Posted November 26, 2008 | By Brett Ballantini
From the second those little white plastic balls ping-ponged their way into Chicago’s favor back in late May, there was an air of inevitability about who was going to be the top selection of the 2008 NBA Draft.
The Bulls’ eventual target with that gilded pick, hometown hero Derrick Rose, felt it, too.
“When I saw the Bulls win [the Draft Lottery], I first thought of LeBron James,” says the newest Bull. “I thought he was the luckiest player in the world, getting to play in his home city. Everyone started saying I could be the No. 1 pick, and with the Bulls winning the Lottery, I started to hope I could be so lucky.”
Was there ever really much of a question?
No disrespect to power-packed postman Michael Beasley or flashy combo guard O.J. Mayo, but in today’s NBA a point guard who combines strength, quickness, leadership and guile is like getting a Christmas, birthday and graduation gift all wrapped into one.
“These days, you just don’t pass on a talent like Derrick Rose,” says the man who indeed couldn’t resist grabbing the native Chicagoan from a very deep talent pool, Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson. “Point guards like Derrick just don’t just fall out of the sky. His strength and speed are going to be hard to match in this league.”
While Paxson also tenders words of caution and pleads for patience, the Chicago Bulls look to have a solid history with No. 1’s hitting the ground running. With their last No. 1 overall pick, in 1999, Chicago proved smart by snagging 6’8” Duke All-American Elton Brand. Like Rose, Brand had an immaculate pedigree as a player and thrived in a great college program, where, like Rose again, he and his squad made it all the way to the NCAA title game in his last college contest. The versatile and burly power forward, who remains one of the NBA’s most underrated stars, paid immediate dividends for Chicago and remains one of the franchise’s best-ever Draft picks.
But at the time of Brand’s selection, the Bulls were just beginning the grueling process of rebuilding its roster. His 37 minutes, 20.1 points, and 10.0 rebounds per game as a rookie were swallowed whole by an unholy 17-65 season.
So as much pressure as was placed on Brand’s shoulders just before the start of the 21st century, it’s nothing compared to what Rose faces today as a hometown idol and two-time prep state champion at Simeon. While the 1999 Bulls were pleading for patience, the 2008 band of Toros is eager to erase the disappointment of last season and immediately re-enter an NBA Eastern Conference playoff picture that looks to be more wide open than ever.
Chicagoans are desperate to play deep into May, and hopefully June. Enter Rose, the most modest and soft-spoken future superstar you’ll likely ever find.
“Derrick has a presence,” Paxson says. “We didn't want to put too much pressure on him to be a Hall-of-Famer before his first practice, but we believe he’ll thrive at this level for the next decade.”
Sit and chat with the new leader of the Bulls and you have to honestly wonder just how this soft-spoken 19-year-old will command the respect of his senior teammates. “It was a slightly different question, but I had a similar concern when Derrick first came to us,” says University of Memphis Head Coach John Calipari. “But it took about all of five minutes for everyone to realize that the gracious gentleman off the floor was definitely deserving [of respect] because he was true general on it.”
Rose has been universally applauded for remarkable maturity over the past 12 months. But don’t be fooled into thinking this gentlemanly kid is going to be passive when it comes to playing ball. All one needs to do is take a look at his freshman year at Memphis, where Rose arrived on campus as an unpretentious freshman point guard joining the latest of Calipari’s chronically competitive Tiger teams.
Playing the role of a wily facilitator, Rose often deferred to his more experienced teammates, particularly on offense, where it was evident to one and all that the 6’3” Windy City native, if he really wanted to, could propel himself into countless successful slashes to the rim. But with every game—and the relentless prodding of Calipari—the playmaker from Englewood somewhat reluctantly began taking on a much bigger role as his confidence grew.
Sheer numbers tell only part of the story. Overall, Rose averaged a modest 14.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game as a freshman. But compare those reserved numbers to what he dropped on opponents by season’s end during the NCAA Tournament: 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists vs. Mississippi State; a career-high 27 points vs. Michigan State; 21 points, six rebounds and nine assists vs. Texas; 25 points and nine rebounds vs. UCLA in the Tournament Semi-Finals; and 18 points, eight assists and six rebounds in the title game vs. Kansas.
“We had a number of great players on the floor last year,” Rose says. “But Coach Cal kept telling me I had the potential to become the best, game-in and game-out.”
Rose was a player who just a year earlier had scored a mere two points in Simeon’s second consecutive Illinois State title victory, preferring to pass the ball to teammates and soaking in their success while capturing the title trophy. It was Rose’s selflessness that made him such an attractive team leader for the Tigers, in fact.
“Believe me, without Derrick, we don’t go 33-1 [in the regular season],” Calipari emphatically says. But entering the do-or-die nature of the NCAA Tournament, where even an eventual NCAA-record 38 wins could have been obliterated by an early exit, Coach Cal still felt the need to tweak his mighty mite floor general. “I told Derrick we needed him to dominate the Tournament,” Calipari says. “But he didn’t want to take over, so he asked his teammates’ permission before doing so. That tells you a lot about this kid’s unusually strong character.”
“And dominate [the NCCA Tournament] is just what he did,” says former Bulls point guard and current Sacramento Kings Head Coach Reggie Theus. “That also tells you a lot about Derrick’s unusually strong talent.”
It’s not just his offensive sparkplug nature that makes Derrick Rose such a rare find for the Bulls. Consider how he manhandles opponents defensively. In the NCAA Tournament alone, he shut down two preseason All-Americans, Drew Neitzel of Michigan State (Rose held Neitzel to six points on two-of-eight shooting in the Sweet 16) and Darren Collison of UCLA (two points and five turnovers in the Final Four vs. Rose), as well as D.J. Augustin, named the nation’s top collegiate point guard for the 2007-08 season (the Texas standout scored 18 on Rose, but struggled from the field, shooting four-of-18 and ending up with more turnovers [four] than assists [three]).
Once a rookie’s extraordinary aptitude is noted, the next step is to find a reasonable comparison for that player. It’s the closest thing to seeing a rookie like Rose perform in the Bulls uniform, before he actually steps on the court come November.
The names we most often read in scouting reports are tantalizing indeed, such as the two hottest point guards in the game today, Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets and Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz. Both have set the NBA on its ear with their deceptively dominating play. And recently both have inked long-term “max” extensions, which is, stats aside, the true measure of a player’s worth to a franchise.
So is Rose already as good as the best of the best? Don’t mean to scare you, but he just may be better.
Paul had an MVP-quality season in 2007-08 and almost single-handedly has led the resurgence of a once-moribund New Orleans franchise. And the Bulls couldn’t hope for anything better than that very same rebirth, led by Rose.
But in truth Paul isn’t the closest comparison to Chicago’s No. 1. The two share sneaky quicks that leave defenders with gaping mouths, for sure. They both set up their big men with cotton candy-soft lobs for easy alley-oop dunks. But, defensively, Paul has Allen Iverson instincts; he’s a pickpocket and a gambler, and a darn good one. But to be a successful gambler, you need the Marcus Cambys and Tyson Chandlers of the paint to help mop up any mistakes. Rose isn’t dependent on defensive gambles—he’ll put his body between his man and the basket, with the cuts and bruises to prove it.
Deron Williams is a more apt comparison to Rose. At 6’3” and 208 pounds, the fourth-year Jazz point guard brings a similar fireplug build and bulldog mentality to the position. Thus, he’s the sort of player Chicagoans should imagine in red-and-black when they’re daydreaming about the future.
Still, Williams’s solid and explosive offensive game might indeed fall a shade shy of what Rose could eventually bring to the floor. A step lighter and a touch quicker, Rose is the best possible combination of the two best point guards in today’s game.
Theus, a combo guard with few peers in NBA history, offers another, even more enticing comparison for Rose. “Jason Kidd is a bigger, brasher player,” Theus says. “I think there are some reflections of Kidd in Rose’s game, and, if Derrick’s serious about playing defense, the similarities will only multiply.”
“Yeah, I can see some traces of Rose in my game, sure,” says Dallas Mavericks point guard and future Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd. “I hate to admit it, but Rose is more advanced on offense than I was at his age.”
One similarity Kidd and Rose already share is how their offense is generated. Both are reluctant scorers, although, as Kidd acknowledges, Rose has the better shooting ability as a rookie.
Perhaps more significant, however, is that Rose, just like the perpetual triple-double threat Kidd, will generate his offensive game through his defense.
“That was a big area of overlap for us, Derrick’s desire to defend,” says new Bulls Head Coach Vinny Del Negro. “His understanding of the importance of playing defense is exactly the way we hope to execute our game plan.”
“Coach wants to run the offense through our defense,” Rose says. “That’s the way I’ve always tried to play, so I figured that’s a pretty good sign. Good, strong defense makes your offense run. That’s the perfect philosophy for me.”
Hope definitely springs eternal for any NBA first-rounder. Most assuredly, Derrick Rose will be given room to bloom in Chicago. And, with a little luck, lots of sweat and a heavy dose of determination, the familiar fragrance of victories in bunches will surely soon follow for the new-look Chicago Bulls.