Derrick Rose has played in 10 games over the last two NBA seasons, and just 50 since winning the MVP in the 2010-11 season while taking the Chicago Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, the Bulls' chief rival the past few seasons, participated in 66 postseason games and won two NBA titles in the same period of time.
So forgive the excitement when Rose dunks against air on the first day of the USA Men's Basketball training camp in Las Vegas:
You can also forgive people for holding their breath when Rose goes crashing to the ground after an acrobatic finish reminiscent of the former MVP's old self:
That's just where we're at with Rose. He has been out of sight and mind so often these past three seasons that people are starving to see any signs of him looking like the guy who took the NBA by storm. But at the same time, the fear of re-injury lingers after surgeries to repair a torn ACL and torn meniscus in opposite knees. It's a mindset sure to stick around until he proves otherwise.
But it's not a mindset Rose will share. Despite dealing with two consecutive brutal injuries and all the backlash that has come with his turbulent rehabs, Rose remains as confident as ever, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson:
"I've been preparing for this for a long time," he said. "It's probably big for everyone else because they haven't seen me. It's kind of weird. People are kind of like in awe to even see me run down the floor, like I'm handicapped or something.
"This is only the beginning of a long journey. But my confidence level is through the roof."
Indeed, that aspect of Rose's game hasn't changed one iota.
"I know how special I am as a player," he said. "And I know what I still can do."
This comes a day after Rose expressed pleasure at the thought of proving his detractors wrong:
And be certain, there are plenty of doubters. Rose was once the toast of Chicago, the hometown kid who grew up through tough times to turn into the hero the Bulls had been lacking since Michael Jordan's second retirement. But while Rose still has a gaggle of supporters, a faction of fans have turned on him due to the injuries and numerous PR missteps that came along with #TheReturn. Turn on Chicago sports radio during any discussion of Rose and you'll be sure to hear a caller say he should be traded. Read any comment section of a story about Rose and you'll be sure to find somebody questioning his toughness or saying he's done.
A healthy amount of skepticism surrounding Rose's return is warranted. After all, two major knee injuries to a player who relies on insane athleticism are nothing to sniff at. Furthermore, for all the bluster Rose is speaking with right now, we did hear much of the same prior to last season. This came from a Chicago Tribune article in Sept. 2013:
"The only thing that has changed in my game is the confidence," he said. "My confidence grew as a player. You'll see that when I play."
Rose said he has no doubt he will regain the talent level that allowed him to become the youngest most valuable player in NBA history in 2011.
"I believe I'm one of the hardest workers in the NBA," he said.
Rose also said he improved his vertical by five inches and went on to dominate the preseason, leading many to believe he was officially back and the Bulls were ready to run roughshod over much of the league. What actually happened was the exact opposite. Rose struggled mightily once the real games started, averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists in 10 contests before tearing his meniscus. He shot a woeful 35.4 percent in those 10 games, and he sported a PER of just 9.82.
So there are no guarantees here. Rose can look awesome dunking with no defenders around or make crazy shots in a scrimmage, but it won't matter unless he can consistently replicate that in NBA games. That didn't happen last year, but Rose says this time around will be different:
"Coming back last season, of course I wanted to prove everybody wrong. I wanted it too, too bad. This time around, I just know that I've got to let the game come to me. Go out there and just play."
Another difference is Rose's maturation over the past year, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger:
"I'm able to control my body a little bit more, use my speed, being smarter with my speed instead of just being wild out there," Rose said. "I'm a smarter player ... a totally different player, but it comes with experience."
Bulls headmaster and Team USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau noted how impressive Rose's feel for the game was during the first day of the Team USA training camp, and this experience can only help him as he prepares for the next NBA season. It's still no lock Rose makes the 12-man squad that will go to Spain for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, but at the very least, getting reps against other elite players at this mini-camp is a plus.
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The competition at the camp is fierce, especially at the point guard position. Even with no Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook in attendance, there remains Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and John Wall. Rose is at a bit of a disadvantage because of his injuries, but he does have prior USA Basketball experience and has the admiration of both Thibodeau and Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski:
Coach K said that he sees Durant, Harden, Rose as potential team leaders. Regarding Rose: "He [looks] better than he did 4 years ago."— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) July 28, 2014
That's some high praise from Coach K, and it could be a sign Rose is in line to make the team as long as he stays healthy. This means a really good player like Wall or Lillard would likely stay home, a decision that could be argued given what has happened the past few seasons.
Whatever does happen, it's great to see Derrick Rose doing actual basketball things on a basketball court against elite NBA players. Early returns on The Return 2.0 are positive, and although there remains reason to be pessimistic, this is the time of year when optimism reigns. The Bulls are banking their championship dreams on Rose's return to form, so they have to feel good about where things are headed.
Just keep your fingers crossed The Return 2.0 has a happier ending than #TheReturn.