CHICAGO — Meet the new Derrick Rose. He's the same as the old Rose, but he's different in a few telling ways.
The Chicago Bulls point guard projected a calm excitement at a charity event days before the NBA season's start, speaking as confidently as he did when he became the youngest MVP in league history back in 2011. After two consecutive injury-tarnished seasons, Rose has spent more time off the court than on it, and he has adopted a more complex and peaceful outlook as a result.
And although our sample size is small—Rose returned to action with Team USA just three months ago—his new attitude has shown on the court too. Known previously as a ceaseless speed demon, embracing contact as he plunged into the lane like his team's only jackknife, Rose is now a shrewder player.
"My IQ of the game has changed," he told Bleacher Report after taking questions from students who were the beneficiaries of his recent $1 million donation to a Chicago after-school program. "I'm switching gears, playing with more paces instead of just one. I can make the game easy. I'm being patient."
This was in line with what he preached to the students in the Adidas store of the Water Tower Place shopping mall on Michigan Avenue. Rose urged them to always follow through with their inclinations and seek new knowledge. He even cited a recent reading of Malcolm Gladwell as a hint of the rewards of a tireless, exploratory work ethic.
"I did some research and saw that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft," he said. "That's 10 years. You have to dedicate your whole life to something if you love it."
We don't have the math on Rose's time in the gym at our disposal, but he seems to have surpassed that decade of concentrated time as a player.
In his regular-season debut against the New York Knicks, Rose rarely pressed the action, instead utilizing his quickness in brief bursts that found him alone for easy, mid-range bunny shots. Rose has always worked harder than the opposition, but in 2014, he's also working smarter, seeing the game more like an easy chess match than a test of how far he can push his body.
A certain cocoon-like quality to Rose's lifestyle has always enabled this sort of improvement. Growing up in Englewood—one of the deadliest of Chicago's South Side neighborhoods—Rose says he survived by insulating himself with close, trustworthy friends, many of whom now work with him.
He developed a tunnel vision for his familial circle and basketball love early on. Rose became so focused on his game as a teenager that he didn't even watch his hometown team.
"I never went to a Bulls game. I didn't watch the Bulls in high school. I just worked out with that guy right behind you all day," Rose said, referring to Andre Hamlin, a former coach of his at Simeon Career Academy who now works as his security chief.
Hamlin was one of many on hand trying to wrangle the younger, ebullient Rose, Derrick's son P.J.—whose name is short for Pooh Jr., a reference to the star's nickname growing up. The two-year-old made the most of the store's large, open space, giggling as he feverishly threw a basketball around to everyone in attendance.
The impact of fatherhood is another key tenet of the reimagined Rose. He said being a dad motivates his performance further. "Having my son, just knowing how he's going to grow up, it's different. He needs something that's going to push him. It's all going to make him want to push himself to the next level."
It's also not hard to see how the toddler's happiness changes Rose. At one point of the event, the child's laughter and movement in the store reached such heights that Rose stopped mid-monologue just to marvel at it. "P.J.," he said with a bemused chuckle.
Things look fun again for Rose, who has admitted to feeling little else but stress and expectations when he tried to return from injury a year ago, only to go down again during the season's 10th game.
"I think that was just a dark side for me, a dark period of time," Rose told The Washington Post's Michael Lee at Team USA camp in Las Vegas this summer. "I felt like it was damn near like a job instead of just going out there and having fun. I wasn't smiling, I wasn't enjoying the game. I was trying not to mess up."
Today, the point guard can't wait to get on the floor. He loves what "feels like a new team" and thinks they can win it all.
"This is the most professional team I've played on. It's no disrespect to older teammates. I've been on professional teams before. But on this team, from rookie all the way to veteran, everybody's focused. You can't do anything but respect it. We have a really good, deep team. If I was the owner of the team, I'd be very happy. We're a contender," Rose said with a proud lilt.
The Eastern Conference won't be the one-team party it's been in recent years—a glut of mediocrity with LeBron James standing tall above the pack. Behind a rejuvenated Rose, the Bulls are a real equal to James' Cleveland Cavaliers and easily the biggest threat to ending LeBron's four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
With the teeth of coach Tom Thibodeau's renowned defense and new scoring weapons like Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this looks to be the best professional team Rose has played on.
And as much as he tries to undersell his eagerness to thwart the King, it shows. When asked about whether there's extra emphasis on his team's Halloween showdown with Cleveland, Rose laughed again. "C'mon man," he said.
All quotes acquired firsthand unless noted otherwise.