The end is near.
As the countdown to Derrick Rose’s first game since April of 2012 draws closer to its conclusion, the former league MVP continues to be deluged with questions about his ever-imminent return. From his state of mind to his physical status, the point guard has been asked virtually every form of “Is everything okay with your knee?” and “Will you be the same player?” that exists.
Still, the fact that Rose professes to be a more confident and an even better player than the elite athlete we last witnessed—and the fact that those who have seen him play back that self-assessment—is almost jarring. So if the Chicago native claims that he’s already beyond the usual benchmarks players must endure before getting back to their old selves after ACL surgery, despite not playing in an NBA game in 17 months, we should take him at his word.
“It is a fresh start. It gives me really a fresh start to go out there and prove myself again. This is the biggest stage you could play on as a player and probably the biggest stage I’ll ever play on in my life, so preparing myself for it and me getting past this, I think it’s just going to help my confidence and help me become better as a pro, and as a veteran for my team,” he explained after Thursday’s practice at the Berto Center. “I’m just a player that’s more confident. Going out there, playing more efficient and someone that’s trying to control the entire game, low turnovers and just trying to play as aggressive as possible.”
When asked what else was left for him in the recovery process, Rose’s answer was simple.
“I would have to say just being out there, getting in the flow of the game. Just being in an NBA game. In practice, of course it’s kind of different. With Thibs, he’ll stop practice here and there if he sees anything, but in the games, it’s none of that. The referees and you’re actually out there playing, so for me, actually playing, just getting up and down, and seeing how my leg feels. It should feel all right, but I’m not worrying about anything right now,” he said. “I haven’t played in a long time. You can run, you can condition yourself as much as possible, but it’s nothing like getting out there and playing a game. So for me to play in the games and playing in practice for as long as I can, I hope it’s building my wind for it. In the future, I shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
The recently-turned 25-year-old—Oct. 4 is his birthday—also insisted that his year away from the game had a silver lining to it, as he got the opportunity to study the game as an observer, furthering his underrated basketball I.Q., something often taken for granted because of his explosiveness and scoring ability, despite not even playing in any five-on-five games until the Bulls’ training camp scrimmages.
“It helped me out a lot. Learning the tendencies of players, learning really how my teammates play without me. Just knowing their strengths and knowing how Thibs calls plays. I think my I.Q. of the game definitely grew as a player. Like I said, me having the ball the majority of the game, me being a point guard, I should be able to control the game comfortably and really pick my spots during the entire game,” he said.”[Observers] don’t even look at my defense. People don’t look at that. They just look at me scoring or they criticize how I’m playing or something like that. But I could care less. As long as we’re winning games, that’s what it’s all about.”
Rose cited veteran teammate Kirk Hinrich, demoted to a reserve when he entered the NBA and reprising the same role this season after starting for the Bulls in Rose’s year-long absence—as an example for him.
“You know Kirk is a real point guard, like a real, real point guard. He’s been running the point guard his whole life,” he said. “Coming into the league, at first you learn the NBA game and then try to get adjusted to it, and then actually being the leading scorer in the NBA on my team, just being aggressive. So for me, being out there, time management, knowing who is in the game, personnel, knowing who to give the ball to at a certain time, I think it just comes from watching the game so much and I had a year to do that.”
As for his rationale for not participating in offseason pickup or summer-league pro-am games, he explained: “I never play pickup in the offseason, never did. It’s just something I’m just not used to. That’s when people really look at your game and try to find out how you play, so I never did it.”
That competitive nature goes against the current trend in the NBA, where many players take part in events throughout the summer. But Rose is cut from a different cloth and although he works out with opponents like Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love and the Oklahoma City Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in California, he’s fiercely loyal to his Bulls teammates and upon arriving in Chicago for the beginning of training camp, has been impressed from what he’s seen.
“I came in, it actually surprised me, seeing guys in shape, knocking down shots, working out, even after practice,” Rose revealed. “It’s a totally different team than last year, where you have guys that’s really preparing themselves for a big year.”
The support of his teammates, which didn’t waver last season, as he seemingly took on criticism from all corners for not returning, at least from outsiders, meant a lot to Rose, as does their present demonstrations of affection.
“Their comments in practice, always making sure they’re watching me. If I’m falling, they’re right there, two or three guys, just making sure they pick me up. That little stuff right there makes me feel good, just going back out there because for my teammates, you want to make sure they always have your back and for me, they know I always have their back and it’s vice versa,” Rose said. “It’s making me feel good, especially being on this team because we have new guys. Even our second string, they come in, they play hard, they really challenge us in those games and it’s almost like a playoff atmosphere when we’re playing out here because they’re trying to win as bad as we are and just the competitive nature in both teams, both squads, I think it’s going to make us become a good team.”
But although the Bulls have their most talented starting lineup since he started playing for his hometown team, as well as a talented bench, Rose understands that getting back to his aggressive style of play is what will ultimately dictate the team’s success.
“That’s how I normally play. I react to how the guy is sticking me—h how the defense is really sticking me—look to score and if I don’t have a shot or something, that’s when my passing comes into effect, where, if their guy is sagging or if they’re playing a certain way, I’ve got to find a way to get my teammates the ball, “he explained. “My shot is always going to be there, but I came into this league as a driver and I’m not going to stop driving the ball. I know that’s my strength and me getting into the lane, opens up the floor and my teammates to make open shots. So it’s really pick your poison. If you’re going to sag off, I’m going to shoot. If you’re on me, I’m going to try to go past you and just put pressure on your defense.”
As the days turn into hours, the Bulls depart for Indianapolis and Rose steps onto the Pacers’ home court—fittingly, the first road game he attended last season, sitting on the bench in street clothes, was against the Central Division rival, a team there’s no love lost for—for the preseason opener, he’ll finally, be able to turn all of these statements into reality.