While pro hoopers tend to reach the peak of their abilities in the NBA, we take pride in the fact that we begin covering the world’s best players before they’re the world’s best players: when they’re in high school, still unknown to the majority of the basketball world. This week and next we’ll be looking back at the PUNKS features that introduced a variety of current NBAers to our faithful readers. Up next: the Derrick Rose piece below, originally printed in SLAM 102 (November ’06).—Ed.

by Jake Appleman | portraits Thomas Chadwick

In spite of the name, running the show for the MeanStreets Express AAU squad doesn’t automatically qualify you as a badass. Yes, his game is undeniably nasty, but Derrick Rose can’t understand why people think he’s got a mean streak.

“I’m not mean,” he says. “I’m so quiet; they probably think I’m mean because I don’t crack a smile. I’m secretive, and there ain’t too much I’ll say unless I know you. My teammates will tell you I like playing around. I only act different around people I don’t know.”

It’s easy to see where Rose gets his public humility. “When I was little, I was fat and yellow, so my grandmother nicknamed me Pooh,” he says, likely solidifying the first ever Winnie The Pooh reference in SLAM history. Despite the nickname, Rose agrees with the assessment that his game is more “aggressive, bouncing tiger” than “passive bear who gets stuck in trees after gorging on stolen honey.” Still, the kid who hit the game-winning shot for Chicago’s Simeon High in the ’06 AA state championship game is often short on words, letting his game spout off at the metaphorical mouth. His game has been so loud recently that some recruiting gurus have Rose ranked ahead of OJ Mayo among the best guard in the ’07 class.

Such shuffling in the rankings has further jacked up the alleged rivalry between the two Midwest lead guards, but Rose doesn’t buy the hype. “Between us? Nah, but people are trying to make it a rivalry.” When asked if he feels like he can stake his claim as the top backcourt performer in the much-ballyhooed class of ’07, Rose responds, “I don’t really think about it. I just go out there and play hard. That’s really it—make sure I get my team in the game and make them better.”

While he speaks like a true point guard, his game is so much more than that. Rose boasts so much athleticism and creativity, most people in the gym—meaning defenders and spectators—are usually left dumbstruck. Those who do speak can’t seem to stop drooling. Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune describes Rose as “a 6-foot-4-inch guard with a gale-force first step and leaping ability that seems enhanced by hydraulic springs in his legs.” Jerry Meyer of Rivals.com tells the Tribune, “It’s hard to name a point guard in the NBA who is as athletic as he is.”

Incredibly, this gushing over his game occurred while Rose was out with a bum ankle at ABCD Camp—costing prep hoop watchers a couple of highly anticipated one-on-one battles with OJ—and before he notched a triple-double (including 14 boards) against Mayo’s D-1 Greyhounds in the Reebok Big Time tournament in Las Vegas. Speaking a month after ABCD and two weeks after Big Time, Rose says he still isn’t fully healthy. “I’m like 85 percent, because I still got this ankle injury,” he says, implying that the triple-double might not have come at full strength.

When it comes to comparisons, Rose’s size and his Chicago roots have many people thinking DWade; for his part, Rose says he aspires to be “a smaller version of LeBron.” As for his dominance in the air—he twice pinned our man Kevin Love when their teams met in the Big Time final—Derrick stays humble. “I just react to the way they jump,” he says.

“I don’t think about it.” Rose also notes he wants to punctuate his senior year with another state championship and admits he needs to improve his jumper and his handle.

With such hype—and attention from college coaches—surrounding him, one would think Rose might be affected. Not at all, he says. “I’ve been cruising through it with no pressure,” he says happily. “My brothers take all my phone calls.”

Once again, Derrick Rose will be just fine as long as he doesn’t have to do the talking.

Previously:
Vince Carter: Carter Country

Kevin Love: The Love Movement

Tracy McGrady: Showtime

Baron Davis: Mighty Mouth