INDIANAPOLIS -- A year and a half after playing in his last professional basketball game, the only person who isn't worried about Derrick Rose -- and how his surgically repaired left knee responds in his first true test in Saturday night's preseason opener against the Indiana Pacers -- is Rose himself.
After all the hoopla and criticism the freshly minted 25-year-old has endured over the past 17 months, he is just looking forward to pushing past the one final hurdle that stands in his way. It's time for Rose, who turned 25 on Friday, to finally play in a game again, and it's that final step that makes everyone around him nervous and excited.
"Just being in an NBA game," Rose said recently. "In practice of course, it's kind of different with Thibs [coach Tom Thibodeau], he'll stop practice here and there if he sees anything, but in the game it's none of that. It's the referees and you're actually out there playing. So for me, playing up and down just seeing how my leg feels it should feel alright, but I'm not worrying about anything right now."
Given how much more confident he has sounded over the past few weeks, it's hard not to believe him. Rose spent last season sounding like a shell of himself as he worked his way through rehab. Before the injury, Rose had always portrayed a humble, yet confident demeanor on and off the floor. Rose might have shown flashes of being the same player in practices last year, but he carried himself like a guy who knew that he wasn't going to play. He was unsure of himself and his game -- and the tension regarding his decision to stay off the floor became more palpable each day. Rose's lingering status hovered over every aspect of the Bulls organization and dinged his near-pristine public image.
The former MVP sounds like himself again these days, though. He admitted that Saturday's game would mark a "fresh start" for him, and he seems genuinely excited to be with his teammates again. Anyone who has been around Rose over the years can tell you the the biggest hurdle for him last season had little to do with how he was feeling physically. Like most athletes who deal with major knee injuries, the mental part of rehab is usually a tougher hill to climb. That's why Rose's recent comments about running over his mother to get to the rim should have made Thibodeau smile wide. Rose sounds like a man who has found his swagger again, a notion he doesn't fight when discussing what part of his game has changed the most since the injury.
"Just a player that's more confident," Rose said. "Going out there, playing more efficient and someone that's trying to control the entire game, low turnovers, and trying to play as aggressive as possible."
If you thought Rose's game was going to change dramatically post-surgery, think again. Obviously, he knows he'll have to knock off some rust in the first few weeks of the season, but he understands that in order to get back to playing at such a high level he'll have to play the way he did before his knee gave out.
"My shot is always going to be there, but I came in this league as a driver and I'm not going to stop driving the ball," he said. "I know that's my strength and me getting to the lane opens up the floor and my teammates to make open shots, so it's really pick your poison. If you're going to sag off, I'm going to shoot. If you're on me, I'm going to try and go past you and just put pressure on your defense."
It's that kind of attitude that has Thibodeau believing that after so many months of hard work, Rose will be able to find a rhythm quickly.
"I don't think that part will be a problem," Thibodeau said while discussing the last hurdle of playing in a game. "I think the challenge for him is to maintain the discipline. He's put a lot of work into his body with the weight training and the stretching and all those things. And now when he gets to the games and you hit different stretches throughout the course of the season where you may be playing four games in five days, he's got to continue to do all those things he has been doing."
Rose continually mentions an improved jumper and better decision-making as some of the traits which make him a better player, but Thibodeau believes the key for Rose is to continue using the work ethic that got him to the NBA.
"His body is very strong," Thibodeau said. "In practice, he's constantly attacking the basket. His speed and quickness and strength are all back. It's just going to be to maintain that discipline throughout the course of the season, do all the right things, and continue to build all the right habits as a team."
The difference for the Bulls this season is that those team habits will only grow stronger because of Rose's presence. They feed off having him around because they know they have a chance to win a title this season with him back. And Rose believes he is a better player because of all the time he had to watch the game from the locker room and the bench last year.
"It helped me out a lot," Rose said. "Learning the tendencies of players, learning how my teammates play without me. Just knowing their strengths and knowing how Thibs calls plays. I think my IQ of the game definitely grew as a player."
With an improved Rose, and an improved core that understands this might be the final year to chase a championship with this group, the Bulls are taking nothing for granted as they start a new year. They know what's on the line and they know that with Rose back they can be as good as they want to be. Rose can feel the excitement, but the worry surrounding him is never far away. For this group of Bulls, Rose will always be the little brother they must protect at all costs.
"All their comments in practice. Always making sure they're watching me," Rose said of his teammates. "If If I'm falling they're right there, just two or three guys just making sure they're coming to pick me up. That little stuff right there makes me feel good just being back out there because for my teammates, you want to feel like you have their back. And for me they know I'll always have their back and it's vice versa. It's helped me out a lot, man. It's making me feel good."