A killer was born in a game of cutthroat. Derrick Rose plays it on summer nights, often after 1 a.m., when he is too restless to sleep. "Let's go shoot," he tells his three roommates, who then know they will not be sleeping either. They pile into Rose's Ford pickup, take a 10-minute ride to the Bulls' practice facility and unlock the door to the court, where they remain until dawn.
The version of cutthroat Rose plays goes like this: Two players. Whoever has the ball starts at the top of the key, gets a maximum of three dribbles and must score to retain possession. First to 10 wins. Rose usually prevails, but his roommates—Tim Flowers, Randall Hampton and Bryant Orange—are no pushovers. They were Rose's teammates at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, and he uses moves on them that he was reluctant to show opposing NBA point guards such as Deron Williams and Chris Paul. One night last summer Rose was teasing his roomies with step-back three-pointers and 20-foot fadeaways while tossing in some uncharacteristic verbal shots. The guys endured his boasts for a while before one barked, "Why don't you ever do this stuff in real games?"
Rose fell silent. He had no answer. "They were mad," says the 22-year-old Rose, "but they were right. I never did that stuff in real games."
Outside of those sunrise sessions, Rose rarely shot threes and fadeaways because he could so easily break down defenders off the dribble and rocket to the rim. Though a chiseled 6'3" and 190 pounds, Rose also rarely initiated contact because he could so easily avoid it, even while suspended in midair. He was a jitterbug and a contortionist but never a hot dog; he was so quiet and unassuming that teammates sometimes complained that they couldn't hear what plays he was calling.
At Simeon, Rose passed constantly because he was already in line for a college scholarship and he wanted to showcase his friends. At Memphis he feared alienating the upperclassmen. Taken by the Bulls with the No. 1 pick in 2008, he deferred to guard Ben Gordon and, after Gordon left, forward Luol Deng. Rose's good manners earned Chicago .500 records and first-round playoff exits in each of his first two NBA seasons. Coaches at every level begged him to take over games, and occasionally he did after hard fouls or questionable calls or in the face of insurmountable deficits. He erupted just often enough to prove that a killer lurked within. "But the best ones," Rose concedes, "are killers all the time."
It is a chilling term but high praise in the NBA, reserved for the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. Even in this era of advanced metrics, there is no quantifying killers, but players can tell you who they are by the shots they make. "They are the guys who get you the need baskets," says Bulls reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, referring to the vital hoops that stop runs and close out games. "I have a different word for killers. I call them mother-------. And right now, Derrick Rose is the baddest mother------ in the league by far. He is the reason we win."
The Bulls were 40--17 through week's end even though power forward Carlos Boozer missed the first 15 games with a broken right hand and center Joakim Noah sat out 30 with a torn ligament in his right thumb. The constant has been Rose, averaging a career-high 24.9 points and 8.1 assists, suddenly as efficient as he is entertaining. Many NBA players try to add one dimension every summer. Rose added at least three in the past off-season: Through Sunday he had already made more free throws (298) than he did all last year, more than five times as many three-pointers (85), and more need baskets than anybody else in Chicago since Jordan. Rose has defined MVP—even two members of the Heat, Chris Bosh and Juwan Howard, joined the Rose-for-MVP campaign last week—positioned his hometown Bulls as championship sleepers and tabled the interminable debate about who is the league's best point guard.
When Rose turned pro after his freshman year at Memphis, he met with a Nike representative who told him he was not yet in the same class as Williams and Paul. Rose signed with Adidas, and earlier this month he dismantled Williams and Paul in consecutive games on their home courts. After the game in New Orleans on Feb. 12, the Nike rep called Rose's older brother Reggie to relay his congratulations.
Randall Hampton was at that game, watching his roommate from the stands. With a little more than 2½ minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Bulls up by seven points, Rose dribbled 25 feet from the basket, the usual sleepy-eyed expression on his face. Paul hopped out to challenge him, respecting Rose's newfound range. Rose retreated a step farther and thrust back his shoulders, the signal that he was about to attack. He threw down a furious crossover, paused long enough to freeze Paul and blew past his right flank. The Hornets' 6'8" forward Trevor Ariza rotated over and cut off Rose's path to the basket, forcing him baseline. But by then Rose was airborne, levitating above Ariza's left shoulder, legs splayed as if treading water. He double-clutched and released a rainbow floater, so high it nearly clipped the top corner of the backboard. His momentum carried him out-of-bounds as the ball slipped through the basket. Rose has spent most of his life making the unfathomable look routine, but the nuances of the play set it apart: the way he drew Paul to the perimeter, attacked Ariza in the paint, finished the shot—and the Hornets with it. "This is what we saw on all those late nights," Hampton said in the stands.
Rose has taken one of his corkscrew leaps into the NBA's elite. Coincidence or not, his transformation came at the same time the league underwent its own seismic shift.