Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Jimmy Butler, a rising star

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By Sam Smith | 1.29.2015 | 6:30 p.m. CT

Jimmy Butler’s story has been one of the most remarkable in sports, a wayward teen kicked out of his own Texas home at 13 by his mother, sleeping at friends’ homes to get through high school, going to junior college a virtual unknown in basketball, eventually getting a scholarship to Marquette, which he wasn’t even quite sure the location. A modest scoring power forward for three years at Marquette, surprisingly selected as high as he was by the Bulls in the 2008 draft, and even then last in the first round. Rarely playing as a rookie and then only getting some playing time midway through his sophomore season because of injuries.

And now one of the elite stars of the NBA as Butler Thursday was selected as a reserve by the Eastern Conference coaches to play in next month’s NBA All-Star game. Butler will join teammate Pau Gasol, who was selected as a starter for the East.

“It would mean (a lot) to make the All-Star team,” Butler said at Bulls practice Thursday morning before the announcement. “But at the same time I think it’s a milestone anyone would want to achieve in a basketball career. I think there are bigger goals than the All-Star team that I would like to accomplish.”

That’s obviously the ultimate success of the team, though clearly it’s not likely without an All-Star level of play from Butler. Though he has slumped a bit lately and been out with flu, Butler has done his part. He remains the Bulls leading scorer at 20.1 per game, 17th in the NBA. He’s also in the top 10 in steals at 1.8 per game and leads the NBA in minutes per game at 39.5. And perhaps more importantly, Butler was there for the Bulls most when they needed it, early in the season when both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were coming back slowly from previous knee surgeries.

Butler, 25, averaged 21.9 per game in November when he was named Kia NBA Player of the Month and 21.5 in December. He’s averaging career highs this season in points, rebounds and assists. The 6-7 shooting guard has been a team leader making big shots and being the team’s top perimeter defender.

Which is one of the more remarkable climbs in NBA history for a virtual unknown a few years ago.

“To say that I saw it coming... I knew he’d be really good,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “But I didn’t know he’d be this good. He started (this season) fast. He came in great shape, lighter. He got off to the good start. He’s maintained it. I don’t want to put a lid on it. I don’t know where it could go. He’s got great drive, great commitment and he plays for the team.

“I thought he could be a good rotation player for sure,” Thibodeau said about his first instincts regarding the Bulls’ drafting of Butler. “(Then Boston coach) Doc Rivers talked about Jimmy a lot. We followed Marquette because obviously Doc’s association (playing there). I knew how much Doc liked him and from following him I thought he would be a good pro. He worked his way into becoming a starter; his defense has always been terrific. Of course, his offense has gotten better and better.

“We look now and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing.’ But it was pretty much incremental,” said Thibodeau. “He got better and better day by day and all of a sudden you take a look back to where he was when he first came in and you say he’s improved a lot. But sometimes it goes unnoticed. It’s been years in the making. This is steady progress and hopefully he’ll continue to improve. I think he is one of those guys who will get a little better each and every year.”

It’s an incredibly high bar to scale, but barriers always have been put in front of him that everyone saw but Butler.

“I didn’t work on my game (previously) as much as I did this past summer,” said Butler. “With (trainer) Chris Johnson installing the work ethic and everything we did, it changed the type of player I was. A lot of credit goes to him, but I worked on my game a heck of a lot.

“I think I surprised everybody,” Butler smiled about the so called experts. “Nobody can say they thought I’d be in the NBA coming from Tomball, thought I’d get drafted in the first round, thought I’d be a starting player on the Chicago Bulls, thought I’d be a potential All-Star. Nobody could ever call that. But I worked. I worked hard. That’s what I’ve always done. I’m surprised, but at the same time I’m not. Try to stay here, that was my thought (when I got drafted), find a way to stick in this league no matter what it may be. This is what you love to do so find a way to make it your job for a long time.

“I’ve always been proud of myself,” said Butler, “always had the utmost confidence in myself. I continue to be confident because that’s the main part in this game and in life as a whole, always believing in yourself.”

Jimmy Butler, a role model as a player and a man.