Butler's unlikely path to NBA stardom

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Jimmy Butler isn't supposed to be here.

He's not supposed to be in the NBA. He's not supposed to be a key member of a Chicago Bulls team that has championship aspirations. He's not supposed to be in the midst of an All-Star type season -- the best of his career -- in which he has carried the Bulls on both ends of the floor at various times. And he's certainly not supposed to be on the verge of cashing in on a contract offer at season's end that will likely pay him well over $50 million over the next four seasons.

The odds have always been against Butler. His path to the NBA is as unlikely as anyone who plays in the league given that his backstory (of being homeless at 13 before moving in with a friend's family) reads like the basketball version of "The Blind Side." No matter how many ups and downs Butler endured in his journey to the precipice of NBA stardom, the 25-year-old never stopped believing in himself. The same drive that helped get him out of Tomball, Texas, and into Marquette University is the same fuel that's pushed him to average over 20 points a game early this season.

No matter how high Butler's stardom grows it doesn't appear that he will ever lose the gigantic chip that resides on his shoulder. Like many great athletes, Butler is driven, in large part, by the opportunity to prove people wrong. He likes when the odds are high because that's the way it's been for him all his life. He doesn't know any differently. So after failing to come to a contract extension with the Bulls before the Oct. 31 deadline, Butler did what he has always done. He didn't pout about his situation, he just continued to work. He continued to try to get better. It's that attitude that has helped him become one of the breakthrough players of the young season.

"I feel like I've never been the best player," Butler said. "I've never been highly recruited, so I've always had all the chips stacked up against me and I've always found a way to make things happen. [The contract talk] is just another obstacle, another hurdle. But I think I'm in the right direction and if I keep my eye on the prize I think I'll end up successful."

In order to understand how Butler got to this point in his professional career, it's important to understand where he's come from in his recent basketball life. After a year of junior college at Tyler (Texas), Butler landed at Marquette with head coach Buzz Williams. It's apparent that both men saw pieces of themselves in the other early on in their relationship, especially when it comes to the value of work ethic. Williams, who is now the coach at Virginia Tech, admits that he was tough on Butler because of how much he believed in him. The veteran coach was one of only a handful of people who knew Butler's entire backstory before the draft, but it wasn't the story alone that brought the pair together, it was the fact that Williams saw something that Butler wasn't able to see in himself at the time.

"Jimmy's atypical because this was not what he dreamed of doing," Williams said during a recent phone conversation. "Because he wasn't in a position to have those sorts of dreams. And so whenever [people say] 'How does this not change you?' Well you have to go back to what Jimmy was living through, living in. He wasn't thinking about having this sort of lifestyle, this sort of life. That wasn't part of [the plan]."

Williams doesn't want to take credit for Butler's ascension toward stardom, but the pride he has when he speaks about Butler beams through the phone. Over his time at Marquette, Williams became one of Butler's closest confidants. The time the pair spent on the floor together forged a relationship that became something even greater over the years. Williams continued to push Butler and the happy-go-lucky swingman continued to seek guidance from the veteran coach.

"Buzz has always been like a father figure to me because he introduced me to this whole hard work thing," Butler said. "But I love that guy. He's so emotional, but I guess that's what makes Buzz, Buzz."

Butler steadily improved at Marquette, but never garnered the type of accolades of some of his more famous Marquette teammates like Wes Matthews and Jerel McNeal. He kept working on his game and never deviated from the hardworking demeanor that has come to define him in the NBA.

"He is who he is," Williams said. "He's confident in who he is. He's not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He's way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has ... his junior year we went to the Sweet 16, Jeff Goodman wrote an article [about] 'The No Names.' Well, Jimmy was on that team. He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn't first-team. He wasn't on a list. He goes to [the Portsmouth Invitational] and he's the MVP and everybody's like, 'Hey, who's your agent?' And he's like, 'I don't have an agent.'"

So as the 2011 NBA draft rolled around, Williams, like many other coaches in the NCAA, was now working on two fronts. On one hand, he was interviewing prospective agents alongside Butler and helping him navigate through that process.

On the other hand, Williams served in a familiar role as chief recruiter. When coaches and executives called him to talk about Butler's potential, Williams raved about the possibilities. Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, then of the Boston Celtics, was on the other end of one of those conversations with Williams. Rivers, a fellow Marquette alum, loved Butler's story, but he admits now that he didn't see him turning into this kind of player.

"I did not [see this coming], honestly," Rivers said. "I loved him, his whole story, we don't need to go into that. But I just loved him as a kid. I thought he was a tough kid and as the draft was coming I really liked him, especially where we were picking with the Celtics. I thought he would be a great Celtic at that time. And Buzz, I remember him calling me and telling me, 'This is the guy.' Like this is the best guy he's ever had. He said, 'I know you like him as a kid, I'm trying to tell people he's a good player.' He's maybe one of the few guys ever in the draft that people got lost in how good of a kid he was. And they couldn't see how good of a player he was. It was just really strange. And I actually thought that in a crazy way hurt Jimmy. No one saw the talent. And I didn't see it, either. I didn't know he was going to be this good."

Like Rivers, Bulls GM Gar Forman couldn't have envisioned Butler blossoming into the player he has become, but he liked what he saw on film and he liked the demeanor that Butler played with. Forman and executive VP John Paxson understand that it takes a certain type of hard-nosed individual to play for a demanding coach like Tom Thibodeau, and after speaking to Williams, they saw and heard enough of what they needed.

The interesting twist in regards to Butler's future -- he was selected with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft by the Bulls -- is the history between Williams and Forman. As a teenager, Williams wrote hundreds of letters to coaches all across the country, trying to find some way to break into the business. Forman, then an assistant at New Mexico State, was the recipient of several of Williams' letters. So when Forman, and the Bulls' former director of college scouting, Matt Lloyd, showed up in Williams' office and watched clip after clip of Butler's play, Williams had no problem shooting Forman straight.

"Coach Forman's asking me, 'Buzz, tell me the truth,'" Williams said. "And I'm like, 'Coach, I'm going to tell you the truth. You were one of the 425 coaches I was writing once a week when I was 18, 19, 20 years old.' It was all pure. You want there to be more [to the story] but it was like, 'Jimmy's my guy.'"

Williams was there that day in the summer of 2011 when Butler was introduced to the media at the Berto Center. He stood in the distance as Butler was formally introduced and the world became more aware of his hard path to the league. But Williams also understood that behind that story that Rivers referenced, there was always one constant in Butler's star-crossed basketball upbringing: hard work.

"Jimmy faxed his [national letter of intent] in from McDonald's," Williams said. "That's the truth. Jimmy never took an official visit to Marquette. That's the truth. Jimmy arrived at Marquette the day of the first day of classes. That's the truth. So when Doc said, 'Hey, Buzz, what do you think? I really like him.' I was like, 'Jerel McNeal was the all-time leading scorer, Wes [Matthews] is in the league. Lazar [Hayward] was drafted in the first round last year,' but I go, 'To me, Jimmy can do more because of his size' ... I just believed in him. Now did I know it was going to turn into this? No. I don't think Jimmy knew it was going to turn into this."

When Jimmy Butler first got to the Bulls, veteran shooting guard Rip Hamilton used to say Butler shot the ball like it was a dart. There wasn't much arc to his shot. Butler rarely played any meaningful minutes in that first lockout-shortened season, but his defensive prowess was noticeable from the outset. It was the offense that needed work. He spent hours upon hours working on his shot.

Bulls officials marveled at how Butler lived in the gym during his first few seasons in the league. But through his first few seasons the offensive numbers didn't move up the way the organization would have liked. Butler opened eyes all over the basketball world with a solid 2013 postseason in which he averaged 13.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in almost 41 minutes each night. But after stepping into the starting lineup to start the 2013-14 season, Butler struggled to find that offensive consistency, shooting just 39.7 percent from the field. When trusted teammate and close friend Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early January of 2014, Butler struggled to find his confidence at times on the floor. The defense was never in doubt -- Butler was named Second Team All-NBA Defense after the season, but his offense was still a problem.

So how did the transformation occur? How did Butler suddenly become one of Thibodeau's most trusted offensive weapons? He worked at his game the same way he always has. Bulls teammate Taj Gibson recently noted that Butler got out of Chicago and went back home to train this summer. He believes that change in scenery helped Butler get himself into a rhythm before the season. In Butler's mind, the difference isn't too complicated.

"Confidence, man," Butler said. "The confidence. This summer I did work but I'm very, very confident in my game right now. I think it shows. I let my teammates know, I let my coaches know, I'm very, very comfortable. And my teammates are really on my side right now which damn sure helps."

His teammates can tell the difference. They can see the subtle differences in his game. They can see that he is trying to be assertive on the offensive end. They can see he is driving more and getting to the line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler is averaging almost four shots a game at the rim compared to just 2.4 shots last season. He's posting up 11.4 percent of the time this season compared to just 4.6 percent a season ago. Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said he's been in Butler's ear for a while about being more aggressive.

"I always felt that he's a nice-sized guard," Rose said. "The way that he plays and the way that he's able to finish, it makes his game a little bit different. And the way that he shoots midrange [jumpers], people don't shoot midrange like that anymore so ... he's just finding little niches of the game and I'm happy that he's finding it, but I'm going to continue to be on him about shooting 3s. We need that from him this year."

The point production has been staggering as well. Butler was averaging just 11.0 points in 30.1 minutes during his first 12 games a season ago. This season through the first nine games it's 20.8 points in 39.2 minutes.

"It's great," Deng said of watching Butler excel from afar. "He's a hard worker. It also says a lot about his growth over the years and how he's getting better each year. But it also says a lot about Thibs' trust in him. He's playing the minutes and he's doing a good job of playing that role. He's really finding his game. Sometimes in the NBA, you have to figure out how to play."

That's what it appears Butler has done this season. Most importantly for the Bulls, his win shares are off the charts as well -- .209 this season compared to .131 a season ago. Butler has improved incrementally in every facet of his game.

"I think when you look at him from when he first got here, it's been slow, steady improvement, constantly," Thibodeau said. "The defensive component was always there. I think offensively he's grown every year. And then all of a sudden you look back now from where he first started and you see that it's a quantum leap. But [the growth] has been slow and gradual. Sometimes you don't really notice how much he's grown. I have great appreciation for the work that he's put in. I think he's come in in great shape. I think being lighter has helped him. So it's all a big plus for us and he'll continue to grow, just the way that he approaches things. He's been terrific all season."

When the season opened and Butler didn't get the contract extension he was looking for, many wondered how that would affect his game. Would the lack of an agreement negatively hover over Butler's game? The answer through the first month of the season is a resounding: No. Butler is playing the best basketball of his career. He said he felt like everything started clicking for him in training camp and he hasn't stopped racking up numbers since.

"It's exciting -- and a relief," Butler said of having his game finally come together. "Because I'm from Tomball, [Texas]. I'm not supposed to be starting in the NBA, I'm not supposed to be helping us win games. But I think I'm doing all right at it right now. So I'm damn sure excited, I'm blessed, to have guys like this on my team. I think all my success really does go to them."

Deng is happy to see his former protégé doing so well. He always believed in Butler and served as a mentor for him before being dealt. The irony is that one of the reasons Butler is having so much success is because he's playing the two-way role Deng thrived in under Thibodeau.

"We called him Jimmy Buckets because we knew he could score," Deng said. "It's good to see that. I know it's a contract year. Hopefully he gets what he deserves. He's really put in the work."

But what exactly does Butler deserve?

That is always the biggest issue during any contract negotiation, but Forman acknowledged at the time that the new $24 billion TV deals the league signed with ESPN and Turner before the season had a big impact on talks with Butler's agent, Happy Walters. It's believed that the Bulls' final offer was just over $40 million over the next four years, a deal that came short of what Butler's reps wanted. While the swingman has tried to downplay talk of his lack of an extension, he did acknowledge that the whole process has been motivating.

"It is," he said. "I'm just happy that I'm playing well and I'm helping the team win. I think that's always been the most important thing. Like [Williams] told me, the contract will always take care of itself. But more than anything, he talks to me about still trying to change lives through basketball and keep being a good person. That's what he always preached when we were there. I think I carry that with me everywhere I go."

Butler has learned to have fun carrying both his team and the extra pressure that appeared after the contract talks ended in October. He looks as comfortable on the floor as he's ever been during his professional career. Where does he go from here? Nobody is quite sure -- but Thibodeau knows there's a lot more room for one of his favorite players to grow.

"I don't want to put a lid on it," Thibodeau said of Butler's ceiling. "I want him to keep going. I love what he's doing, his work ethic, his approach, his intelligence, the drive, when you put that with his talent the sky is the limit and he's showing that. The thing that I like is that he doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low and he plays both sides of the ball and he plays to win." The issue for Butler now is that he's playing so well right now that a team could sign him to an offer sheet in the max, or near-max range, likely somewhere between $13 million and $15 million per year, that the Bulls may decide not to match. Butler said he hasn't thought about that possibility and has reiterated over and over that he expects to stay in Chicago for the long term.

The Bulls are optimistic about the situation as well. While Bulls officials don't want to discuss ongoing negotiations and understand that Butler's value will continue to go up if he keeps improving the way that he has early in the season, they are very happy with the way he's performing.

"We're thrilled," Forman said. "We're thrilled that he continues to grow and improve. We're thrilled with how he's playing on both sides of the ball."

For the time being, Butler is just trying to stay focused on what he can control on the floor. In some ways, the ups and downs of the past few months have reminded Butler of a different time of his basketball life. Between the contract talks and the high-level play, he just wants to stay balanced.

"It's just like it's happening all over again," he said. "Déjà vu. But I couldn't be happier that it's happening with the Bulls, with these teammates, with these coaches. I love this city like I was from this city. [I have] a lot of love for Tomball, but [I have] a lot of love for Chicago."

No matter what happens over the next few months, Williams knows his relationship with his former player will never change. He's not surprised Butler turned down the offer right before the season because he knows that Butler loves a challenge and having the ability to prove people wrong. Many negotiations, no matter the profession, come down to money in the end. While Williams wasn't sure of the exact figures in the end, he believes there's also another aspect in play.

"Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself," Williams said. "And so when you say we're going to give you [an offer like] four years, $42 [million] -- Jimmy doesn't process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn't look at it that way because he's always bet on himself. And so if there's a question of, here's the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well he doesn't know what the guarantee is. He's always going to bet on himself. But that's not specific to the Bulls, that's not specific to the NBA, that's specific to his heart. That's who he is ... He's going to bet on himself. It's not Wesley Snipes' 'Always bet on black.' In Jimmy's mind it's, 'I'm betting on Jimmy.'"