• Gregory Alcala

Jimmy Butler: From Unknown To Top Player In The East


Jimmy Butler was drafted 30th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft to the Chicago Bulls.

Four years later, Butler, a restricted free-agent, signed a five-year, $95 million-dollar contract to remain a Chicago Bull on the first day of the free agency period, July. 1, 2015. It’s a lot of money, but Butler is worth it and he earned it.

“I did not [see this coming], honestly,” said Doc Rivers, who was interested in drafting him, then the head coach of the Boston Celtics, via ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell. “I thought he was a tough kid and as the draft was coming I really liked him, especially where we were picking with the Celtics. I thought he would be a great Celtic at that time. And Buzz (Williams), I remember him calling me and telling me, 'This is the guy.”

During Butler’s fourth year, the year he started to exhibit his offensive potential-averaging a career-high 20 points a game-he failed to reach that extension with the Bulls. Although his rookie-deal was expiring at the end of the season, Butler wanted to prove he was worth a max-deal and he wanted his play to do the talking.

“It came down to me deciding that I want to bet on myself,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “It was about me believing that I put the work in this summer to become a better player with the hope that my improvement will give the Bulls a better chance to win a championship.”

Butler hasn’t looked back. He made his second consecutive all-star game appearance in 2016, averaging career-highs, across the board in points, rebounds and assists in 24.9, 5.8 and 5.4 respectively. Now, in his sixth season, a veteran of sorts, the former Marquette Golden Eagle has taken off. Butler’s production this season has propelled him to elite status across the league and warrants consideration as one of the top players in the Eastern Conference not named LeBron James.

For starters, Butler is fourth in the East when it comes to top scorers, following Isaiah Thomas (28.2 ppg), Demar Derozan (28.2 ppg) and James (26.1 ppg) averaging 25 ppg, nearly two steals a game and six rebounds, shooting 87 percent from the free-throw line, all career-highs.

In offensive win shares, Butler ranked 12th with 6.5 last season. This year, he ranks third at 5.5, following James Harden (first) and Kyle Lowry (second). According to John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, which combines all of a player’s contributions on the basketball court into one number, Butler is ranked 11th at 26.72, adding 10 more wins.

Much like James, Butler commands the ball, despite having teammates in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and his usage rate-27.6, is ranked 13th overall in the East. On Monday, the league recognized that and awarded him with the Eastern Conference Player Of The Week honors, acknowledging Butlers averages of 38 points, nine rebounds and six assists, last week versus Charlotte, Cleveland and Toronto.

Butler led the Bulls to wins in all three of those games but the performance against Charlotte was the highlight of the week. He scored 52 points, one-point shy of his career-high (53 vs. 76ers, 1/14/16) along with 12 rebounds and six assists. In hitting the 50-point mark, Butler became the eighth player to achieve the feat which tied an NBA record.

“He’s been unbelievable,’’ Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said regarding the award.

Without Wade due to knee-swelling and Rondo to benching, Butler scored 20 points in the first half and most significantly helped the Bulls seal the game in the fourth quarter netting 17 points in the final four minutes of the game. Nicolas Batum couldn’t stay in front of him on the perimeter nor could Spencer Hawes deny him at the rim. He was unstoppable, sizing up the defense and pulling up for mid-range jump-shots and displayed his quick first step driving to the rim, resulting in several highlight finishes.

Butler isn’t the same player that entered the league in 2011, offensively, but defense has always been his greatest strength. He has made the NBA All-Defensive second team each of the last three years and welcomes the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player while having the responsibility of being the first-option on offense.

Defense is what made Butler a favorite under former head coach Tom Thibodeau. Defense is what prompted Thibodeau to insert Butler into the Bulls starting lineup in Butler’s third year in the league (2013-14). As good as Butler has become, he wouldn’t be the player he is today without hard work. He wouldn’t be the player he is today without his backstory, being homeless at 13 years-old, from Tomball, Texas.

Butler faxed his letter of intent from inside a McDonald’s according to his college head coach Buzz Williams, who now coaches at Virginia Tech, via ESPN . Butler credits Williams for introducing him to hard work and his work ethic translated into the NBA from the beginning. According to Bulls officials, Butler lived in the gym during his first couple of seasons in the league but his initial leap from defensive-wing to trusted scoring option in his fourth year isn’t credited only to hard work.

“Confidence, man,” Butler told ESPN.com in Nov 2014. “The confidence. This summer I did work but I'm very, very confident in my game right now. I think it shows. I let my teammates know, I let my coaches know, I'm very, very comfortable. And my teammates are really on my side right now which damn sure helps.”

Butler had the privilege of learning under a no nonsense kind of coach in Thibs, who is known for running his players into the ground. He learned under Luol Deng, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. He learned from Derrick Rose. I think there is something to say about a player who thrived under a coach like Thibs and not only continued to get better as a defender, but raised his level of play on the other end of the floor, and that’s what makes Butler a special player.

“He is who he is,” Williams told ESPN.com in 2014. “He's confident in who he is. He's not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He's way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has.”

Butler doesn’t just want to be good. He wants to be great and his play this season proves it.

“I feel like I've never been the best player,” Butler told ESPN.com in 2014. “I've never been highly recruited, so I've always had all the chips stacked up against me and I've always found a way to make things happen.”

For someone who has defied the odds on and off the court, is known as a relentless worker and has actually had issues with the work ethic of his teammates, at times (Derrick Rose), Butler is the kind of player you can bet on. He is the kind of player you can give a max-contract deal and not worry about the output. He’s a potential 2017 NBA All-Star starter. He’s elite and outside of James, it’s hard to find a better player in the Eastern Conference other than Butler.

Stats and info courtesy of ESPN, SB Nation, NBA.com,

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