Derrick Rose has walked the comeback trail for so long that it's hard to remember a time when his every step wasn't viewed as incremental progress toward some unreachable destination.
See, Rose is the only man on Team USA's roster with the combination of personal and team success that begets real leadership. By its nature, this All-Star squad is laden with talent. Anthony Davis, James Harden and Stephen Curry are all highly accomplished on an individual basis.
Davis, particularly, is a stat-stuffing machine—an analytics darling and a highlight-producer casual fans adore. Curry is much the same.
But none of those three (or anyone else on Team USA's roster, for that matter) has been The Man on a massively successful team. Remember, Rose, the league MVP in 2010-11, led his Chicago Bulls to the NBA's best record for two straight years and reached the conference finals three seasons ago.
Cite Harden's trip to the Finals as an Oklahoma City Thunder reserve if you like, but that underwhelming effort hardly puts him on equal footing with Rose as a leader.
The point is, Durant's withdrawal leaves a void on Team USA, and Rose is the one guy with the reputation and experience to fill it.
All indications are he's ready.
"I think he's exceptional in every way. He went right at it," head coach Mike Krzyzewski told Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com.
"The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball-handler, moving his feet, attacking him. There was a buzz right away because it was basically his saying, 'Look, I'm not just back. I'm back at a level that's elite.'"
Pillar of upstanding Dukedom that he is, Krzyzewski remains a slick salesman. If Rose weren't back, we'd still probably be hearing raves.
The tape removes any doubt, though:
It was fair to wonder if Rose's body would ever allow him to do the things he once did. Having seen him move—fast and violent and terrifying as ever—all we need now is evidence he's ready to lead. And it won't be hard to tell if he is.
International competition is different from the NBA's domestic brand of ball. There won't be an endless stream of isolations or pick-and-rolls up top. Don't expect to glean information on Rose's readiness from a 29-shot takeover effort.
But if we see the former MVP barking in huddles, we'll know.
If we see teammates' eyes turn to him in timeouts after they've shifted focus from whatever instructions Krzyzewski has laid out, we'll know.
If we see him handling the ball when it matters, we'll know.
It won't be easy for Rose to seize control of a team so stocked with talent, ego and ambition; the players currently on the roster have spots because they're skilled and hungry for a shot to show the world their worth. But the ability to be an alpha among alphas is exactly what the NBA MVP award connotes.
Now that Durant's gone, Rose is the only guy who has one of those in his trophy case.
The Bulls will watch with equal parts fear and hope as Rose takes the floor for the World Cup. Already, this summertime exhibition was going to reveal whether a two-year wait would pay off with a healthy Rose. But now, Chicago will get to find out about much more than the stability of its superstar's knees.
DRose, on how close he is to being himself: "I’m there, man. I’m not worried about that. My confidence is very high."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) July 28, 2014
It will also get to see whether a brush with basketball mortality dulled his mental edge.
Seeing Rose go full bore in games for which he's not being paid and have absolutely no bearing on the Bulls' future will be an anxious experience. These contests won't be walkover affairs. If they were going to be easy, Durant would probably still be on the roster.
And after Paul George's injury, every NBA franchise is cognizant of the risks involved.
Trepidation aside, the Bulls are about to find out what to expect from Rose this season. If he's as good as he once was (and as good as everyone seems to think he is again), it'll be time for Chicago to replace "cautious" with "rampant" as the qualifier for its optimism about the upcoming season.
Also, if we get a full season of the Derrick Rose we’ve seen w/USAB, along w/way Bulls defend and play under Thibs, CHI will be a problem.— Brett Pollakoff (@BrettEP) August 7, 2014
Losing Durant is, on balance, a significant blow to Team USA. But it's also a golden opportunity for Rose, who will get his shot to prove he's back—really back—a couple of months before he expected it to happen.
If he's ready, Rose can lead the U.S. on another dominant run through an international competition fraught with teams just itching to upset the team. And the Bulls will get the proof they'll need to see ahead of a season in which they're built to legitimately contend for a title.
The ripple effects will be significant.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will know they've got a real fight ahead of them in the East. The superpowers out West will be forced to take the little-brother conference seriously again.
Most of all, a stirring, "how dare you forget about me" performance from Rose will be a boon for the NBA. The league has no shortage of talent, but truly transcendent superstars are a rare breed. Rose was one of those once, cut down in the midst of his rise to greatness.
We'll soon see if he's ready to rise again.