added Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, rookie Doug McDermott and reserve point guard Aaron Brooks, this summer while retaining all of their most important core pieces, including 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. As rivals Miami and Indiana endured the losses of LeBron James and Lance Stephenson, respectively, Chicago looks like one of the few potential East powers that took a step forward this summer.
None of those developments really matter without Rose, though, which is why some parties have been critical of his decision to risk another injury by playing for USA Basketball. Rose, who is playing in Las Vegas without any restrictions on his minutes or activities, said that he was “not worried” about the prospect of disaster striking again. Thibodeau, in turn, painted Rose’s oft-discussed decision to participate as much ado about nothing.
“All he has to do is exactly what he did in 2010, which is run the team,” Thibodeau said, pointing to Rose’s play when the USA captured gold over Turkey in Istanbul. “I think it’s a great situation for him to come back in. … This experience for him in 2010 was a huge plus. I think it helped him with his [2010-11] MVP season, he hit the ground running. He was in great shape. He was ready to go. Because of the talent on this team, he doesn’t have to play a lot of minutes. He can find the rhythm of the game, and there’s a lot of scoring on the floor. Both of our two guards can handle the ball and run the pick-and-roll, which allows him to come off screens. This team is really built for him.”
Perhaps Thibodeau should have said that the USA roster is built for the new Rose. After crafting his reputation as one of the toughest players to defend one-on-one, thanks to his strength, quickness and handle, Rose acknowledged that his injuries and rehabilitations have caused him to rethink his approach to the game. He laid out plans to pull up from the mid-range more often to avoid contact in the basket area, and to work off the ball so that he could enjoy better scoring opportunities without being forced to create everything off of the dribble.
“I think you’ll see that next year,” Rose explained. “I’m just trying to keep people off my body. Using a lot of floaters, using a lot of pull-ups, so I won’t get touched as much. [Also], catch-and-shoot. I’ve been doing a lot of catch-and-shoot, running off floppy. … I think this year will be the most in my career where I’ll play catching the ball with a live dribble.”
The strategic wheels are already in motion for Thibodeau, who singled out Chicago’s decision to re-sign Kirk Hinrich as key in allowing Rose to spend some extra time off of the ball. Thibodeau seemed ready to welcome back a player who was still capable of displaying elite athleticism but who also has added a richer comprehension of the action.
“[He was] much more patient, I thought he just found the rhythm of the game,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “He didn’t settle for the quick shot. He ran the team. I thought he had a really good understanding of when he should shoot and when he should pass. I thought his defense, he got up the floor, he pushed himself. His wind is still not there. … [His athleticism] is the same. The strength in his leg is great. His explosion is back. That’s all there. I think he still has to work on his timing.”
Although USA Basketball’s training camp opened with Rose as the biggest roster question mark, his strong first day and his inclusion in what looked like a possible first team has flipped that situation upside down. Indeed, Krzyzewski stated that he believed Rose could even join Durant and Harden as the leaders of this World Cup squad.
“[Durant] has a maturity about him,” the legendary Duke coach explained. “A physical and emotional maturity that you can’t match. That’s the maturity that LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] have. Harden [can help lead] because he’s been on the team before. I think Rose will do that too, but he has to find himself first.”
That self-exploration seems to be well underway, if Rose’s demeanor on Monday was any indication. Alternating between self-confidence and self-deprecation, Rose quipped that he felt “old” because he has to prepare himself more thoroughly before taking the court. All the hours of rehabilitation, he said, have him ready for a second life as a personal trainer. He cited his son, who will soon turn two years old, as a source of motivation.
More than anything, though, Rose just seems on steady footing. He wasn’t tiptoeing on the egg shells, trying to find his NBA legs again. He wasn’t racing too fast, overly eager to shove slights back into the faces of doubters. He sounded prepared, not only for the upcoming World Cup but also for next season, which should mark the beginning of the long-delayed second chapter of his career.
“I think we’re going to be a contender, a strong contender,” Rose concluded, delivering music to the ears of Bulls fans. “I really don’t know what [seed] or whatever, but we’re going to be up there.”