By Marco Radenkovich
In his senior year of high school in Tomball, Texas, Jimmy Butler was ranked 37th.
Not in the country. Not at his position. The 37th best basketball player in Texas.
Today, he’s the 30th player taken in the NBA draft.
Butler came to Marquette as the first recruited player by new Head Coach Buzz Williams. Williams had developed a relationship with Butler when he was recruiting his Tyler Junior College teammate Joseph Fulce.
As a sophomore at Marquette, Butler was the sixth man, playing behind future NBA players Wes Matthews, Lazar Hayward and Jerel McNeal. Butler’s versatility helped him gain minutes, as he could play on the wing or inside. More importantly, he gained minutes by his tenacity on the defensive end.
Offensively, Butler was a work in process. His jumper wasn’t very good, and he knew it, so he never shot the ball. He would frequently pass up open jumpers, and would rather slash to the rim, with or without the ball.
Butler averaged 5.6 points, 3.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 51% from the field and 77% from the line. Of Butler’s 196 points that season, 194 of them came from inside the paint or at the free throw line.
Entering his junior year, Butler improved his mid-range game, as the second option for the Golden Eagles, following the departure of Matthews, McNeal and Dominic James. Marquette would play small, often featuring a lineup of the 6’6’’ Hayward at the 5 spot, and Butler at the 4 and three smaller guards. Butler could rebound well enough, defend well enough and score when Williams stressed “paint touches.”
Butler became the go-to-guy down the stretch for MU, as he hit two game winners on the road in the Big East. The first came in Storrs, vs. UCONN. With 3.6 seconds left, Butler created his own shot, a fade away in the corner, which clinched a win for the Golden Eagles, who were on the NCAA tournament bubble. Two weeks later, the Butler did it again, making the #1 play on SportsCenter’s top 10, as he lost the ball mid-air, gathered, spun and swished a jumper at Rutgers.
He finished second in the Big East for most improved player, with averages of 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 53% from the field and 77% from the line.
Going into his senior season, he was the guy. He had to grow up quick, become the captain and the senior leader that the team needed. Growing up quick was never a problem for the 20 year-old senior.
As you might have heard, Jimmy Butler went public with his story of being homeless at age 13. His mother kicked him out of the house, and he floated around his friends’ homes until he found a stable home. The Leslie family brought him in at 17, right as he was finishing high school.
Butler’s senior night, he invited his new family to Milwaukee. Few at MU knew the story of Jimmy Butler, and he didn’t want it to be known. He asked several media outlets not to write the story for people to feel sorry for him, as his story has shaped who he is today.
Butler ended his senior year with averages of 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds while learning to shoot from three (34.5%) and getting to the line 7 times per game. His 30 point game vs. Cincinnati at home was his career high. He twice shut down Kemba Walker, twice shut down Marshon Brooks, shut down Ben Hansbrough, all while carrying the load offensively for MU.
K.C. Johnson had a tweet after the Bulls drafted Butler – “I don’t know how good of an NBA player he’s going to be.” Everyone around him knows how good he's going to be. No, he won't be a superstar. He probably won't even be Wes Matthews, but would you bet against him, considering what he's been through?
For those that know his story, and his work ethic, he’s ready for the NBA. This is just another challenge that Butler is more than willing to conquer.
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