CHICAGO—Reporters swarm Derrick Rose the instant he’s free for questions, running without thought by the likes of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Stephen Curry to shower the Chicago Bulls point guard with attention. From the looks of things, you wouldn't know that Team USA has an exhibition game against rival Brazil on Saturday in Chicago—a healthy Rose is the main event.
Team USA has made its way to Rose’s hometown, but he’s been the center of the Americans’ summer since the moment they took the floor in Las Vegas, holding the spotlight firmly, save for the boom of Paul George's horrific leg injury. Everyone’s eager to see the folk hero and 2011 NBA MVP return to form. Especially on the cusp of an NBA season with an unusually wide open Eastern Conference, thanks to the trimming of the Miami Heat's Big Three to a Big Two.
Rose could hold the key to an Eastern Conference power shift, but he processes the fervor over his fame with an increasing affability these days.
“I don’t have fear, I have faith,” he says when asked about George’s injury, along with his own tenuous health. “I know that I've busted my [tail] the entire two summers, two seasons, getting back to where I am right now. I'm just trying to keep it moving and stay positive every day.”
When asked about having his coach Tom Thibodeau around as a Team USA assistant, he cracks a joke. "At least he's not spying on people at the Berto Center [the Bulls' practice facility]," he says with a laugh. This is the new Rose, with a new kind of zen.
Rose’s unreliable body has made it hard to remember, but these two share an unparalleled competitive drive together. They’re basketball soulmates, their legacies tied directly to one another.
The Bulls' front office efforted — and completed — deals this offseason designed specifically to maximize Rose's talents. Carmelo Anthony didn't materialize, but first-round draft pick Doug McDermott, free agent Pau Gasol and European wonderboy Nikola Mirotić represent a shift in Thibodeau's historically defense-first personnel schemes.
“I think the big thing is getting the shooting to surround [Rose] with,” Thibodeau said about the offseason moves the Bulls have made. “Teams have to play him honest, they can’t load up on him.”
Thibodeau describes Rose’s 2010 experience with Team USA as “a springboard to his MVP season,” a reminder that he’s led the star for all but two of his professional seasons.
"We expect a lot from [Rose] and hope he'll give even more," said Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I think [the expectations] have probably heightened since we didn't know who he could be until we saw him in Vegas."
Rose runs the floor during a Team USA scrimmage in a more methodical, measured fashion than we can ever remember from the excitable speed demon who took the league by storm years ago. With Team USA—and with any luck, the 2014-15 Bulls—Rose is able to take a step back and use his quickness and athleticism more selectively. During practice, Rose takes deep floaters for all to see; the newly-sharpened move in his arsenal perhaps a more telling sign than any of his transformation.
When asked whether Rose has gained speed upon his return, Thibodeau said, “he’s probably changing speeds a little bit better. His approach is great. He concentrates on daily improvement, on not forcing things and finding the rhythm of the game. His patience is much better.”
He's also worked to become a much better player off the ball. In Rose's calmer, more diverse approach, one can see the pieces of Thibodeau’s master championship plan coming together, its outline becoming more visible. All of it will be under the microscope over the next few weeks during Team USA's exhibition games and later this month when the FIBA World Cup begins in Spain.
“I think [Team USA] gives guys a lot of confidence,” Thibodeau says. “You’re around great players, great coaches, great trainers, you learn from everybody. You can’t do anything but grow.”
The two men at the center of the biggest Bulls season in memory look to be finding a new kind of peace simultaneously with Team USA. If they can carry this poise—and two healthy Rose knees—into the 2014-15 NBA season, there will be a short list of teams in their echelon.