CHICAGO — It’s not clear if any one factor on Jimmy Butler‘s resume loomed larger than the others when the Chicago Bulls used the last draft pick of the first round in the 2011 Draft on the 6-foot-7 forward from Marquette.
But it couldn’t have hurt that Butler, a native of Houston, had grown up and played high school ball in a town on that city’s outskirts named Tomball.
“Tomball” as in the way Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes it. One man goes down, another steps in. Starter or reserve, from short minutes to long and back again, nothing changes — more than enough to win.
What Butler has been doing for the Bulls for the past week and a half – more than plugging a hole in the starting lineup while Luol Deng was out with a strained hamstring, then scoring a career-high 19 points off the bench in Chicago’s victory over Charlotte at United Center – has been Tomball, indeed.
“I think it held the most when Lu [Deng] came up to me and said, ‘You can do this. … Step in and keep playing the way you’ve been playing,” Butler said after resetting or tying his NBA scoring high for the third time in six games. “When you hear that from an All-Star — from him, from Derrick [Rose], from Jo [Noah] — man, that’s real.”
That, even more than the positive feedback Butler has gotten on the court in this stretch, has boosted his confidence beyond what he brought as a little-used rookie and, earlier this season, spot reserve.
“That’s what I needed to hear,” Butler said. “They was all, ‘Lu’s hamstring is hurt. You’ve got to come in and …’ Not really saying, ‘Be Lu.’ They were just saying, ‘Be you. Be that energy guy that guards, and locks down and he hustles.’ That’s what I brought to the table as a starter, that’s what I bring off the bench. That’s who I am.”
Last season, with Ronnie Brewer still around, Butler logged a total of 359 minutes in 42 games, averaging 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds. In Chicago’s first 38 games, Butler averaged 17.2 minutes, 5.4 points and 2.6 boards.
But as a starter, he found himself thrust into a Deng-like 45.2 minutes per game. He responded with 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds. He pestered Kobe Bryant masterfully last week, then notched his first double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) Friday vs. Golden State.
Butler’s shot can sometimes be flat enough to slip through a transom, but he was more efficient against the Bobcats, getting his 19 points and six rebounds on 7-for-10 shooting in 31:14. In the past six games, he has played nearly 246 minutes.
Thibodeau said Butler got big minutes off the bench Monday – he played more than starters Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer or Deng – because of Charlotte’s smallish matchups. But it’s clear that Thibodeau likes his effort, his demeanor, his ability to rev high as soon as he hits the court and a sheer athletic ability that’s rare on Chicago’s roster.
If there’s a minutes adjustment required when Rose eventually returns – with Hinrich shifting to the bench, Marco Belinelli’s recent rise put at risk or even Deng given a few more breathers – odds are good Thibodeau will see it as a puzzle rather than a problem and invent ways to get Butler on the floor.
Soft-spoken but fun-loving in the Bulls’ locker room, Butler said his newfound notoriety hasn’t shown up much away from the gym. No flood of new Twitter followers, no rush of shout-outs on the town.
“Nah,” he said. “Everybody treats me the same. I don’t want anything to change. I still want to be the small-town kid from Tomball that floats under the radar. [Because] if you sleep on anybody on this team, we can come back and get you.”
Butler said he didn’t draw any motivation from being the last pick in the first round two years ago. Nor, he said, did he think about the contractual advantage he might have had if he’d slipped one measly spot lower. As a second-rounder, Butler might have been eligible for one of those poison-pill contract offer sheets that made former Bulls center Omer Asik and former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin so wealthy as restricted free agents last summer.
“It was a blessing to be drafted, to have a chance to play in this league,” Butler said. “Picked 1, picked 30 — I feel like this is what you dreamed of when you were little. It was a blessing that I ended up here, with this team, because I feel this team fits me the best.”
Lately, there’s no mystery about his impact on the Bulls, no past tense about it. In classic whodunit fashion, this Butler is doing it.