The rise of Jimmy Buckets

Starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler is quickly moving up the class ranks

By Conrad Theodore | 10.09.2013

The next time you complain about the challenging work week you have coming up, you might want to consider what Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler can typically expect to find on his to-do list during the NBA season.

It usually begins by having to guard Boston's Paul Pierce one night, followed with a dose of New York Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony the next only to be capped off with a national TV visit from Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers two days later.

In just two seasons, Jimmy Butler has made a name for himself as an NBA defensive specialist. But for those who still haven’t taken notice of him, Butler would prefer: mum’s the word.

“A Kobe stopper? Please don’t feed that fire,” laughs Butler. “I don’t want that name because first of all, it’s not just me guarding Kobe. There are four other guys on the floor who help out a lot.

“I’m never going to back down from the challenge of guarding Kobe, Carmelo or Paul Pierce. I’m definitely not scared of them, either — but c'mon, why make that job any harder than it has to be?”

It is precisely hard work that has put Jimmy Butler in the position where he finds himself today. Drafted out of Marquette by the Bulls with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, some would have considered it a case of good fortune if Butler were to make it beyond the practice squad, let alone get a chance to take off his warm-up suit and play in a real game. But with Chicago Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive-minded philosophy, Butler's never-ending work ethic blended perfectly with the rest of the team's nucleus.

“It takes time to understand the NBA game and what you can and can't do,” explains Bulls co-captain Luol Deng. “I’m happy for Jimmy. This year he got an opportunity to play and he made the most of it. He had to be patient for a while, but during that period he never stopped working on improving his game. All that work has paid off, as he played great this season and everybody on the team is excited for him.”

Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler share a laugh on the bench
Bulls co-captain Luol Deng's (left) strong leadership and steadfast support has helped guide Butler into being one of Chicago's top rotation players.
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)


Butler’s patience was tested on the very first week of his professional life. Just days after the 2011 Draft, a labor dispute between the league and the NBA Players Association erupted and a lockout began. “Growing up it was always a dream of mine to play in the NBA but once I got here that [dream] got put on hold,” remembers Butler.

So Jimmy Butler did the only thing that seemed natural — he played a lot of basketball. He traveled from Texas to Wisconsin to Florida to California, primarily to work out with some of his former Marquette teammates and current NBA players Lazar Hayward and Wesley Matthews. But as diligent as he was, nothing could prepare him for the crash course he'd experience once the NBA lockout ended.

“Man, it felt like I was thrown into a fire. Normally a rookie has a few months to prepare with coaches, play summer league games, stuff like that,” says Butler. “But the lockout meant no summer league and I couldn't get together with Coach Thibs or any of my new coaches. But once everything was settled, we opened training camp right away and things moved so much faster than in college. Our first practice Thibs started putting in a fourth play but I still didn’t understand the first. The whole experience was mind boggling. I felt like I had to understand everything right away or I'd be in trouble.”

Jimmy Butler challenges Paul Pierce's shot
Through grit and determination, second-year swingman Jimmy Butler has developed into one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders.

(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)

Known as a player with poise and quiet confidence, Butler admits it didn’t take long before he experienced his first NBA out-of-body moment. Although he has great respect for today’s All-Stars, it was seeing his childhood idol, Tracy McGrady, that first caused Jimmy to become tongue-tied. In front of family and friends, Thibodeau called out Butler's name and put him into a game against the Atlanta Hawks where Jimmy stood behind a Hawks free-throw shooter. Suddenly McGrady walked over and stood next to him.

“I could see Tracy coming towards me out of the corner of my eye and all I could think about was 13 points in 35 seconds,” says Butler remembering one of McGrady’s greatest career highlights. “He looked at me and says, ‘What’s up, young fella?’ I really didn't know what to do. I was like, oh my gosh, Tracy McGrady is talking to me, what do I say? Do I call him Tracy, T-Mac?

“I honestly don't remember what I did, but I think I nodded hello and didn't say anything. Then I tried to box him out after the shooter took his last [free throw] attempt.

“When you grow up pretending you're going one-on-one against an imaginary T-Mac while shooting hoops on your driveway and then you find yourself actually playing against him in a real NBA game — well, that feeling was kind of over the top.”

Butler is now surrounded by a new set of role models who have helped him tremendously from the very first day he arrived in Chicago. But perhaps more so than anyone, it’s Luol Deng who Jimmy depends on the most.

“Luol is my guy. He plays the same position and is the same type of player,” says Butler. “He’s been doing this for so long it’s like he has all the answers.”

Deng proved his mentoring value after pulling a hamstring earlier in the season and being forced to sit out a handful of games. When Thibodeau announced that he was going to insert Butler into the starting lineup to take his place, Luol made sure to pull Jimmy aside.

“Lu said, ‘Listen, don’t try to be me, just be you. You're a good player with a lot of ability. You're the one who put yourself in position to play in this league, so just go out and play your game and everything will work out fine.’ Just hearing Lu say something like that was a huge relief. It’s really a blessing to have a guy like him on your side.”

Butler didn't disappoint, posting an average of nearly 15 points and 8 rebounds a game while filling in for Deng.

Deng feels just as strongly about his understudy. “Jimmy is so good at asking questions and listening to the coaches and to the veterans on the team,” says Deng. “He wants to get better and he'll do whatever it takes to get better. His attitude makes us a much stronger team.”

Some of Butler’s other teammates are also eager to chime in about the sophomore sensation. “I’m really proud of Jimmy,” adds Joakim Noah. “He’s a hard worker and I think he’s somebody who’s going to be in the NBA for a really long time because he just keeps getting better and stronger every day. He can shoot from outside and he's not afraid to take the ball to the hoop and get hit. Jimmy's strong, too. He can finish after contact, and defensively he’s already one of the best in the league. I'm really happy he's on our side.”

Hard work has played a huge part in Butler working his way into Coach Thibodeau's regular rotation, where his playing time increased from 8.5 minutes in 42 games as a rookie to 26 minutes in all 82 games last season. Butler believes having the right attitude often defines a player’s minutes, and eventually his longevity in this league.

“Let’s be honest, if you’re in the NBA, most likely you were the man on your college team,” explains Butler. “It goes from everything running through you, taking whatever shots you want, doing whatever you want to do on both ends of the floor to starting at the bottom again in the NBA. Chances are you’re not going to be 'that guy' for a while. Hey, you may never be 'that guy' again. All you can do is listen to your coaches, work hard in practice and try to be ready if you're name gets called. That's what I've tried to do.”

Jimmy Butler goes in for a reverse layup against Cleveland
Besides being a terrific defender, Butler's offense continues to impress with each game. During the second half of this past season Butler averaged 11.1 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in almost 33 minutes, shooting .458 from the field and .425 from beyond the 3-point arc.

(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)

So Butler reinvented himself as a sponge, soaking in every bit of knowledge he could from the bench, at practice, during team film sessions, even sitting with veteran teammates on airplanes.

“Basketball's a team game, it’s not all about you. I got that in my mind quickly,” says Butler. “This game is a lot about talent, consistency, hard work and practice, but I also think one of the most important aspects [of the game] is confidence.”

It may be confidence that drives Butler but it’s his versatility that is most appealing to the Bulls coaching staff. “Jimmy has the ability to start or come off the bench. In some cases, a guy has a hard time doing one or the other, but Jimmy does both very effectively,” says Thibodeau. “He also has a very quick motor. Sometimes he may not play a lot during the first half but he ends up finishing the game. Whether I put him in early, late or in the middle, Jimmy seems to handle everything well. He gets right in the flow [of the game] and he makes things happen. I think his toughness is the biggest aspect to his game. Now that he has some experience, he’s gotten better and better. He’s become a very important part of our team. I think he'll become even more important for us as the years go by.”

The team is also very important to Butler as he refers to it as a band of brothers. And team bonding continues well past the opening-tip and final horn.

“On the road we like to hang out in each other’s rooms, always joking around,” says Butler. “When we go out, usually there's seven or eight of us going to dinner or a movie. Working together every day and still wanting to see each other off the court, that’s a sign of a close, tight-knit team.”

Although many of his teammates are quick to say New York's Madison Square Garden or LA's Staples Center are their favorite arenas to play when traveling, Butler has a different spot in mind.

“For me, it’s the [BMO Harris] Bradley Center in Milwaukee. That’s where I played in college, preparing myself for this level. It’s always exciting to be back in that building and fun to see people wearing my old Marquette jersey.”

Tributes to Butler have also been arriving from his home state of Texas. His high school located outside of Houston is planning on retiring his number once they can coordinate a ceremony that works with the Bulls’ schedule next season. And at nearby Tyler Junior College where he first began his college playing experience, the school has renamed a tournament in Jimmy's honor. Although flattered and quite proud, Butler likes to avoid hoopla and extra attention as he only wants to be treated as he always has been back home.

“I don’t ever want to be that person who changed because he's in the NBA,” states Butler. “I may be a professional athlete, but I don’t want anyone to look at me like I think I'm better than them because I’m not.”

Whenever someone approaches Jimmy looking to take a picture or asking for an autograph, Butler always agrees. And although this adulation is a fairly new experience, Jimmy thinks he understands what all the fuss is about.

“It isn’t just about me being a pro athlete,” believes Butler. “I think people look at me and feel happy because they see that my dream came true.

“I'm a small-town kid who nobody really ever heard of a few years ago who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. I live and play basketball in a big-time city and every now and then my name is in the news. I’m obviously thrilled about everything that has happened, but what really makes me happy is that what I've been able to accomplish shows kids who may not have confidence in themselves that if they really want something bad enough, and they're willing to believe in themselves, they can go out and get it just like I did.”

Jimmy Butler smiles on the court
In the NBA, an athletic wing player is almost mandatory for every team. In terms of pure athletic potential, Jimmy Butler is right up there with the likes of Indiana All-Star Paul George and Miami's Dwyane Wade.
(Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)


Right now, there’s a lot of love for Jimmy Butler throughout Chicago and especially inside the Bulls locker room. Even though he's not one of the team's first options offensively, Butler still managed to score in double-digits 29 times this season, including four games of 20+ points. Impressive, but Jimmy's the first to admit there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I feel I can defend just about any shooting guard in the league, but my offensive skill-set has to get better. Coach Thibs doesn’t care if you’re a first-year player or 10-year vet. He expects you to know everything and make minimal mistakes while always playing hard. That's the type of player he wants on the floor and that's the type of player I want to be.

“Like everyone, I have days where I don’t want to get up in the morning and go to work,” admits Jimmy. “But when the lights come on and I get that ball in my hands, my adrenaline kicks in and all those frustrations melt away, because playing basketball is what I've always loved to do, competing against the best and trying to help my team come out on top.”

In order to continue to come out on top, Butler knows there are no shortcuts. He understands he has plenty of hours ahead where he's expected to continue refining his game. He insists he has no individual goals in mind nor does he envision any individual awards on the horizon because he believes the only thing worth focusing on is what’s best for the team.

“Nobody is going to remember if I'm a starter on a losing team. Nobody is going to care if I average 20 points a game,” says Butler while gazing up and then pointing towards the rafters where the Bulls' six championship banners hang high above the United Center hardwood. “What I want to do is be part of something special. I want to win a championship because that’s what will be remembered. That’s the only goal I set each and every year.”