Friday September 5th, 2014

It seemed like a horrible idea at the time. Derrick Rose deciding to participate in the FIBA Basketball World Cup after missing most of the past two seasons with knee issues? This was, to be sure, an ambitious plan. Rather than resting the summer and easing his way back into basketball shape through Bulls' training-camp workouts, Rose was subjecting himself to a rigorous Team USA schedule.

Rose could wind up playing as many as nine games in 16 days, a grueling workload for any player, let alone one trying to find his bearings after two ligament tears. The worst-case scenario was that Rose would re-injure or re-aggravate his knees and be forced to miss more games. The best case? Rose would suffer zero setbacks, and his confidence would grow as he demonstrated the explosiveness and athleticism that helped him earn the NBA’s MVP award in 2011.

What has actually unfolded is somewhere in the middle. Rose drew extremely positive reviews for his performance in workouts at Team USA’s July minicamp in Las Vegas. He threw down dunks, spoke of adjustments to his game — “I’m totally different,” he said — and declared that, “My confidence is crazy.” Fast forward less than a month later, and Rose was sitting out consecutive practices and an exhibition against the Dominican Republic in August amid reported knee soreness.

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James Harden among NBA stars with the most at stake for USA Basketball

He would later say that the reason he missed the game was “general body fatigue,” and on the subject of his knees, “No, no, no, no. Y’all don’t got to worry about that.” Whatever the case, the fact Rose was answering questions about his health underscored the delicate nature of his recovery plan, as well as the notion that the “crazy” confidence he spoke of earlier this summer must be tempered with some trepidation about his physical limitations.

All the while, Team USA coaches have carefully managed Rose’s playing and practice time with the implicit understanding that he is treating the World Cup, more than anything else, as a rehab assignment. Initially projected a starter, Rose has come off the bench to spell Kyrie Irving and other guards. Still, Rose has logged a large enough portion of minutes over Team USA’s five pool games to form some impressions. What sticks out so far about his performance?

Let’s make this clear from the start: This is not the Derrick Rose that captivated the league with his electric style of play. It’s clear he’s still working off some rust. Off-target layups, short-armed jumpers and other signs of unease are evident, as Rose still appears to be adjusting to the rhythms of high-intensity, regulation basketball. Through five games, Rose has averaged 5.4 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He’s knocked down just 31.8 percent of his two-point shots and a ghastly 10 percent of his three-point tries, according to official FIBA statistics. Those numbers recall Rose’s brief stint with the Bulls early last season, where he was mired in a nasty shooting slump (35 percent) over 10 games.

Have a look at this missed shot attempt in Team USA’s 98-77 win over Turkey. Rose approaches the top of the key and adeptly uses the space provided by a DeMarcus Cousins screen to blow by Turkish small forward Cedi Osman. As Rose approaches the basket, center Oğuz Savaş slides over to defend Rose’s drive, causing him to halt his momentum, pivot and settle for a contested turnaround jumper.

In this case, you would’ve liked to have seen Rose attack the basket more authoritatively, likely resulting in either a layup, foul or both. Here’s another example of Rose being tentative, from the United States’ 106-71 win over the Dominican Republic on Sept. 3. Bounding down the court on a fast break, Rose catches a pass from Rudy Gay and appears to brace himself before launching into one of those trademark, how-is-he-still-in-the-air leaps. Instead, Rose opted for a simple lay-in. For what it’s worth, Rose would later say he slipped.

Is it a little silly to fixate on something so trivial? Probably. I’m nitpicking Rose for electing to lay the ball in instead of dunking, after all. But the play speaks to Rose’s reluctance, or inability, to consistently unleash the sort of freak athleticism for which he drew so much praise during his MVP season. That’s not to say Rose hasn’t delivered his share of highlight finishes. Take this impressive scoop layup in the U.S.’ 95-71 win over Ukraine, for instance.

Or this two-handed jam in the 114-55 win over Finland.

Still, over the five games, Rose has been more reserved than he was in the past, more willing to pick his spots and let his teammates do the heavy lifting. That makes sense, for a few reasons. Rose is surrounded by a cast of All-Stars, almost all of whom are capable of creating offense by themselves. Rose doesn’t need to dominate games or play isolation when he’s lining up with Irving, James Harden and Stephen Curry, among other capable offensive threats. More importantly, it doesn’t make sense for Rose to go full-bore right away, nor have Team USA coaches publicly demanded that from him. Handling this situation with caution is the prudent move, and Rose’s play reflects that he’s on-board with that approach.

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It’s also worth pointing out that Rose has showed good vision as a passer and, at times, played excellent defense. Assistant Tom Thibodeau, Rose's head coach in Chicago, must have smiled watching him hound ball handlers, crouch low to the floor and move well laterally. Said head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Dominican Republic win. “I thought Derrick’s ball pressure was amazing tonight.”

The most promising takeaway out of all of this is that Rose made it through five games in six days without any reported hint of pain or discomfort, whether in his surgically repaired knees or otherwise. Even if he has yet to sort out the finer points of his game, which should happen over time, Rose’s participation record is an extremely positive sign.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that a story with the following headline ran on SI.com: “Is Derrick Rose’s future with Team USA in doubt?” After playing a team-high 23 minutes in the Finland win, Rose played 17 in games against Turkey and New Zealand, followed by 13 against the Dominican Republic and 19 against Ukraine. Many pointed to this compacted stretch of pool play as a litmus test for the progress Rose has made in his recovery, and he has registered better than a passing grade.

While it’s tempting to try to project how Rose will fare with the Bulls this season based on his performance during practice, three exhibitions and five competitive games, there are a couple of disclaimers. First and foremost, the Bulls are a different team than when Rose last played. This offseason, Chicago signed former Lakers center Pau Gasol, drafted Creighton product Doug McDermott and added floor-stretching Spanish forward Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls also amnestied veteran Carlos Boozer.

Meanwhile, incumbent players like Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have expanded their offensive games. All of this could ease Rose’s offensive workload, possibly to the point where he’s best suited playing more of a complementary role, more similar to what he’s taken to with Team USA this summer, at least as he continues to find his legs during his first season back. We also can’t fully account for how Rose, as he suggested earlier this summer, will tweak his offensive approach.

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Kenneth Faried provides the spark in USA's comeback win over Turkey

Rose said in July that when he came back after his first knee injury, he “just wanted it too, too bad. I was forcing the game.” His goal when he returns to the Bulls this season: “I'm just trying to let the game come to me. Of course, be aggressive, but at the same time, have control of the game, be smarter, and be able to run a team."

That sounds all well and good, but it’s difficult to know how he will incorporate those aims into his game, and what that will mean for the re-tooled Bulls. If he’s less assertive on the offensive end, perhaps that will result in more scoring opportunities for, say, Noah and Gibson. Yet Rose, at his best, is a go-to scorer who can manufacture tough points off the dribble and take over games. It seems possible that in Rose’s desire to make adjustments in the wake of the two injuries, he’s elected to reign in that capacity to a degree that makes him more of a facilitator.

We won’t learn whether that’s the case, of course, until the season begins. It won’t be long before Rose is suiting up with Chicago in training camp. Before then, though, Rose has a few more games with Team USA to get through, barring an upset. His recovery process has been fascinating to track to this point, and it will continue to be one of the most compelling storylines surrounding the Americans in Spain as they advance deeper into the tournament.

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