When the dust settles from Team USA's FIBA World Cup venture, Derrick Rose will set his sights on the return that really matters.
His Chicago Bulls have missed him desperately, falling in the first round in two of the last three postseasons—and losing to the Miami Heat by a 4-1 margin in the 2013 conference semifinals. Put simply, Rose has been the difference between a team defined by overachievement and a legitimate contender.
The last time the 25-year-old played a full season and stuck around for the playoffs, he was named MVP, and his Bulls made it all the way to the conference finals.
That 2010-11 team wasn't good enough to knock off the Heat, but it was good enough to be in the same conversation.
Rose averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists per game that year. He established himself as an electric two-way player, an elite point guard and a superstar who could will his team to victory. He did all the things one expects of a Most Valuable Player.
Now the question turns to whether he can do those things again.
The early signs are encouraging.
"I think he's exceptional in every way," Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski raved to reporters after practices in Las Vegas. "He went right at it. 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.'"
Krzyzewski added, "Derrick was sensational the whole week. He really did that every day, how fast and strong and decisive he was. He really created an air of excitement for the team because we all were anxious to see who he was right now."
That air of excitement has almost certainly caught on among Bulls fans, at least the one's who've gotten over their paranoia that Rose will injure himself battling the world this summer.
In truth, the FIBA play is more than just an early indicator. It should also afford Rose the opportunity to ease himself back into playing shape, regaining some semblance of rhythm before NBA competition begins.
If Rose weren't getting his feet wet on a global stage, chances are he'd try to do so somewhere else.
As the Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Morrissey puts it, "The way to get your body into basketball shape is, in part, to play basketball. If Rose and the other players decided to back away from the national team because of the risk of injury, what do you think they would be doing? Looking for a pickup game against top competition."
One advantage to doing it this way is that Rose can return in a controlled environment in which his playing time and exertion can be carefully managed.
"I think this is a good situation for him to come back in because of all the talent," Team USA assistant coach (and Chicago Bulls head coach) TomThibodeau explained, Per USA Today's Sam Amick. "He doesn't have to play a lot of minutes, find your way, get over that hurdle of the rust you have to shake off, and I think he's ready for this."
That how Rose sees it too, telling reporters after his first practice with Team USA, "I'm really trying to make it. I sat out for two years. It's a chance for me to work on my whole body. Get my legs strong. Get my upper body strong. Just take advantage of it."
So in theory Rose will hit the ground running in October, well oiled and primed to lead Chicago from the outset.
That bodes well for another MVP award, as it may well take a full season of extraordinary play to outshine what promises to be stiff competition.
Kevin Durant took his game to another level a season ago, compensating for Russell Westbrook's 36-game absence with 32 points per contest. And with LeBron James' steady heroics unlikely to recede anytime soon, there reasons to be at least two stars ahead of Rose in line for MVP honors.
There could be more.
A visibly leaner Carmelo Anthony could be in store for a career season, especially if his renewed determination translates into strides on the defensive end. If the New York Knicks outpace expectations, Anthony will almost certainly garner the lion's share of credit.
Paul's MVP stock has waned thanks in large part to teammate Blake Griffin's emergence as a legitimate superstar. So long as Griffin is making robust contributions, Paul's excellence will be at least partially overshadowed.
But Curry is a different story. After tallying 24 points and 8.5 assists last season, the 26-year-old cemented his status as a dynamic all-around playmaker and one of the very best shooters in the business. Much will depend on whether his Warriors take another step forward in a crowded Western Conference, but improved collective results would immediately cast the spotlight on Curry.
Still, Rose could very well be in the discussion—especially if Chicago ranks among the league's contenders, which reasons to be the case in an Eastern Conference that's in flux.
There's even some possibility that Rose will do more than return to form this season. He could be even better than his previous incarnation.
Back in 2012, former star point guard Tim Hardaway suggested that Rose's inability to practice anything other than his jumper (while recovering) could yield serious dividends.
"That’s going to make him better," Hardaway explained, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Neil Hayes. "If you shoot 1,000 jump shots a day, 1,000 free throws a day, you’re going to get better. That made my shot better. It really made my jump shot and free-throw percentage better."
Similar sentiments emerged during the 2013-14 preseason, this time focused on an emerging three-point stroke. Then, the Sun-Times' Joe Cowley wrote, "[Teammates have] seen the hours Rose has spent shooting from outside since December. When Rose was rehabbing from surgery on his injured left knee, shooting jumpers is all he was allowed to do early on."
"But then it became habit," Cowley added. "Now it’s a weapon, and the rest of the league has been introduced to it during the preseason."
Limited to just 10 games in the season that followed, Rose never had the opportunity to put his improved form to the test.
Perhaps the 2013-14 campaign will be his chance.
If Rose becomes a more versatile scorer with a reliable long ball added to the repertoire, his production could reach new heights.
The know-how is still there, and if his Team USA practice performances are any indication, so too are the athleticism and instincts. There are no guarantees it all adds up to another MVP award, but nor is it outside the realm of possibilities.
We may not have seen the best of Derrick Rose just yet.
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