In NBA 2K17’s famous career mode, you are given the option to choose your college and then make your way through the draft process into the NBA.
Normally, unless you are a 2K savant, it is pretty tough to be drafted high in the lottery, so you end up being a bench player who eventually has to work to earn minutes.
Most of the time, unless you really suck at 2K, you can work your way into being a starter and then eventually a star player if you play long enough.
Jimmy Butler’s career arc is eerily similar to that of a 2K my career mode player.
The NBA is littered with stories of players who grew up in tough environments. Dwyane Wade was exposed to the rough streets of Chicago as a young boy, while LeBron James famously grew up sleeping in cars and missing chunks of school. However, Butler’s story is like no other.
At the age of just 13, Butler’s mother kicked him out of her home. For a child that had grown up without a father figure, Butler’s father abandoned the family when he was an infant, his mother’s move meant that he had no family to rely on, instead bouncing around between friends’ houses during his teen years.
Butler wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school, ranked 127th out of junior college prospects, and he chose to attend little known Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas.
Even as he received a scholarship from Marquette, Butler wasn’t a one and done phenom, playing three years for the Golden Eagles, before being selected with the final pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Ironically enough, at the time Butler arrived in Chicago, the team was desperately looking for a reliable back-court running mate for then-MVP Derrick Rose. Little did they know that he already resided on the roster.
Butler’s penchant for hard work, and his drive to be great, helped him transition from a little-used bench player, to a starter to where he is now, the undisputed franchise player of the Chicago Bulls.
So far, so great for Butler, who is averaging 24.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game through 28 games this season.
Butler’s PER of 25.87 ranks him tenth overall in the league, and according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Butler’s 6.56 ranks him as a top six player in the NBA. Butler leads all small forwards in RPM, ahead of the likes of Giannis Antentokounmpo and LeBron James.
The off-season trade of Derrick Rose and the loss of Joakim Noah in free-agency meant that Butler was thrust into the role of being the franchise player, even with the acquisitions of veteran guards, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
It’s a role that Butler admits he is still learning.
“You know, with [Rajon] Rondo and D. [Dwyane] Wade here – which are the two that everybody, you know, majority talks about – they’re teaching me so much each and every day,” Butler said in a conference call this week.
“I’ve still got young guys that I have to try to mould and try to teach them what it takes to get on the level of Dwayne Wade, of Rondo and how to win. I think that’s my job.”
Media and fans alike turned heads when the Bulls brought in both Wade and Rondo, and the Bulls were able to quieten the outside noise by getting out to a surprisingly good start this season.
Butler’s season has been so good so far, that throughout the entire history of the NBA, just 18 players all time have averaged at least 24 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Other names to average such numbers? Per Basketball Reference, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird and David Robinson, just to name a few. James, Russell Westbrook and Paul Pierce are the only active players other than Butler to have averaged such numbers.
Butler is also learning the nuances of becoming a Hall-of-Famer in his own right, by learning from future-Hall-of-Famer, Wade, on a daily basis.
“He[Wade] knows what it takes to win a championship. He’s done it and he’s always, you know, in the gym, taking care of his body,” Butler said.
“Myself, the young guys we’re paying attention to it because that’s how you get to play as many years as he’s played and be the type of player that he’s been. It’s because he’s constantly working every single day, even when he’s not on the basketball court.”
However, part of being a franchise player is how you carry yourself off the court, when the cameras aren’t on, and according to Butler, Wade is an exemplary example.
“You just feel it in that presence of him being around. And then you just see the way he is off the floor and what he does in his community, in his city and the way he is with his family and I mean, he’s just a great human being,” Butler said.
Leadership does not come in one singular form. While players such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were loud, demonstrative leaders, the recently-retired Tim Duncan was lauded for his softer nature of leadership. Part of Butler’s challenge is to find his own method of leadership.
Butler has been outspoken about the play of the team this season, however he suggests it is his role as a leader to make sure everyone is held accountable.
“You got to do your job. You got to play your role, myself included and if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You thing everything’s fine and dandy when it’s not and I think that’s my job,” Butler said.
After the fast start to the season, the Bulls have begun to taper away. Wade’s hot-shooting start from deep has normalised back a below-league-average figure, while Rondo has been erratic.
Chicago is still sixth in the Eastern Conference, but its record has regressed all the way back to .500 at 14-14, including just three wins in its previous 10 games.
Perhaps due to Butler’s hot start to the year, the Bulls have formed an unhealthy reliance on its franchise player, a fact that Wade bemoaned earlier this week.
It is rare that the same player is a team’s best offensive and defensive player, but that is exactly what Butler has been for the Bulls this year.
Per NBA media stats, the Bulls have a positive Net Rating of 4.9 with Butler on the court. However, in the 331 Butler-less minutes this season, the Bulls have been outscored by a Philadelphian 10.4 points per 100 possessions.
The Bulls’ “Three Alphas” haven’t quite co-existed either. While Butler and Wade have struck up a decent connection, both on and off the court, the Bulls have performed distinctly better when Butler is on the court without Rondo, outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions in such minutes.
Despite this, the Bulls appear loathe to changing the starting lineup perhaps for fear of what may happen in the locker room.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg has been reluctant to use lineups with Wade and Butler playing with Jerian Grant as the point guard over Rondo, with the three-man combination having logged just 76 minutes throughout this season.
However, the Bulls have outscored opponents by a handsome 24.1 points per 100 possessions with the trio on the court, with an impressive Defensive Rating of 94.1, per NBA stats.
Butler’s game certainly isn’t perfect, and he could still stand to improve as a shooter, particularly from long distance, where he has dropped to below league average.
But it is a learning process for Jimmy Butler as always. It was a learning process to find his feet after being kicked out from home. It was a learning process to go from a unheralded high school kid, to NBA role player to star.
If history shows anything, Jimmy Butler will figure it out, he always has.
It has been almost 20 years since Michael Jordan donned the famous red Bulls jersey, yet the lore of the legend still remains around the franchise.
However, Butler, a two-time All-Star and former Most Improved Player, says that he is focussed on writing his own story.
“I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organization as Scottie Pippen, as Michael Jordan, as Dennis Rodman, as all those guys,” Butler said.
“I’m not living in the MJ shadow. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”
That’s the talk of a franchise player and a leader.