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Butler cautiously taking reins as new-look Bulls' leader

Fellow 'alphas' Wade, Rondo say Chicago 'is Jimmy's team'

POSTED: Jul 30, 2016 2:16 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Team USA 80, Venezuela 45

Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson score 13 points each in the U.S. exhibition win.

— On the day Chicago celebrated the arrival of Jimmy Butler's newest teammate, Dwyane Wade, he was busy catching up with an old teammate.

David Cubillán didn't come out of the visitors' dressing room at United Center like a number of his Venezuelan teammates after their 80-45 loss to the USA Basketball men's national team Friday night. As we recall so vividly from the original Dream Team in 1992, international opponents can quickly morph into awestruck fans, and that's what Cubillán's cronies were doing -- posing for photos with Carmelo Anthony.

Cubillán saved the phone photos for later, waiting until most players from both teams had left the building. That's when he corralled Butler and got him to pose in various permutations with Cubillán, his wife Alexandra, his 13-year-old stepson Angelo and 7-month-old David Jr.

Butler and Cubillán played together for two years in college, Butler arriving as a sophomore at Marquette University when Cubillán already was a junior. They were on the floor together again Friday, Butler starting for Team USA while his Golden Eagle pal came off the bench for the Venezuelans. Given their time together in Milwaukee, Butler was the NBA star who most impressed Cubillán.

"To be honest, I didn't [expect Butler to be this successful]," said Cubillán, who was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, but grew up and earned his way to Marquette starring at St. Benedict's in Newark, N.J. "But he's a hard worker. I knew he was going to be a good player, but I didn't realize he was going to be an All-Star, an Olympian. I'm happy for him."

The two have stayed in touch since Cubillán graduated in 2010 and Butler followed a year later. The 5-foot-11 point guard's professional career has taken him through Mexico, Israel and back to Venezuela. Butler's has been a series of giant steps closer to home: drafted by the Bulls as a sleeper at No. 30, blossoming under coach Tom Thibodeau and his staff, gambling on himself as he developed into a two-time NBA All-Star and getting paid to the tune of a five-year, $95 million contract last summer.

Now Butler is verifiably among the game's elite, one of the dozen players invited to pursue another gold medal for the U.S. next month at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Earlier in the day Friday, Wade -- the three-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star, as well as another Marquette alum -- was flattering Butler in the most telling way, deferring that the Bulls this season would be "Jimmy's team."

That's heady stuff. And yet, by the end of the night, Butler was holding David Jr. in his arms and catching up with a teammate and friend from what undeniably had been coach Buzz Williams' team.

GameTime: Bulls Butler's Team

Rick Kamla and Steve Smith discuss why the Bulls are still Jimmy Butler's team even after the addition of Dwyane Wade.

"Cubes," Butler said, "he kind of took me under his wing when I was a young pup at Marquette. That's my guy. We still talk all the time. He's always going to be a brother to me. Anybody that's in the trenches with me every day -- especially having to deal with Buzz Williams."

Butler's success can be measured in a number of ways -- his paycheck, his accolades or his place at any given time in the pecking order of the team for which he plays. He came to Chicago in 2011 as a project but worked his way to more opportunities. In time, he made All-Star Luol Deng expendable and, with 2011 MVP Derrick Rose so frequently injured and absent, Butler stepped into that void, too.

Last year, Butler's fame, wealth and status -- he literally "went Hollywood," becoming friends with film actor Mark Wahlberg and spending more time in southern California -- appeared to some to get the better of him. He grabbed the leadership reins within the Bulls locker room before some of his teammates -- Rose, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah -- were ready for that. He essentially called out new coach Fred Hoiberg as well, challenging Hoiberg to coach them all harder.

Is it my team? I guess two of the three 'alphas' have said that. I don't think you'll ever hear me say that.

– Jimmy Butler on the Bulls

Now 2016-17 is drawing close. Rose, Gasol and Noah are gone, but Wade and Rajon Rondo have signed on, bringing two more proven and strong personalities into the Bulls' mix. The whole issue of "whose team is it?" might be silly when you break its meaning down, but it nonetheless is an NBA thing.

Rondo, best known as the feisty former Boston Celtics point guard, said it a couple weeks ago when he came through Chicago and Wade said it Friday afternoon early in his "presser." This, they said, is Jimmy's team.

Butler smiled each time that was relayed to him Friday. But he didn't exactly reject it.

"Is it my team? I guess two of the three 'alphas' have said that. I don't think you'll ever hear me say that," Butler said. "But I do need to step up. I need to help us win a lot of games. I'm liking that role as a leader. There's a lot of pressure. I want that. It's only going to make me better."

GameTime: Team USA defeats Venezuela

This video is no longer available. We apologize for the inconvenience.

So will this five-week run with Team USA, an outrageously talented group of basically 12 "alphas." Butler started against Venezuela Friday, a nod to the Chicago setting and the crowd 20,578 strong. But he mostly has come off the bench and his stats have been modest -- he came in averaging 2.7 points and 14.7 minutes, and chipped in Friday with four points and eight rebounds in about 22 minutes.

The Americans shot poorly Friday and Venezuela made things tougher by running clock at both ends, staying patient on offense and buzzing the NBA stars defensively. But Team USA, on nights when it doesn't hit shots, can make sure its foes don't either. Venezuela hit its goal of holding USA to no more than 80 points. Alas, Team USA did the same, but its goal was to hold the visitors under 50.

As for Butler, Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach who also handles the U.S. national team, said he has been guilty of deferring a bit to his teammates, passing up shots. He teased the 6-foot-7 wing player that the Bulls, if they are "his" team, might expect more than one 51-point game from him, referring to his personal best last season.

Modulating his tone and status as a teammate next season -- blending with Wade and Rondo, leading younger players such as Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, drawing out newcomers like Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez -- will be crucial for Butler and the Bulls next season. Krzyzewski encourages his NBA stars to "bring your egos" when they play on the international stage, but Butler might best be served by checking his, at least compared to a year ago.

Based on everything he's accomplished so far, Butler seems capable. He thinks so, and so does his college teammate.

"It means the world to me," Butler said of representing his country and, at the same time, the Bulls. "Just another thing I never thought would happen growing up. As everybody's heard me say, I'm just from Tomball, Texas. So growing up, I never thought I'd be drafted into the NBA, be a starter for the Chicago Bulls, represent my country with some of the best players in the world.

"I don't want to say I was a part of Team USA. I want to say I was a part of the USA team and we won the gold."

Said Cubillán of their biggest college takeaway: "Toughness. To play at Marquette you've got to be tough. That's something Jimmy has shown everyone here."

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

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