By Dan Bernstein–

I have never doubted that Derrick Rose would be an NBA star. Going back to the silly arguments about whether the Bulls would be better served selecting Rose or Michael Beasley with the top pick in 2008, I have always felt he was a sure bet.

In fact, I declared over the summer that his name would be written somewhere on NBA MVP ballots this season.

Where I have stopped short, though, is in my willingness to believe that he can be the best player on a champion – the kind of unstoppable force of nature that you know when you see. While his explosive, above-the-rim game and humble coachability were obvious, I still have had reservations about his defense, court vision, three-point shooting, durability, and, most importantly, his size.

The NBA is a big man’s league. The best player on almost every title-winner is always someone other than the point guard. Isiah Thomas could be argued as the lone exception, of course, and Magic Johnson played the position at 6’9”. Dwyane Wade is an off-guard in a point’s body, and he emerged as a champion when teamed up with the still-spry Shaq. Jerry Krause proved with the Bulls that a title could be won with a team built around a guard, but that guard had better be the best player of all time.

The closest a little dynamo has come to being the driving force of a recent champion was Allen Iverson in 2001, when he won the scoring title and MVP award, and dragged a bunch of Sixers bums to the NBA finals.

If a guy is 6’3” or less and is responsible for every important basket, the pounding adds up. High flyers fall hard, and often. There is more effort expended to score, as smaller engines can rev higher and run hotter. Career-effectiveness arcs are different for bigs, too; declines can be less precipitous and title windows can remain open longer for teams built around size.

So, to the point. I have been asked often of late, with each next performance from Rose that suggests he may be more special than once believed, whether or not he can be another exception to NBA history.

And my unsatisfying answer for you is…maybe. And if so, it needs to happen before heavy minutes in the years ahead erode his ridiculous athleticism and speed.

I love the kid. I love his innate competitiveness, love his demeanor, love his work ethic, love the new three-point shot and improved defensive footwork and awareness (now that he has an actual coach – amazing how that happens. Two years wasted with Vinny Del Negro was a crime).

Rose already is dealing with a chronic toe condition, and he says an inch or two has already been shaved off his astounding vertical leap since college. Some collisions with Dwight Howard have reminded us of obvious nightly dangers. He is settling into the real, painful life of an NBA vet as his numbers climb with him toward international stardom.

Rose may end up as the best player on a champion, but the Bulls can’t afford to wait patiently for his game to mature and grow, betting on the eventuality that they will win just because he’s here. His period of peak athleticism – the defining aspect of his game– is precious, and it cannot be taken for granted.

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