Note to Tom Thibodeau: Jimmy Butler isn’t “under the radar.”
Derrick Rose’s return certainly looms over everything related to the team, Luol Deng’s contract year is a prominent issue to some, Carlos Boozer continues to be blamed for anything under the sun and Joakim Noah is, well, Joakim Noah. But Butler’s expected progress this season is as eagerly anticipated as any non-Rose player on the Bulls.
Still, just to hear the Bulls head coach praise the third-year swingman after the team’s opening practice of training camp was good to hear, especially in comparison to a year ago. Back then, Thibodeau made it clear that Butler, even in the wake of the departures of veteran wings Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, would have to earn any minutes he received and extensive playing time wasn’t a given. Now, due to the Bulls’ myriad injuries last season, Butler at first played more out of necessity, by the end of the campaign, the Marquette product was indispensable, playing 48-minute games against LeBron James in the playoffs, resulting in Thibodeau anointing him the starting shooting guard moving forward the day after the Heat dispatched the team in the playoffs.
“Jimmy has changed. He’s in a different place, and I think there are some different things we can change to take advantage of what he does well. We are going to look at that,” Thibodeau said when asked whether the Bulls would work in any new wrinkles he might have learned from his initial stint as a USA Basketball assistant coach.
“Jimmy is sort of like under-the-radar, but he’s really tough, he’s improved. He’s not one of those guys that talks about it. I sort of get a kick like in the offseason, everyone’s had a great summer, everyone looks good, but Jimmy actually puts the work in. He doesn’t have to say anything. You look at him and his actions tell you what he’s doing. There are no shortcuts with him. He puts the work in and gives you a solid days work,” praised the head coach. “Jimmy is very deceiving. He’s an excellent athlete, very explosive, very quick to the ball. That tells you how he sees the game. His reaction to the ball is special. He’s very quick, strong, can think ahead, very strong.”
Again with the plaudits and terms like “deceiving,” as if Bulls fans and observers around in the league in general weren’t aware of Butler’s second-half emergence last season. But Butler’s backcourt mate, Rose, is similarly impressed by the Texas native’s development.
“Man, he gives people hell on the court. He’s a guy where he has the same mentality I got. It’s like, ‘I don’t care.’ He’s going to go out and ball. He loves playing. Having him behind me and having Joakim and everybody else behind me, it’s going to be a team effort. That’s what we’re trying to build,” Rose gushed. “He’s good. I think his biggest adjustment is just going to be feeling comfortable, knowing he can take shots and make decisions. Even dribbling the ball up the floor is going to help us a lot, especially when we start running a lot.”
Butler still has areas of his game to improve — ballhandling and creating off the dribble, as well as showing that the outside shooting witnessed down the stretch of last season was no fluke — but his efficiency, athleticism, defensive prowess, rebounding ability and most of all, strong work ethic give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assuming that he’ll work to get better. By all accounts, Butler came into camp in “ridiculous” shape, having worked all summer at the Berto Center and in various other locales, including California with Rose for a week.
“The player that he’s become, he wasn’t always this player,” Butler said of the experience. “He was always really, really talented, but just the work ethic that he puts into everything, there’s no doubt that the success he shows, I wanted to go out there and see how he did things, and get in a few runs with him.”
As much potential as the athletically-explosive guard duo of Butler and Rose has, perhaps even more impressive is envisioning a full season of Butler and mentor Deng on the wing, smothering opponents defensively, then making them work on the other end of the floor. Deng, along with Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, has helped mold Butler from a rookie who rarely played to one of the more promising young swingmen in the game.
“When I started with Jimmy last year, it was exciting in terms of defensively we were able to take turns on certain guys depending on who was on the floor. Offensively, we helped each other a lot. It didn’t matter how we ran our offense or who was in what position, especially on the fast break,” the All-Star small forward said of how interchangeable the pair is. “Whatever side he ended up, we ran it that way, instead of taking time to get into our spots. Defensively, I think Jimmy is one of the best in the league. Whenever one guy is tired, we could switch on guys.”
See, Tom? Even the other two members of the Bulls’ perimeter trio understand that Butler’s no longer a sleeper, though the player himself seems to be under the impression that Rose’s return somehow means defenses will neglect him.
“Playing faster and getting used to being so wide-open because he draws so many double-teams and everybody has to help off of him,” Butler said of his adjustment to playing next to Rose. I feel like that’s the biggest thing and the highlight reels that he’s going to have in the open floor.”
Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. If anything, defenses will have to play Rose honest, now that he has the best all-around backcourt partner he’s ever played with, meaning that the only thing “under the radar” about Butler this season could be his statistics, as the Bulls’ balanced starting lineup has too much for anybody other than the former league MVP to put up gaudy numbers on a regular basis.
So much can change in a year, as Thibodeau’s show-and-prove mentality led to Butler doing just that and making his presence felt. So if there’s a Bulls player who could potentially duplicate the same path — scant playing time as a rookie, encouraging summer-league performance, an offseason dedicated to improvement and only a glimmer of an opportunity down the line, if things fall into place — look no further than second-year point guard Marquis Teague.
“He could,” Thibodeau responded, when asked if the 20-year-old had a shot at cracking the Bulls’ regular rotation. “I think he had a very good summer, worked hard. The one thing is I think he’s a far different player today than he was a year ago. For certain.”
Now, that’s the correct usage of the phrase.