MILWAUKEE — The Jimmy Butler story is amazing, if only because of how close it came to not happening.
From the family struggles of his youth to having to take the junior college route to major college basketball, Butler has always found a way to keep fighting. Now he’s fought his way to becoming a major contributor on a Chicago Bulls team destined for a high playoff seed.
It’s just all part of the story – a story one NBA general manager called one of the most remarkable he’s ever seen and one that almost ended in the 2008-09 season at Marquette University. In his first season in Milwaukee after transferring from Tyler Junior College in Texas, Butler was frustrated. Playing sparingly, he wondered if he was cut out for that level of basketball.
“He wanted to leave, I wanted him to leave, and I encouraged him to leave,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “Then by this time (that year), I was shaving minutes off this guy, shaving minutes off that guy because he was becoming extremely hard to take off the floor, but he was still the worst player on the floor.”
Like everything else in his life, Butler stuck with it. The next season he was in the starting lineup and forming a three-headed monster with Lazar Hayward and Darius Johnson-Odom, averaging 14.7 points per game and playing 34.3 minutes per game. Butler’s draft stock then soared after a senior season in which he averaged 15.7 points while leading the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16.
Williams began getting phone calls about Butler from NBA teams, but he could easily spot the difference between the teams making a courtesy call and the ones seriously interested. The Bulls were one of the most interested from the beginning.
“When it got to that, I told all of them the same thing,” Williams said. “Whenever it is he gets to the floor, relative to your roster, your coach will have a hard time keeping him off of the floor, but your coach will admittedly say that he’s the worst player on the floor.”
Now Butler is doing just that in the NBA. Selected by the Bulls with the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler played just 8.5 minutes per game during his rookie year for a veteran Chicago team that had its eye on making a deep run in the playoffs.
Things began to change this year as Butler found a role off the bench, but he needed a bigger opportunity. That came when Chicago’s star forward Luol Deng went down with a hamstring injury. Butler began playing big minutes on Jan. 18 and has excelled ever since, averaging 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
“Steady progress,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s earned everything that he’s gotten. He’s put the work in. He continues to put the work in, and he keeps getting better. As long as he has a great attitude and a great approach, he will continue to get better. He has done a little bit of everything for us.”
Everything includes playing crazy minutes in Deng’s absence. The league’s leader in minutes per game, Deng almost never leaves the floor for Chicago. In the five games Deng was out, Butler played 45.2 minutes per game.
“Mentally, it’s a mind-boggling thing,” Butler said. “Physically, just to see what Lu goes through every single day, and then you have to practice in between. That’s tough, but it shows you how much you have to take care of your body because your body is your motor in this league and you have to take care of it for the entire time. It’s definitely tough.”
In many ways, Butler is starting to become a similar player to Deng. And for the two-time All-Star, that’s quite alright because he did the same thing as a young player, mirroring former NBA forward and current Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin.
“I tell Jimmy, you are a great player when you copy someone who you play with,” Deng said. “I did it the same way. You got to add hard work in and then confidence builds up. Confidence builds up and you start to realize what you can do.”
Butler is building confidence and playing time with the Bulls in almost the exact same way he did it at Marquette. The paths are too similar to be a coincidence.
“I’m telling you, the confidence comes from when my teammates pass me the ball and tell me, ‘Shoot it.’ Literally, ‘Shoot it.’ ” Butler said. “And if I miss, they tell me to take the same shot if I get it again. That’s the best part about this team; they constantly want me to be successful. They let me know not to pass up open shots. It’s easy to do that.”
Butler was back in the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Wednesday, and though he had returned to his college arena three times prior, this was the first time he’s been in his new role and a factor in the game.
He made a pregame visit to the Al McGuire Center to see former teammates and coaches. Along with Williams, current Marquette players Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue made the trip to the Bradley Center to watch their former teammate play. What they witnessed was further evidence of his transformation. Butler scored 18 points and made 8 of 12 shots, including two impressive and athletic dunks as the Bulls rolled to a 104-88 win over the Bucks.
“It’s big (to return to the Bradley Center),” Butler said. “This is like a home away from home. It’s great to see familiar faces up in the stands and as I walk up to the court. Those are the same people that showed me so much love while I was here in the blue and gold. It’s good to shake their hand and say hello to them.”
For all the pregame hoopla, Butler may have been looking forward to a reunion with Williams the most. Though both wanted to terminate their relationship early, player and coach stuck with it and made it work. Williams recognized a fighter and knew he could push Butler to become who he is today.
“A lot of credit goes to them for believing in me and pushing me to the limit each and every day, when I thought that I couldn’t go anymore, making sure that I could,” Butler said. “I love him for that, and I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
It was easy for Williams to believe in Butler because of all the things he brought to the floor. He became impossible to take out of the game because of his defense, rebounding and knack for never taking a bad shot. Butler was one of the best Williams has ever seen at making use of a scouting report.
When Williams became a bit skeptical of how Butler would transition to the NBA, Bulls legend Scottie Pippen told him Butler would play in the league as long as his knees allow him to.
“To find all of those things is one guy?” Williams said. “I don’t think he’s ever an All-Star because he’s not that. But is he a guy that can make a career playing professionally? It looks as though he’s on his way to doing that.”
And Williams will continue to be proud of his former player no matter what lies ahead.
“I’m happy for him,” Williams said. “I think he’s doing great. The best part of it is he’s handling it great. For me and my relationship with him, that’s what I’m proudest of. I don’t care if he makes a basket or even plays in the NBA. No matter what transpires good or bad, I think he’s handling it the right way.”