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Butler's quick progression offers another punch for Bulls

POSTED: Oct 16, 2013 8:19 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner,


Jimmy Butler has gone from being the 30th pick in the draft to the starting shooting guard for the Bulls.

Everybody loves Jimmy Butler, Chicago center Joakim Noah says.

That sounds vaguely like the title of a certain sit-com, even if the story of Butler's hardscrabble upbringing in Tomball, Texas, would be better served by an ESPN "30 for 30" treatment. But Butler and the Bulls have no time for either laugh tracks or tinkling piano music because there are games to be won, practices from which to learn, a starting job at shooting guard to man and skeptics to prove wrong.

There still are skeptics around who doubt Butler, right?

Bulls Preview: Rose's Return

"He's really a diamond in the dirt," Noah said a week into the preseason. "I think the sky is the limit for him. He's going to be all-defensive player this year, and he gets to show it on a big stage. So it's a beautiful thing. He's as competitive as it gets. He's a worker. He fits perfect. I mean, everybody loves Jimmy Butler."

Most everybody, anyway, as long as they're not the ones Butler is pestering, denying passes to or messing with their shots. Or the ones chasing him perpetually at the other end.

The 2013-14 Bulls have renewed championship ambitions, thanks largely to Derrick Rose's return and the general calm in their trainers room at the moment. Butler's rapid development ranks no worse than third, though, because he gives them one of those bonus players, the homegrown contributor already surpassing the projections of those who scouted and drafted him.

"Jimmy's, like, under the radar but he's really tough," coach Tom Thibodeau said, his eyes growing wide and, yes, a slight smile appearing after the Bulls' first practice of the preseason. "Jimmy puts the work in each day, and he doesn't have to say anything. You look at his actions, his actions will tell you what he's doing."

Unheralded coming out of Marquette in 2011, the 6-foot-7 Butler was the No. 30 pick that year and, even there, seemed like a reach to some. By the start of his second season, his resume still was awfully thin: 2.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg and 40.5 percent shooting (including 18.2 3FG%) in just 8.5 minutes, on average.

Compare that to Butler's 2013 playoff stats: 13.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 43.5 percent shooting (40.5 3FG%) while averaging 40.8 minutes. After coming off the bench 62 times in the regular season, he started all 12 of Chicago's postseason games and played 48 minutes in five of them, including three straight.

Bulls Preview: Defense

But his increased production didn't just come from opportunity or the Bulls' need for warm bodies by May. It was all about the things Butler had done to earn the bigger role. The coaches had seen things in him behind closed doors even in his first season, enough to wave goodbye to free agent Ronnie Brewer that summer and designate Butler as a replacement athletic wing.

"He approached things with the right mind set right from the beginning," Thibodeau said. "Unfortunately for him, [2011-12] was the year of the lockout. So he missed the summer, the fall practices and then with the condensed season, he missed a lot of practice time. That's a tough way for a rookie to come into the league."

So Butler learned on the job, mostly from the side, and put in his own gym time. And from the No. 30 hole in his draft class, he climbed up and over several lottery picks who still haven't found their niches or earned their clubs' trust.

"A four-year college player sometimes gets overlooked," Thiobdeau said. "You get put into a grouping where people say, 'His ceiling is not that great.' But when you look at what he did at Marquette, they won big, he was in a major conference, played multiple positions.

"He does everything fairly well, but he wins. The team functions well when he's on the floor. He doesn't care about his statistics, he puts the team first. He's humble. So he could fit in with anybody. That's what makes him so valuable to us."

Butler already has worked out some chemistry and interchangeability with All-Star forward Luol Deng, allowing them to cover each other's men as needed. One challenge Butler will have is asserting himself more on offense -- it is, after all, called "shooting guard" for a reason. In Chicago's preseason opener, he only had four official field-goal attempts -- but he also shot 12 free throws. The benefit that comes with this promotion is playing next to comeback kid.

Bulls Preview: Coaches Corner

"He's going to draw two, three, four, five defenders at any one time," Butler said of Rose. "You've just got to sit on the perimeter and make open shots. Get out in the open floor and run with him."

Said Rose: "He came out to work out with me in L.A. for about a week. Surprised me. He's a great young player. ... His biggest adjustment is going to be just feeling comfortable, knowing that he can take shots and make decisions. The way our offense is, if he doesn't shoot it kind of leaves us stagnant."

Chicago GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson have been trying to find that running mate, that backcourt partner for Rose since the point guard arrived. They've come, they've gone: Ben Gordon, John Salmons, Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Rip Hamilton.

Turns out, they might have gotten as lucky with the last pick of the the first round in 2011, in relative terms, as they did landing the first pick of the first round three years earlier.

Three points

1. Everyone knows how valuable Luol Deng is in Thibodeau's system at both ends, on and off the court. Well, he's just as proud and management's decision not to negotiate a contract extension with him will push Deng into free agency next summer. The concern is that the disappointment and uncertainty will bleed into this season -- Deng still is smarting from rancorous talks for his current contract, and the February trade deadline will loom large in a way it needn't have.

2. The Bulls' other starting forward, Carlos Boozer, has been frustrating to fans but generally consistent through his first three years in town. But with an amnesty cut hanging over his head next summer, and his 32nd birthday in November, old injury issues or a general malaise/decline could derail Chicago's aspirations big-time. Taj Gibson could step up but that would hurt depth.

3. All the waiting for Rose would be for naught if the niggling and varied injuries that messed with him in 2011-12 creep back. Or if as many of his teammates gimp their way through this season the way they did last year. The strength and conditioning staff has been beefed up in hopes of thwarting that gauze-and-ice-bag parade this time.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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