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Sunday, October 6
Updated: October 7, 2:51 PM ET
 
Riley counting on the Butler to do it

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- You have to go back 20 years, to the Los Angeles Lakers' selection of James Worthy in 1982, to find a rookie treasured by Pat Riley as much as Caron Butler.

You have to rewind to 1983 or 1989, to Byron Scott or Vlade Divac, to pinpoint a rookie who got significant minutes from Riley right at the start, as planned for Butler now in Miami.

You also have to believe, to make any of that relevant, that Riles is going to play Butler as much as he says he will.

Do you?

Caron Butler
Caron Butler is ready to burst onto the scene as the NBA's top rookie.
"I do," Butler says, establishing himself as the early favorite in the race for Confident Rookie of the Year.

"I want to be a great player in this league. I know he's going to get the best out of my potential. I'm going to keep my mouth shut and keep my eyes open. Come November, I'm going to be a force to be reckoned with."

That timetable is undoubtedly on the optimistic side, but if Butler knows anything about Riley's history with rookies, it's tough to tell. He likewise refuses to be discouraged that the best Butler in training camp to date, you would have to say, is second-rounder Rasual Butler, a swingman from LaSalle who can shoot it.

Caron Butler is having a bit of trouble with his jumper in these first days of the preseason, but his bravado is undented. Of the nine teams that let him slip to the Heat at No. 10 in the June draft, a redux of Paul Pierce's slide to the Celtics in 1998, Butler says: "I'm going to make them pay."

Regarding his future in general, after overcoming all of his off-court troubles as a Wisconsin teen, Butler doesn't allow for maybes. "I'm going to be special," he declared. "A lot of people have a lot of faith in me, and I'm not going to let them down."

Riley invites you to place him high on Butler's list, and the only disclaimer so far is that, yes, he knows teams are going to back off the kid from UConn until Butler proves he can consistently hit the mid-ranger. But that's about as much exasperation as Riley is showing for now, at least for public consumption.

He swears that Butler (both of them, actually) is going to get minutes and that the rest of us needn't worry about how the ol' Winner Within is coping with the heartbreak of Alonzo Mourning's second kidney-forced hiatus in three seasons.

Or the prospect of a second straight season in the lottery, after 19 straight seasons in the playoffs and 16 division titles in that span.

Or the thought of another 5-23 start ... or an overall record worse than last season's 36-46 ... or simply the general circumstances that are forcing Riley to develop the Butlers and Eddie House.

Those circumstances demand that the youngsters get a shot, as Riles the team president surely understands, assuming he wants at least a semblance of a nucleus to build on starting next summer when the Heat come into some serious salary-cap room.

"I'm not thrust into anything," Riley said. "It's my job. I've created this (situation) in a way. I built a very competitive, very compelling team, but we've had some real bad luck. We've had some horrible luck the last three or four years, but we're in the process of trying to get to next year. At the same time this year, we're not going to lose sight of the importance of wins, developing young players, getting them ready.

"Coping? I think what I've been through for 20 years has made it easier for me. It really has. I'm not here proving whether I can coach or not. This is an entirely different challenge, and I'm prepared for a team of young guys to be better players. I still believe I can find a way to get them to win."

Expect many more references to those two decades and the terra incognito on which Riley stands today. He concedes that "never in 21 years" has he faced so much uncertainty, since even the 2001-02 Heat was stocked with veterans (Jim Jackson, Rod Strickland, Kendall Gill) who simply didn't blend as Riley envisioned. That group, hitched to Mourning and Eddie Jones and Brian Grant, didn't even get to decent until it was 18 games under .500.

In 2002-03, molding Butler could be even tougher because a) he's not the sure shot Worthy was, or he wouldn't have slid to No. 10, and b) he isn't surrounded by proven champions to push him.

The veterans, though, insist that Riley couldn't be more ready to embrace his first (deep breath) rebuilding project. The same Riley who gave Worthy only one start in 1982-83.

"He's making this game so fun to everybody right now," Jones said. "Really.

"Last year was really stressful. The game was stressful. Right now he's making the game fun. He's acting like he wasn't dealt with a blow like he was (with Mourning's announcement). He's telling us to be in attack mode."

He's got enough guts that he'll not only take (the shot) all the time, he'll start, at a point when you back off him, he'll just take it to the rim. He'll go right through you. That's the thing we really like about (Caron). He's got great force in his game.
Pat Riley

Said Grant: "Not once in any situation where people feel like he would crumble has he crumbled. He's the same Pat Riley that he's been. And I don't think he sits behind closed doors worrying.

"He's not a ranting-raving type of coach, but he's very articulate. He knows what he wants to get done. And once he puts it out there. You're either with it or you're not with it. The good thing about young guys is, you know they're listening."

None of that means Riley has "mellowed." Walk into the end of one of his camp practices and you get the standard warning: "Better turn off your cell phone or he'll kill you if it rings."

Not that it's such an unfamiliar mindset to Butler, who figures that he has simply matriculated from one demanding coach to the next. "I think it's just (Jim) Calhoun with a different face," Butler said.

Recounting his first conversation with Riley, Butler added: "He said, 'I'm going to work you, and I'm going to run you, and you've got to listen. If you listen, you're going to be fine.' "

So Butler is. Riley jumped him a bit for reporting to camp on the heavy side, which has Butler pledging to slim down from 225 pounds to the coach's preferred 215. Riles also couldn't have been pleased that Butler failed to pass the coach's famed conditioning test by a few seconds last week, but Butler vows: "If I don't pass, I'll continue to run it."

Rasual has been the smoother Butler so far, and Lord knows the Heat needs every perimeter threat it can find. Yet Riley, undaunted by Caron's modest start and the new world facing both of them, insists that he will enjoy their co-dependency.

"He's got enough guts that he'll not only take (the shot) all the time, he'll start, at a point when you back off him, he'll just take it to the rim," Riley said. "He'll go right through you. That's the thing we really like about (Caron). He's got great force in his game."

"Just let him start," Riles said. "He's like a little baby. Just let him grow into it."

It's patience the preacher needs more than anyone else.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at marc.stein@espn3.com.





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