Derrick Rose played basketball this week. At the deadest point of the NBA offseason, if you're tired of Kevin Love trade talk and the Donald Sterling trial, there's your story. The handful of clips that trickled out on Monday of Rose practicing with Team USA were picked over on social media as intently as leaked pre-production shots from the next Star Wars film. The basketball world is so starved for news on the 2011 NBA MVP's health that we'll happily suspend disbelief and project all sorts of things onto a few impressive Vines of Rose dunking or finishing through contact. For the past two years, he's been mostly out of sight but ever-present as a walking "if he stays healthy" qualifier. It's been so long since he's existed as a regular basketball player that we can't help but overreact to every scrap of footage of him playing basketball.
Make no mistake, though: The early returns from the Las Vegas scrimmages so far have been entirely positive. His teammates have raved about the shape Rose is in. Assistant coach Jim Boeheim called him the most impressive player at camp through the first two days. Rose himself says his confidence level is "through the roof." There are no guarantees that he will make the cut for the 12-man roster that will compete in Spain next month, but if the first few days of camp are any indication, he has to like his chances. (It doesn't hurt that the team will play an exhibition game in Chicago on August 16.)
Letting Rose play in the tournament is a risk for the Bulls. Kevin Love pulled out due to his uncertain trade status, and Blake Griffin and Rose's Bulls teammate Jimmy Butler withdrew with minor injuries. Rose underwent two major knee surgeries in an 18-month span and has played 10 games in the past two seasons for the Bulls. Sitting him out of the tournament would have been a completely understandable precaution to take. But he's said many times that he wants to play if he's healthy, and the Bulls front office and head coach Tom Thibodeau have given him their full support. And despite the hang-ups, it's the right call. He might need to play in this tournament more than anybody else in the 20-player pool.
Last fall, Rose made his return in a handful of Bulls preseason games, and much of the talk was the same as it is now. Teammates and opponents alike said he looked like his old self, and he appeared to have lost none of his explosiveness after sitting out a full year recovering from ACL surgery. But when the regular season hit, he looked rusty. His jump shot was shaky and he was hesitant to finish through contact as he had before the injury. His best game was the one in which he got hurt again, a November 23 loss in Portland. He scored 20 points and appeared to have finally shaken off the rust before tearing the meniscus in his right knee, ending his season. His rough early season proved one thing: All the preseason and exhibition progress in the world doesn't mean anything until it translates to the real stage.
That's why Rose needs the FIBA World Cup. He looks great in training camp, and throughout August, he'll play in exhibition games in Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and Spain. He'll probably look great in those, too. His first real test will come in the tournament, when he goes against world-class talent from all over the world. It's not NBA-level competition, but they're not exhibition games, either. If he plays well in those games, he'll be coming into Bulls training camp in October on a high note, having already held his own competing in real games. If there was any rust, he'll have shaken it off already, and he'll be able to hit the ground running when the NBA season starts.
All of that will come in time. Until then, all that's left to do is obsess over iPhone footage and try to figure out what it means. It probably means nothing. But for Rose, even practicing with other NBA players and feeling no pain in his knees is a huge win after the two years he's had. Physically, he seems to be all there. The question has always been mental, and any opportunity for him to build his confidence before the regular season kicks off is hugely beneficial to both Rose and the Bulls. Unless he gets injured again between now and the start of the season, it's hard not to be encouraged by what we've seen.