Point guard is traditionally the most difficult position in which to have early success in an NBA career. There are so many responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the lead man that they often stifle the creativity and resourcefulness that they have relied upon in the past. In the process, players lose confidence, not willing to make the plays that would produce results for fear of making a mistake.
Derrick Rose has not had the issues endemic to most rookie point guards. For any number of reasons, recent top five draft picks at the point guard position, including Mike Conley Jr., Ray Felton, Devin Harris and Jay Williams, have struggled upon entering the league. Point guards such as Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who succeeded from their first game, are few and far between. Early returns on Derrick Rose seem to indicate, at least on the surface, that he has more in common with the latter two than he does with the others. Why?
First and foremost is Rose's physical ability and talent. At just over 6'3", he has a body that many shooting guards would envy. He is strong, a springy athlete who is quick and crafty. He looks like he would be as adept as a tailback as he is as the Bulls' lead man. Rose physically overpowers many of his opponents, which allows him to do things that many guards simply cannot do. On his way to the basket, a well-placed hip or shoulder bump creates the space he needs to get the shot off or create a passing lane. For many smaller and less physically-gifted point guards, that hip or shoulder bump creates nothing except to place the shooter off-balance. Since Rose is so strong, he is rarely off-balance. His ability to change speed, adjust the position and attack angle of his body, and to rapidly alter direction are freakish, all contributing to his overall success.
In addition to the physical difference between Rose and the typical rookie point guard, there seems to be a mental advantage that he can also claim. A Chicago native, Rose seems very much at home playing in front of the friendly crowd. For some players, the pressure of performing to expectations would inhibit the player, or at the very least, rattle him. However, Rose walks with a certain swagger and confidence on the floor that serves him well. He gives the impression of being in charge, of having control, and his coaches empower him to play that way.
This part, the style of play and the situation in Chicago, contains the most compelling reasons for Rose's early-season successes. The rookie point guard shares his relative lack of experience with the Bulls' new head coach, Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro spent recent years in Phoenix, watching Mike D'Antoni put the ball in the hands of Steve Nash and asking him to "figure it out." In some ways, Del Negro has given the same kind of freedom and control to Rose. The early part of this season has been a story of Rose tending to over-dribble, then compensating with his athleticism and quickness to create a shot for himself or a teammate. As he learns the balance, he will get better.
The Bulls' style is open, with at least good spacing, and it is designed as a penetrate-and-pitch scheme, which again favors the skills that Rose brings to the table. Similar in scope to the offense used by John Calipari at the University of Memphis (dribble-drive motion), the Bulls are still discovering the actions that will yield real results. This gives Rose a lot of the responsibility as the Bulls figure out what will work best. With willing (and sometimes capable) perimeter shooters like Kirk Hinrich (when healthy), Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and others, there is not a lot of help on dribble attacks from Rose. Instead, the defense forces him to finish, and since that is one of his true strengths, he is more than happy to oblige.
The biggest question early this season is whether this type of play truly helps Rose in the long term. Right now, he is called upon to attack and score and he is more than capable of doing that. However, can he both score as he has been and make his teammates better at the same time? Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets typifies the best kind of answer to this question. A gifted scorer, Paul can dominate one game without scoring a point, then score 45 the next night. Will Rose be able to approach that kind of production on behalf of his team? Only time will tell. He should not change his style--rather, he must continue to aggressively seek out and take what the defense gives him. Right now, it is giving him scoring opportunities.
As teams gameplan for Rose and his teammates and scheme, expect defenders to slough off of him and force him to make perimeter shots rather than expose themselves to his ability to drive. In addition, teams will start to run doubles at him as he penetrates further toward the basket. By doing so, they may expose the occasional poor decision-making that is sometimes covered up, right now, by his freakish athleticism.
While the object of this article is to consider how Rose has been so successful despite the history of rookie point guard trials and tribulations, Rose simply does not fit into the traditional point guard designation all too well. The best player to use in comparison with Rose's unique combination of size, speed, approach, skills and talent for his position is a small forward: one named LeBron James.
Like James, Rose is a more than capable scorer, particularly as a finisher in the lane. His dribble his high but forceful, he is continuously moving in straight attack lines, pushing the ball in transition after a rebound, and using his strength and body control to absorb contact and covert baskets despite the foul. LeBron is so unique--a point guard in a power forward's body with a small forward's athleticism--that it may be hard to see the resemblance between the ways he and Rose approach the game. However, if you watch long enough, you begin to see the similarity in cadence, in the way they play the game.
That does not mean we should project James' success onto Rose. However, we can scale it down to see something similar. First, over the course of this season, expect Rose to improve, but for him to have major bouts with inconsistency as he sees different defenses and as his teammates adjust to playing with him. Del Negro will also have an impact here, as he learns his place and role as their head coach. In the long term, it looks unlikely from early returns that Rose will ever be a 20-point 10-assist guy, like Chris Paul. However, he could be a 25-point, eight-assist, six-rebound "Jason-Kidd-on-steroids" type of player, with multiple double-doubles as he continues to mature.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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