Jimmy Butler was abandoned by the single mother who raised him when he was 13 years old, left on the streets of Tomball, Texas, to fight for his life. Now, the Bulls guard spends his summers hanging out with movie stars, living the dream of a rising NBA star crowned by many savvy observers as the prototype wing for the modern game.
Butler is the ace up Chicago's sleeve entering his third season, but so much of his incredible tale has yet to be written.
The story of Butler's perseverance through personal turmoil and ascent up the NBA ranks is custom built for Hollywood, but don't expect expect a basketball version of "The Blind Side" to be hitting theaters anytime soon. Butler's made it this far because of his focus and work ethic as much as his natural ability. It's the reason he's become Tom Thibodeau's new favorite player while turning into the developmental boon Chicago needed to realize its dreams of coming out of the Eastern Conference.
Butler hardly played for Thibodeau as a rookie, but was given an opportunity after the Bulls decided against retaining Ronnie Brewer before last season. There was an opening for an athletic, defensive-minded wing on the bench, and Butler quickly proved he could do everything Brewer did and more.
Once Luol Deng suffered a hamstring injury in January, the floor was literally Butler's own. He hardly ever left. There were more moments of triumph than the speed bumps expected from young players, like when Butler flummoxed Kobe Bryant into a 7-for-22 shooting night in late January while his teammates shouted "Kobe Stopper!" as he walked off the court.
It's Butler's versatile brilliance at the defensive end that earned him playing time, but the rest of the season proved to show the Marquette alum could be so much more than a one-way specialist. No one would have ever pegged Butler to finish in the top 10 of individual offensive rating by the end of his second year, yet there he was. If defense is where Butler made his name, it's his offense that may determine how high the Bulls can fly.
Butler showed an incredible knack on the offensive glass, leading all players designated as a guard (per NBA.com's stats page) with a 7.3 offensive rebounding percentage. Memphis' Tony Allen (6.7) was the only other player close. It's good news, because once Butler got the ball near the rim, he was damn hard to stop. Butler took 45 percent of his shots within five feet last season and made 63.2 percent of those attempts. That placed Butler seventh in the NBA among players with at least 220 attempts, joining the likes of Bryant, Deron Williams, Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker.
Butler's finishing ability was a wonderful surprise for Chicago, but it's not nearly as exciting as the progress he showed from the outside. If Butler's late season three-point shooting was no aberration, the Bulls would appear to have stolen an all-around force on the wing with the No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft.
Butler was never thought of as a shooter, making 36 of 90 attempts his last two seasons in college. He attempted 11 threes as a rookie. But as his playing time shot up, so did his confidence from the outside. By March, Butler was hitting threes at a 42 percent clip. In April, he was connecting on an astonishing 56 percent of his attempts from three while taking 2.5 per game.
It all built to a memorable, if ill-fated, playoff run in which Butler personified on the Bulls' unbreakable resolve. He played all 48 minutes in five playoff games, the second-highest number of all-time. He defended LeBron James as tough as the four-time MVP can be defended and showed the type of poise few 23-year-olds could ever hope to display.
Now Thibodeau has named Butler his starter at shooting guard heading into the new season, where he'll team with superstar Derrick Rose. Butler's size, defensive prowess and ability to finish on cuts would seem to make him an ideal backcourt mate for Rose. It has the Bulls thinking big. The last time the Bulls were fully healthy was 2010-11, when they fell to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. That team did have Omer Asik leading an fantastic bench unit, but also started the offensively-incompetent Keith Bogans at the two.
With Deng's contract status unresolved heading into the season, this year amounts to a last shot for the Bulls with the current group. Minor additions like Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich have been made along the way, but Butler is Bulls' one real hope.
He's already a stud defensively, and his offense is just getting better. Butler may have a story made for the big screen, but don't write it yet. He's just getting started.