Tonight, Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose will play in his first NBA game in 18 months.
The former league MVP went down in April 2012 with a torn ACL, and since then hasn't seen any game action, aside from practices and preseason play. With all that time off, though, there is some speculation that Rose could return even stronger — and better — than before.
Rose, for one, is sure that's the case.
"I think I'm way better as a player," Rose said this week. "My IQ has gotten higher and just the way that I play I think I'm a more efficient player."
Rose did, after all, avoid the high-impact stress of a full NBA season last year, instead using the time to work out and build muscle. Players who go down with ligament tears do have a tendency to come back with more raw power, because they "put so much time into rehabbing and strengthening up the area were they got injured, they end up getting stronger all over," Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw explained to NBA.com.
"That seems to be the case with him," he added.
Indeed, Rose has said many times this preseason that he added five inches to his vertical leap through increased training. For a player known for his slick finishes at the rim, that extra lift should make him even tougher to defend against.
For a recent example, consider the case of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who went down in December 2011 with a torn ACL and MCL. He returned the next year and had his best season ever, winning MVP honors. While the two cases aren't directly comparable, Peterson showed that it's well within the realm of possibility for a superb athlete in the prime of his career to bounce back stronger than before from a serious knee injury.
While waiting to return to action, Rose also spent a considerable portion of his time refining his game. Players recovering from ACL tears typically avoid all basketball activity for a few months. When they finally can get back on a court, though, there's really only one thing they can do while their injuries continue to heal: Shoot.
When allowed to do nothing but take set shots, players have an enviable opportunity to work on their mechanics. And all that practice seems to pay off, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. In February, the Journal looked at 20 players under the age of 26 who suffered ACL injuries since 2003. As a group, the players shot 38 percent from midrange before their injuries; they shot 42 percent as a group after coming back.
"It kind of gives you a laser focus on shooting, because it's really all you can work on for a while," Jason Smith, who tore his ACL in 2008, told the Journal. "Now, my midrange jumper is a big part of my game, where it really wasn't before."
Still, midrange jumpers are only one aspect of the game. Making more shots from the elbow is dandy, but being able to drive past a defender and finish over a seven-foot center is another story.
That's why players typically do decline overall after suffering such extreme injuries. A detailed analysis by Kevin Pelton for Basketball Prospectus found that players who have come back from ACL tears since the 1999-00 season recorded, on average, fewer minutes and scored fewer points, while becoming less efficient on the court.
Despite the obvious impact on athleticism, players coming back from torn ACLs have generally maintained their performance in the "hustle" statistics — rebounding actually up slightly, steals and blocks similar. The change is most evident in their scoring numbers, as players coming back from torn ACLs tend to use fewer possessions and are much less efficient. They also play fewer minutes and tend to miss more time, playing in 75.7 percent of their teams' games after returning. [Basketball Prospectus]
Citing the performance of other players around Rose's age who returned from ACL tears, Pelton said Rose's overall performance would be expected to decline by 6.3 percent.
Then again, Rose is not your average player. He's a freakishly gifted athlete, and he has, by all accounts, devoted all his waking time since the injury to getting stronger and better.
In other words, while statistical models may say he's due for a drop, Rose has other plans.