CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler is living a dream. There are many aspects of that dream life for the guy who was lightly recruited out of high school before landing at Marquette on his way to becoming the 30th overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft.
There's the breakthrough that came last season, his fourth in the NBA, when he made his first All-Star Game, led the Bulls in scoring at 20 points a game and emerged as one of the game's best two-way players. And then there are the surreal moments that happen as a result of all the work he put in to become one of the NBA's rising stars.
Moments such as meeting arguably the greatest player of all time -- Michael Jordan, and being able to pick his brain, looking for ways to elevate his game even if no one likely will ever reach the heights of His Airness.
What Jordan lesson made the biggest impression on Butler?
"How hard you have to prepare," Butler told ESPN.com recently. "The games are the easy part, man. You got to work every single day, put in extra work to make sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. Practice isn't enough, you got to get in early, you got to stay late. You got to come back at night. He'll let you know that because he did it, and look what it did."
No one is comparing Butler to Jordan, but the Bulls have to love to hear that coming from their emerging star.
John Paxson spent eight seasons sharing a backcourt with Jordan and saw that fierce competitor in practice every day. Now the Bulls' executive vice president, Paxson won't compare Butler to Jordan -- or any other player, for that matter -- but that's not the point. It's Butler's aspiration to be a Jordan-like worker that makes him proud.
"The one thing with Jimmy is, that's a great bar to have. It's not about achieving it. It's about following that example that Michael gave," Paxson said. "And the example is simple, it's a simple formula: work hard, compete, value the game, respect the game. And Jimmy has. I think the unfair thing to say with Jimmy right now is he wasn't that way. He just didn't get a lot of chances prior to the last couple years. From my vantage point, Jimmy's always worked hard, played hard and valued the game, so it's obviously not a surprise that he's put himself in this position."
The 26-year-old Butler and Jordan built up a relationship after Butler started endorsing Jordan Brand, Jordan's company under the Nike umbrella. This summer, Butler posted a picture of himself and Jordan at Jordan's camp in Santa Barbara, California, after they had a shootout with a couple of young campers.
"We sit down at dinner over the summer and talked about a little bit of stuff," Butler said. "He's an awesome dude to just pick his brain, knowing how to win and being the best player at that point in time. And just the way that he changed the game, you can ask [him] how different the game was then and it helps, man. It really does."
Bulls assistant coach and former Jordan teammate Randy Brown came to the Bulls in 1995 from the Sacramento Kings and admittedly "didn't know how to practice." Jordan quickly showed him.
"My first day in practice I was shell-shocked because of the way Michael did prepare for practice," Brown said. "Everybody got the chance to see the tongue out during the games, what they didn't see was the seriousness prepared hours before practice. I made those my games. That's what got me better."
Brown sees shades of Jordan's practice work ethic in Butler's approach.
"[Is] there similarity with Jimmy Butler? Yes, because Jimmy brings it every day," Brown said. "Jimmy is learning how to be a leader as Michael -- he was the ultimate leader -- I don't think anybody will ever match that. But Jimmy's learning how to bring it every day even when you don't want to. It's a different era with these kids today because there's more injuries, the games are coming a little quicker, but he brings it every day. It's like shocking that he goes from the games and then brings it out here for his teammates to follow."
The noticeable difference in Butler's game to those close to him has been in his preparation. He has risen from a defense-first player with a flat jumper to an All-Star and All-NBA defender. Butler credits the work he has put in with his trainer, Chris Johnson, for getting him to this new level of his career. But his coaches and teammates can see that Butler has turned up his focus in practice as well.
"I noticed it Day 1 in camp here setting the tone for Day 1 practice," Brown said. "His energy rubbed off on everybody. I think that's probably the same day Derrick [Rose] got hurt and we lost D-Rose for a couple of weeks. But we remember Jimmy's intensity was high. He was in great shape, he was in great spirits, and he made practice easier for us to coach. It's easy to coach practice when guys are energetic, into it, and that's what we got from him. We want him to stay that way. That's the only way we're going to get better."
Butler still carries around a chip on his shoulder despite the fact he signed a $90 million-plus extension over the summer. Even with the money, the All-Star prefix on his name and a Most Improved Player Award under his belt, Butler doesn't want to let anyone outwork him.
"To be very honest, none of us envisioned he would do what he did last year and put up the numbers and play the way he's played. But I think you do a disservice to guys when you kind of say they can't be something. And I think a lot of this stems from the fact that Jimmy was the 30th pick in the draft. If you go back and re-draft that draft he'd probably be top 10 and people wouldn't be saying what they're saying about him." John Paxson
That's the edge that the Bulls love in Butler and that's why they're so convinced he can take the next step in his evolution this season. They see the work he has put in and they have learned not to put any limitations on his game.
"To be very honest, none of us envisioned he would do what he did last year and put up the numbers and play the way he's played," Paxson said. "But I think you do a disservice to guys when you kind of say they can't be something. And I think a lot of this stems from the fact that Jimmy was the 30th pick in the draft. If you go back and re-draft that draft he'd probably be top 10 and people wouldn't be saying what they're saying about him.
"So I think you do a little disservice, but I know the one thing is [we're] really proud of what he's become, the player he's become. He's been great for our organization in terms of representing us in all aspects, community, on the court, so those things we value and we're really proud of him."
It's likely that Jordan is as well. Jordan has to be cautious about his relationship with Butler given his standing as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, but Brown knows that Jordan has an affinity for Butler's hard-nosed attitude.
"I know he likes Jimmy a lot," Brown said. "I know he likes Jimmy because of the toughness and the energy that he brings from a defensive standpoint and now his offensive game is basically catching up to where he wants it to be, which is even keel. So Michael recognizes that, but he stays away from talking about other players, which he should."
As far as the Bulls are concerned, any advice Butler can get from Jordan is a good thing.
"I think it's great," Paxson said of the Jordan-Butler relationship. "How can that not be a good thing? Michael's always going to be brutally honest with people because he has high expectations. And if he cares about you and likes you, he's not going to back off his expectations. He's actually going to expect more. So I think it's great that Jimmy has gotten to know him a little bit. That has great value."
It's not lost on Butler that he is playing for the same team that Jordan made so famous in the 1990s. Butler welcomes the responsibility that comes with becoming one of the faces of the organization Jordan led to prominence.
"If I can help do what he did for this organization, I've left my mark here," Butler said. "I've left my mark on this league. We got to start with right now and today and continue to string together wins, getting in the playoffs and winning a championship. But until then we got to focus on the task at hand."