DEERFIELD, ILL. — Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, as he took his customary extra set of shots after practice, then obliged the media in attendance with his presence. In fact, it felt normal when Derrick Rose talked about the Bulls’ first practice of training camp, just like old times.
It was anything but, especially compared to the second half of last season, when any inkling of the former league MVP’s potential return stirred reporters and fans alike, although it never materialized. But now, as he’s slated to play in exactly a week, Rose’s comeback is a reality, meaning that his progress is something that should be tracked seriously.
In his typically understated fashion, Rose simultaneously revealed how enthusiastic he was about his first practice of the 2013-14 season, imminent return included, and downplayed the entire spectacle.
“I was moving good. It just felt good being out there with my teammates. We won the majority of the games that we did scrimmage against the other team. So that was a good thing. I’m just happy to be out there and feel like a part of the team,” he said. “I was able to do a little bit more. I was attacking a lot, getting to the line. Just getting my legs under me and getting my wind together, that’s the biggest thing right now."
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau critiqued Rose’s play, indicating that he was pleased with the Chicago native’s mentality, but after such a long layoff, there was some expected rust, in terms of his rhythm.
“Good, fine, he did everything. He scrimmaged well, practice had very good intensity. It was a good start,” the coach said. ““I’d say he doesn’t have to pace himself like he did [when he practiced last season]. That part is a lot better. The change in direction is much better. The driving and finishing is a lot better. His timing is still not there, but it’s a good start.’’
“Working on defense he’s fine. When we got to the scrimmage part, as we went along he got better and better. I think the big thing is he’s got to get used to the contact, the physicality of everything, and then of course we haven’t put in our double-teams yet, but we’re going to add that in so he gets comfortable with that. I think the more he does see that, the more he does with the scrimmage part, he’ll continually get better and better each day. A big part of that is the timing of the offense, the spacing, and it’s not just him, it’s the entire team. He’s got to get comfortable with that,” he went on to say. “The one part that was a big thing about him practicing last year was [Rose’s teammates] got comfortable with [making contact with Rose]. So they’re out playing, they’re not thinking about Derrick. They were going pretty hard. I think he’s comfortable with his body. He’s strong, real strong, and he was attacking. Today, he attacked the basket a lot more than he did last year."
Teammate Joakim Noah was more tight-lipped about the morning practice session than his coach, speaking more in generalities and less about Rose specifically, though he couldn’t hide his pleasure at knowing the point guard will once again be playing with him in the near future.
“Felt great. He was working hard. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do, but it feels great. It’s going to be an exciting year,” the All-Star center said. “He looks a lot more comfortable and I think everybody’s healthy from Day 1.
“Last year, we didn’t play too much 5-on-5, so it was good to have him out there.”
It was only the first of two sessions Saturday — the Bulls will repeat the two-a-day practice schedule Sunday — but the continued theme of an optimistic Rose is encouraging.
“I’ve got confidence in my knee. There’s no testing anymore. It’s going out there and playing hard and attacking,” he said. “Just getting adjusted, knowing everybody, knowing how they play and just getting my timing going to the hole. I was attacking but getting fouled, learning how to fall, all that stuff I’m learning.
“That’s just the way I play. I came in this league a driver and I’m going to continue to drive. I can shoot. My shot has gotten better. But I know I’m labeled as a driver,” he continued.
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Although Rose was winded from the practice, after arduous workouts in preparation for his return, perhaps Saturday’s session wasn’t quite a breeze, but he wasn’t fazed by it.
“Don’t tell Thibs, but I have workouts harder than this. For real, I work out three times a day,” the floor general explained. “So for us to actually go through practicing and have water breaks and all that, that’s something I don’t normally do in my workouts. So this is hard. But I’m used to it.
“You’re definitely going to be winded when you miss a whole year I think. For me, my wind and just running after practice, getting up a lot of shots, getting my legs under me, that’s the goal,” he added. “There’s no pacing. I’m going to push myself, continue to go hard and dedicate myself to this game. I really take care of my body. Eat right. Of course, have a good diet and just try to give it my all.”
During his absence, Rose adjusted his lifestyle, cutting down on his infamous candy habit and adding stretching to his routine.
“I’m stretching a lot. I’m really taking stretching serious before and after — when I wake up, before I go to sleep. I just try to get my body as loose as possible because when you have ACL tears, your hamstrings will be the first things that go especially when you’re fatigued. Me building that tolerance up on my leg, I think that will help me in the long run,” he explained. That’s the reason we brought Jen [Swanson, the Bulls’ newly-hired director of athletic performance, who previously worked at the California facility where Rose rehabilitated from his ACL injury] in. She knows a lot about that. She’s going to help me out a lot.
“I slowed down with candy. I haven’t gave it up completely but I slowed down. They told me I can’t eat wheat anymore. I have to eat around that.”
Rose has always been resolute about not playing in informal or even organized non-NBA 5-on-5 full-court games, so Saturday was his first opportunity to play in a truly competitive setting, so he’s savoring every second of it and putting his increased knowledge of the game to use while getting ready for the big moment in a week’s time.
“I don’t play pickup basketball. I never did. I don’t see why I have to. I felt comfortable enough in my knee where I think I don’t have to do that,” he said. “I’m not trying to sit out [at all]. Just like with the minutes. Whatever minutes Thibs allows me to be out there, I’m going to be on the court.”
“For sure. I think my IQ of the game has definitely grown. When you’re young, you’re so used to just sticking one player or being concerned with who you’re guarding. Today, we really went up some games against the other team by playing a team defense and knowing we have each other’s back,” Rose added, before discussing his anticipation of the matchup against the Pacers, the Bulls’ primary foe in the Central Division. “I can’t wait. That will be like the first big game I’ve played in in a year and a half. I think everybody will be watching. I’ll be prepared.”
And as far as all the criticism he’s taken along the way to his first game since that fateful April 2012 afternoon?
“I could care less. People are always going to say something,” Rose said. “The way I look at it, they questioned and had their opinions about Jesus and he was perfect. So for me, I’m far from that. I could take it. I made it this far.”
So far, so good.