LAS VEGAS—Validation has come in many forms for Jimmy Butler, perhaps the most unlikely invitee to the USA Basketball minicamp/reunion in Las Vegas this past week.
Whether it’s the maximum salary contract he agreed to on the opening day of free agency or his mere presence on Jerry Colangelo’s get-together—a must for those who want to be considered for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio—the motivation he used as an overlooked prospect to rise to these heights can’t hold as much water.
As the invitees sat to the side of the dual basketball courts, lollygagging and goofing around, Butler was to the side on the phone for a radio interview, wearing some Air Jordan’s only members of Brand Jordan have access to.
He says the acclaim and the opportunity to even be considered among the final 12 is surreal enough, and if you would’ve told the kid who had to fax his letter of intent to Marquette from a fast food joint many moons ago he would be here today, you might have to duck for cover.
“(I’d) Punch them in the face and (say) stop lying to me; I would never ever believe that. I never thought I’d be in the NBA,” Butler said. “I damn sure never thought I’d have a chance to represent Team USA. Now that I’m here I have to make the most of it. I think I’ve got a shot at it; we’ve got to see.”
Butler bringing up his blossoming friendship with movie star Mark Wahlberg is sure to raise eyebrows about Butler going “Hollywood,” but he brought up the star’s work ethic as something he admires most.
“He just got through finishing up 'Deep Water Rising,'” Butler said. “He’s probably looking two scripts (ahead) from now. That’s how his mind works. That’s where I got waking up at 5 a.m. from. Because that’s what he does. Wakes up at 5 a.m., reads, works out and then goes to work.”
Butler brought his trainer Chris Johnson to Vegas and the two haven’t stopped their basketball regimen because of the USA minicamp; Butler joked to the assembled media and a man who popped his head in to say hello to Butler for a quick second, Bulls GM Gar Forman, about ramping up his workouts.
“When you all were sleeping this morning, I was working,” he said.
How realistic a shot Butler has at making the final 12, nobody knows. But battling for a spot with the likes of a Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard) and a fellow superstar in Paul George puts him in elite company.
“You hear guys making jokes they don’t want to be guarded by me and they honor how many minutes I play and still how hard I play,” Butler said. “That’s really cool, but more than anything I feel I am out here with some of the best players in the world. It’s humbling, but it also makes me smile because maybe I am a decent basketball player.”
His max deal means the Bulls view him as more than a decent player and opposing teams will have his name at the top of the scouting report every night, so he won’t sneak up on anyone this season—or ever again.
And whether it was a natural progression for a player of his caliber or the contract making him feel more emboldened to make such a statement, Butler referred to himself and Derrick Rose as the leaders of the team, with everyone else having to follow behind.
Holding his own feet to the fire, he said he won’t skip out on media after games anymore, which he did after the Game 6 debacle against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round that ended the Bulls’ season—in which the aftermath spurned the school of thought he and Rose don’t get along.
“I know what’s really going on. Everybody doesn’t. We’re fine,” Butler said. “We just want to win. Whenever we win, all this is going out the window. If we buy into playing off one another and just getting out and playing fast, I like the chances we have at being the top backcourt in the league.”
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Elaborating on the status of their relationship seems very sixth-grade-like, considering 15 guys in a locker room come from disparate places and have different interests and commonalities. It’s been said before but he and Rose don’t have to be best friends, but if Butler envisions himself on the same plane as his point guard, the two will have to be in lockstep from a leadership standpoint.
As for the Bulls’ chances to overthrow Cleveland, Butler summed it up matter of factly.
“We got the same team. Is it enough? I don’t know, I guess we’ll find out,” Butler said. “It wasn’t enough last year. The only thing we changed was the coach.”