"It's crazy being back in here," Butler said before the Bulls' shootaround Saturday morning. "Knowing that I'm playing for a different team, but still practicing. I love Marquette. This is my foundation for the most part. So being back in the Al McGuire Center, knowing what I went through on this very floor with [Marquette coach] Buzz Williams, it feels good to be back here and get some work done this morning."
Butler, whom the Bulls selected with the 30th pick in this past June's NBA draft, is riding high for his homecoming. The rookie forward is coming off his best game as a pro; he scored seven points and made several key defensive plays while matched up against Carmelo Anthony in Chicago's win against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
Butler's early success reinforces how much his time at Marquette meant to him.
"I think NBA wasn't an option when I stepped through these doors for the first time," Butler admitted. "And when [Marquette coach] Buzz [Williams] started to coach me I was like, 'Wow, the NBA can't be like this. It's got to be way harder.' I had a difficult time when I first got here. You can ask anybody. But I think as time went on, as I got used to the college game, as I got used to being coached like that, and got used to the defensive mentality, I think I started to come around. Day by day, month by month, year by year, until I was ready whenever June came."
Butler's solid performance against the Knicks may have earned him more playing time given in Tom Thibodeau's rotation, which is thin with ' forward Luol Deng (wrist) and guard Rip Hamilton (groin/thigh) dealing with persistent injuries. Thibodeau said that Butler has a ways to go, but he sees some similarities between the rookie's game and Deng's.
"There are similarities in the sense [both] are very serious," Thibodeau said. "Great attitude, great approach. I think Jimmy's just going to get better and better. But he's in the first phase of his career. Lu's been at it for eight years now. But Jimmy will get better and better. We're very confident in his ability. And you can see it from game to game. He learns, he's more confident. And we need everybody. I think he's done a great job for us."
Thibodeau has praised Butler's work ethic from the start of training camp. With that, he and his players don't seem surprised by the rookie's recent success.
"We need everybody and when one guy goes out, the next guy steps up," Thibodeau said. "And he has to be ready and he has to perform. We're very pleased with his progress, where he is, who he is. His makeup's not going to change, that's who he is. We feel very good about him. We're hopeful to get Lu back when we do. Lu's going to go back to the role that he was in. And everyone has to stay ready."
That shouldn't be a problem for Butler, especially given the defensive principles that he says Williams instilled in him during his time at Marquette.
"This is definitely where it started," Butler said. "Buzz is like a version of Thibs to me. They know what they're doing. They study the game. And defense really does win championships. So they live off of that, they thrive off of that. Both my college teams (Butler attended Tyler Junior College before going to Marquette) thrived off of defense. This team thrives off of defense. Defense was a mentality whenever I got here."
On Saturday morning, Butler's mentality was all about rolling with the good-natured verbal jabs from his teammates. They were giving him a hard time about being back on campus.
"It doesn't help that you come in here and you see my picture on the wall," Butler said with a laugh. "So they got a kick out of that. Marquette, they always show love to all their former players. NBA, not NBA, it doesn't matter. You play here, everybody loves you. But I definitely took a lot [of crap] from them this morning. Just about being back at Milwaukee, the Bradley Center ... but those are my guys. That's what they're supposed to do."