Look fast or you’ll miss it. The 2014-15 Bulls’ season is your chance to witness a rarity — an athlete’s transformation from role player to All-Star. Jimmy Butler, the fourth year Bulls’ swingman, is doing just that. His team — one day it could really be his team — returns home from a rare winning circus trip with a new bull leading the herd. A star seemingly born out of both desire and necessity. The player’s desire to prove he belongs in the best basketball league in the world and the team’s necessity to succeed in spite of its struggling former MVP. It’s rare to witness a low-end draft pick transform into an All-Star caliber talent. But Butler1, averaging over 20 points and nearly 6 rebounds per game, has done just that. He was, by no means, an instant success. But a combination of skill, effort and will made him the player he is today.
What does Jimmy Butler mean to the Bulls’ championship hopes? Where does Jimmy Butler rank amongst this talent-filled roster? And is Jimmy Butler the new face of the Chicago Bulls? You can’t answer these questions without understanding how he got here.
Before “Jimmy Buckets” and “The Butler” there was simply Jimmy Butler, a 6’7″ shooting guard drafted out of Marquette University. A 30th overall selection just trying to make the team. His rookie season stat line was underwhelming to say the least — per game averages1 of 8 minutes, 2 points, 1 rebound. The rookie couldn’t break through Tom Thibodeau’s pro-veteran mentality and was mostly left off the Bulls’ 2011-12 “Bench Mob” rotation. Loul Deng, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and others played while number 21 watched from the bench. Our sneak peek of Butler as a rookie showed us he could defend. He had the length and, more importantly, the desire to challenge shots, fight through screens and reroute drives. But we weren’t yet sure he could score against NBA-level talent or handle a Thibodeau level minutes workload.
Year two in the league — per game averages1 of 26 minutes, 8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal — allowed Jimmy Butler the chance to show off his potential. He spelled Loul Deng, filled in when Richard Hamilton was hurt and provided another perimeter defender for Thibodeau’s stifling defense. Butler showed a knack for long shots, hitting .5 three pointers per game on limited attempts. The sophomore Bull was not widely known as a premier NBA athlete but Thibodeau was all-in, rewarding him with the fifth most minutes per game on the Bulls in that 2012-13 season. His offense needed polishing but Butler clearly had all the tools to take the next step in his NBA evolution.
Jimmy Butler’s third season was his launchpad to stardom. He stepped into the starting off guard position and averaged the most minutes per game of anyone on the Bulls’ roster. “Buckets” became Thibodeau’s glue guy after Loul Deng was traded to the Cavaliers. The wing player that stays on the court to aid the transition from the starters to bench players. And the guard who defends the opposing team’s best athlete each night, all night. With 2013-14 per contest averages1 of 39 minutes, 13 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals, Butler did exactly what the team needed him to do. Even this improved output was unexpected from a 30th overall selection though. But, by now, his offensive prowess was shining through — an ability to score at the rim, run in transition and occasionally hit a three pointer. Butler’s game finally looked fluid and his future looked brighter than ever.
Before Jimmy Butler was drafted, one scouting report suggested2 he was “A well-rounded forward with great qualities for a future role-player.” That same analyst recognized his peak potential though2: “If he continues to improve his outside shooting ability, he might be one of this class’ sleepers …” Class sleeper is right. Butler, along with second rounder Chandler Parsons, have proven to be the steals of the 2011 draft class. The numbers and analysis back it up.
Jimmy Butler is shining early and often in the 2014-15 season with per game averages1 of 39 minutes, 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal. He leads the team in scoring, leads the league in minutes per game and is top twenty in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares. Butler is all over the league leader lists. And keep in mind this is a team with a former MVP in Derrick Rose and a four-time All-Star in Pau Gasol. The fourth year guard is an efficient scorer — at the rim and from the field — as well as a defensive stopper. His ability to fill up a stats sheet proves his presence is felt on both sides of the court and puts him in the All-Star conversation. After a recent victory against the Brooklyn Nets, Butler admitted his goals were not that lofty coming into the season3. “I just wanted to be on the (opponents’) scouting report to tell you the truth. I don’t think I was on the scouting report last year. Maybe I made a way onto people’s scouting report this year.” Opposing coaches walk into the United Center these days thinking about ways to stop Butler, Gasol and, sometimes, Derrick Rose. That is a testament to Jimmy Butler’s talent and willingness to work hard in practice and on game days.
No one yet knows where Jimmy Butler will take his career. There are a lot of games left on the schedule; he seems to be focused on the games more than his pending free agency. The soon-to-be restricted free agent will have scores of opportunities come next summer. He deserves them all.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports