Bulls' Butler riding momentum into third season

Bulls' Butler riding momentum into third season
September 12, 2013, 9:15 am
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Mark Strotman

During in an interview with Grantland’s Zach Lowe during the Las Vegas Summer League, Tom Thibodeau confirmed that Jimmy Butler would begin the 2013-14 season as the Bulls’ starting shooting guard, noting that the Marquette alum “had tremendous growth last year” and “got better and better throughout the season.”

The affirmation made sense but was still telling that Thibodeau, who isn't quick to hand out roles to young players, felt strong enough about Butler's play to make him Derrick Rose's backcourt mate when training camp opens later this month.

[RELATED: What is Jimmy Butler's ceiling?]

Butler showed flashes of defensive prowess as a rookie, most notably in his 20-minute performance in February against Carmelo Anthony, who scored just four points against Butler in the fourth quarter of a Bulls win. In his sophomore season, Butler started off slow in November and December before turning the corner as the calendar flipped to 2013. Thibodeau relied more on his defensive star as the season went on -- Butler's minutes per game increased each month for seven months -- as Butler improved on offense and became an ironman of sorts, as one of two Bulls to play in all 82 games (Nate Robinson).

He's also got momentum going in his favor. Butler became the full-time starting shooting guard with 14 games left in the regular season, beginning with a 20-point, nine-rebound effort in a win over the Timberwolves. With Marco Belinelli missing time with an abdominal strain and Rip Hamilton still sidelined, Butler played 44 minutes that night and began a stretch of play into the playoffs that won him the starting job.

[MORE: After breakout season, Butler keeping same mentality]

The 23-year-old Butler has not even scratched the surface of his potential. After playing inside as an undersized power forward much of his three seasons at Marquette, the guard position is still somewhat new to him, though his versatility to also play small forward has helped him on both ends of the ball.

And in terms of young wings, Butler may not be that far off from some of the league's best. Included in this list -- players 24 or younger with three seasons or less of NBA experience -- are San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, Houston's Chandler Parsons, Indiana's Paul George, Golden State's Harrison Barnes and Butler.

Looking at those players' final 20 regular-season games and playoffs, Butler's 20 starts and postseason performance were almost even-up with each of those players.

Player (games) PPG RPG APG FG% MPG
Jimmy Butler  (32) 14.1 6.4 2.7 44.9% 42.3
Paul George  (39) 18.0 7.1 4.7 41.2% 38.9
Kawhi Leonard  (41) 13.8 8.0 1.6 52.6% 35.6
Chandler Parsons  (26) 18.3 4.9 3.1 50.9% 37.5
Harrison Barnes  (32) 12.1 5.2 0.9 44.7% 29.6

Given George's and Leonard's remarkable playoff performances, it's safe to put those two ahead of the pack. George, the league's most improved player, was the focal point in the Pacers' offense and made "the jump" to star status in his third season. Leonard is still behind Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as the Spurs' third option, but at just 22 years old, should be a defensive force and efficient scorer for years to come. The same goes for Parsons, who should put up impressive numbers alongside James Harden and recently-acquired center Dwight Howard. Barnes showed promise in the final months of his rookie season, scoring 24 points in a playoff win against the Nuggets and 25 more in a Game 4 victory against Leonard's Spurs. He's still a tier below the other four, but the potential is there.

That leaves Butler, the only player of this group that came off the bench at some point in the season. He's not on George's or Leonard's level, and Parsons' efficiency and usage rate on offense (18.3 percent) compared to Butler's (14.6) gives him a slight edge. But by season's end, Butler was averaging a whopping 42 minutes per game, more than any other player listed above. That may be one hypothesis as to why his numbers were on par with some of the league's best young guards, but it also says something that Thibodeau relied on a second-year player to guard Joe Johnson and LeBron James in the playoffs.

[ANALYSIS: Jimmy Butler's offensive-rebounding prowess]

A George-like jump in Butler's third season likely won't occur, given he will still be, at best, the Bulls' No. 3 scoring option. But if he continues to play a lion's share of the minutes at shooting guard -- which should happen -- his numbers as a starter (above) last season aren't a ridiculous prediction. We've yet to see "this" Jimmy Butler play alongside Rose, but with one of the league's best slashers back in the lineup, open shots should be there for the 6-foot-6 Butler -- in 14 March games, Butler shot 42 percent from beyond the arc, and exploded in April, making 56 percent of his 3-pointers.

Butler has already proven he has the ability to start in the NBA, and now he'll need to do so consistently for a contending team. Obviously his potential won't be known for years, but a stout defender playing in a system that needs just that, an improving offensive game and undeniable work ethic has given Butler every asset he needs to be successful. Now it's time for him to take those assets, as well as the momentum from the end of last season, and put it all together.