Despite a summer that’s already included traveling to China and attending the ESPYs, things haven’t really changed for Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler heading into his third NBA season.
In a recent phone interview with CSNChicago.com, Butler took the same tact he did when he started to emerge during the second half of the regular season, crediting his teammates for instilling confidence in him.
“I’m confident. I feel like my teammates are always telling me that I can belong here and that I can play. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be in this organization. That just gives me that will to work harder, to be great,” explained the Texas native, back in Chicago and back to his daily routine of individual workouts at the Berto Center. “I just posted a picture on Instagram of all the greats that’s up in our practice facility and if you want to be like them, you’ve got to continue to work. You can never settle. I’m always going to do what got me to this point, being an underdog and working extremely hard. And now that you’ve got a great player [Derrick Rose] surrounding you, I like our chances of winning this championship.”
But even as he brushes off the suggestion that he plays a large role in the Bulls’ success, there’s an aura of confidence in Butler’s words. Although he wasn’t invited to participate in the ongoing USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas — not to disparage any of the players in attendance, but Butler, who was under consideration, according to a league source, has as much potential and is just as deserving as several of Select Team members — after stepping into the starting lineup on a permanent basis, he’s now regarded as one of the NBA’s more promising youngsters.
From the abilities he possessed upon arriving in Chicago, such as his defensive prowess, uncanny offensive rebounding for a perimeter player and high-flying athleticism, to gradual developments, like his improved outside jumper, blossoming one-on-one scoring ability and the durability to play consecutive full playoff games while matched up against league MVP LeBron James, Butler displayed the type of upside that’s caused Bulls management and coaches alike to smile when his name is mentioned long after last season ended.
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Proclaimed the team’s starting shooting guard going into next season by none other than the tight-lipped Tom Thibodeau — the Bulls head coach is prone to not divulge his starters minutes in advance of a regular-season game, so a months-ahead declaration is really saying something — Butler, the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, refuses to change his approach.
Rather than hone in on his ballhandling as he completes the transition from a college forward to a professional guard or just focus on outside shooting in anticipation, he claims that his offseason workouts consist of “everything."
“I’m not perfect in any aspect of my game, in area of it, so why work on one more than the other? There’s a lot of things that I can really get better at, so I’m working on everything. I want to be able to bring everything to the table,” Butler went on to say. “I’m just going to try to focus on what we’re doing as a team, us as a whole. I know Thibs is always saying, ‘Do what you’re best at. Try to cover up your weaknesses and do the same thing for your teammates.’ Yeah, I may be on the scouting report, but I feel like it’s about us as a team, not what they’re truly prepared for. I feel like if we play our style of basketball night in and night out, it doesn’t matter what their scouting report says. We’re going to still win the game.”
If you can’t tell by now, Butler has high expectations for the Bulls. Much of that is due to the return of Rose, the man he’ll share starting backcourt duties with.
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Looking back at the shooting guards the former league MVP has played alongside, it’s fair to say that Butler has the most all-around talent, hence the muffling of observers who believed the Bulls wouldn’t fully prosper until the organization acquired a high-scoring backcourt companion for Rose, giving rise to names like Courtney Lee, O.J. Mayo and Monta Ellis being thrown around.
Ben Gordon was a fan favorite and could clearly score the ball, but as has been witnessed since his contract-related departure from Chicago via free agency, he hasn’t aged well (albeit for franchises that haven’t had great talent around him) and even at his best, he never offered much versatility besides putting up points. Kirk Hinrich, a former starter at the position, is more of a natural point guard and will now reprise his role from Rose’s rookie season, as a backup to the Chicago native. John Salmons’ high-water mark with the Bulls was the 2009 playoffs and he wasn’t in town for much longer after that. Rip Hamilton was rarely healthy for extended stretches and when he was, seldom did that coincide with Rose also being on the court. Keith Bogans was probably unfairly maligned, was more of a token starter and his more subtle contributions to the team were never appreciated by the masses (in this writer’s opinion, though having seen his All-American days at DeMatha High School, it’s a biased view), but like Ronnie Brewer, another defensive-minded type, he was offensively challenged.
That’s a long way of pointing out that Butler’s two-way game, athleticism and developing offense, whether through the front office’s strategic planning, the coaching staff’s development or a combination of his own diligent work ethic and being in the right place at the right time, have made the shooting-guard debate cease to be an issue. His ballhandling could be more polished and he'll have to prove that he's a consistent threat from deep, but with his blue-collar mentality, coupled with explosiveness that should make him an ideal bookend in transition, all Butler has to do is continue to be himself to excel alongside Rose.
"Having our leader back, I feel like he’s a huge focal point to our team and I think he makes everything a lot easier on a lot of our guys and he puts a lot of the pressure on himself, so us being solid teammates, we have to take as much pressure off of him as possible, if that means guarding whoever we have to guard on the defensive end or making open shots. It’s going to be fun playing with him. I’m definitely looking forward to it,” he said. “Just be aggressive on both ends of the floor and keep your confidence high. Don’t get too high on yourself, don’t get too low. The season is a roller-coaster, so try to stay right in the middle. And that’s what Luol [Deng] told me my first year in the league and I’ve always lived by that. When you have a great game, you could always have a great game. So whenever you have a bad one, just remember everybody loves you whenever you have a great one, everyone’s going to hate you when you have a bad one. Don’t worry about it. Just stay right in the middle. You’re going to get it back.”
Speaking of Deng, Butler’s on-court mentor — along with Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin; the aforementioned Brewer played a part in the process during Butler’s rookie season — the shooting guard believes that combined with the All-Star small forward, the pair makes up one of the NBA’s best and most underrated wing duos, both capable of smothering defense, knocking down open shots and doing the dirty work on the interior.
“First off: Lu, if you read this, you didn’t call me back when I called you, so it’s too late. Don’t do that,” he joked. “But on a serious note, me and Lu at the two and the three, I think that’s mismatch nightmares for a lot of people. Lu does so many things well. Passes the ball, creates off the dribble, can shoot it, rebound and defend.
“When you’re watching him play and you try to model your game around him, I think you’re going to be successful in this league, which is what I’ve tried to do the first two years and I’m going to continue to try to do because he’s a leader in our group and he was always mentoring me,” he continued. “It’s great to have a guy like that because you see how hard he plays night in and night out, what he goes through, so if you can model yourself off of that, become half of that, I think you’ll be all right.”
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Butler is also excited about the Bulls’ new additions, such as veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy Jr., whose versatility now gives the team three players who can play and defend shooting guard, small forward and power forward against the growing number of opponents featuring small-ball lineups.
“They [the Bulls’ front office] definitely know what they’re doing, bringing in shooters, guys that can guard and different weapons with different specialties. That’s huge, all those key parts. Everybody needs those guys,” he explained. “So many weapons in so many areas that can be in many positions of the floor, that’s the craziest part and the way that we play, our defensive mentality, we’ve got a lot of guys that can switch now and not worry about mismatches, that’s huge for our team. That’s huge, tremendous.”
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He didn’t get out to Las Vegas to watch the Bulls’ summer-league team in action, but Butler observed the proceedings from afar — former Marquette teammate Dwight Buycks, after toiling overseas, signed a guaranteed deal with Toronto, something he had to mention, saying, “Yeah, another Marquette guy out there in the league, but when we play the Raptors, I’m going at him. Just know that.” — and liked what he saw.
“Marquis [Teague] was playing with a lot of confidence, making shots, creating shots for others, guarding and just playing extremely hard. That’s big, but that’s what this summer is really about for him. Tony Snell, he can really shoot the ball and defend, and he can get to the cup,” Butler said. “I think they worked hard this summer and it showed in summer league. Unfortunately they lost to the Heat, but it happens. The last game we lost was to the Heat in the playoffs, so I guess that’s motivation for the season.”
In Teague, Butler sees some of himself, as far as how both players spent the majority of their rookie seasons on the bench, watching, and working to improve behind the scenes. Butler’s second-year growth started with a stellar summer-league performance and believes Teague, to whom he counseled throughout the campaign, can make the same type of jump.
“I hope so. He’s going to continue to work. That’s one thing I can tell you about Marquis. He’s not going to settle. He wants to play, he wants to be recognized in this league,” he said. That’s what’s good about that guy. He’s young, but he knows what it takes to make it, so I’m excited for him, I’m happy for him and I’ll probably be seeing him here soon.”
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Now back in Chicago, Butler is mixing in business with pleasure for the remainder of his offseason.
“Having fun, but at the same time, having more fun in this gym. A lot of practicing, but a little bit of traveling, time with the family, time with friends because when this ball starts, everything narrows down into basketball and getting prepared for this season,” he said. “But yeah, seeing Derrick. If Lu would ever call me back, maybe I would be able to see Lu. Joakim’s a free-spirited guy. You never know, he may be on Mars right now. You never know where he is. Just talked to Booz the other day. Marquis, just talked to him this morning. I talked to all the guys, that’s like family.”
Same old stuff, just with new expectations looming.