Bulls

Jimmy Butler’s battle cry: 'I’m the best (bleeping) player in the world'

Jimmy Butler’s battle cry: 'I’m the best (bleeping) player in the world'

PORTLAND — Jimmy Butler came into this season firmly planted amongst the Top 25 players in the NBA and depending on who you ask, maybe he was a bit higher.

With his play taking yet another leap after so many massive ones already, perhaps it’s time he be mentioned in a higher context.

Since he called himself out to be more aggressive following a blowout loss to the Pacers on the second half of a back-to-back, Butler’s numbers have risen. Averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists represents one of the best stretches of his career to date.

He was asked about being ranked in the Top 10 of NBA players this season, and wasn’t shy about it.

“Do I dispute it? No. Do I believe it? Of course,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com following a morning practice at the University of Portland Wednesday. “I think you can ask people we have on this team, I walk around and say certain things I really mean.”

Things like?

“I’m not gonna tell you exactly what I say but I think you know what I’m talking about,” Butler said. “I don’t talk about it in public. But between these guys, they know how I feel, they know the way I go about the game and how I love it and how I love being better. I place myself where I place it and I hope my game continues to speak.”

The quote Butler didn’t want to say but one that has been heard by teammates more than a few times: “I’m the best (bleeping) player in the world.”

Butler’s never been one to say anyone’s better than him, and certainly his confidence is warranted. He was drenched in sweat after staying longer than anybody to get up extra shots following Wednesday’s practice and it’s no secret he considers himself a true franchise player.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

If performances like these can stay to some level of consistency, it’ll be harder to deny that he belongs in the same conversation as the one-name superstars like LeBron (James), Steph (Curry), Kevin (Durant), Russell (Westbrook) and 2015-16 MVP runner-up Kawhi Leonard, the player widely regarded as the best two-way player in basketball.

“I think you look at this last stretch, averaging 29 over the last six games. He’s just doing it so many different ways,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’re using him in the post, we’re using him as a facilitator. I love the 12 rebounds (Monday against the Blazers) where he’s pushing the ball down the floor without an outlet. We’re isolating him a lot. Just his overall game, you gotta give him all the credit in the world for the work ethic and everything he’s put in to make himself the complete player he is.”

His teammates are following him, probably the most understated part of this season compared to last. Butler doesn’t have to convince them he can lead them to a top spot in the Eastern Conference anymore; they see it and so far, he’s been a better teammate and the resistance this season compared to last has been nil.

“I'm surprised at how mature he is,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson, who worked out with Butler over the summer. “He's a lot more mature than he was, as far as being how he's been with the guys, how he's communicating. He's always critiquing the game, but he's always positive. Last year, he had his times when he was questioning things, and he didn't know how to let it out. But this year, having D-Wade I think helps him a lot. And then you can learn from it and understand it. And (Team) USA helped him out big time.”

Butler doesn’t doubt the production is sustainable, as it seems like he’s found easier ways to score without being so taxed — almost like finding some secret only a few guys know and refuse to share.

“I think so. I work at that,” Butler said. “I work to catch what those guys are doing, to perform at the highest level like those guys. I take notice. I watch, I learn from those guys as much as I learn from players from the past. So I put myself in that category.”

The same category as multiple-time MVP’s and first-ballot Hall of Famers? Butler doesn’t flinch.

Privately, he chafed at the notion he couldn’t be a franchise player or that he somehow plateaued because of where he started. He simply thinks everybody else is late to the party of the Butler takeover.

“Yeah, if I go at the game with the same mentality, like Dwyane (Wade) told me, every time you step on the floor, you gotta have the mentality that you’re the best player out there,” Butler said. “You gotta be out there to prove that point every single night, every single day in practice. That’s what I’m working to be. I want to be the first guy in the gym, the last game to leave, studying film and having a killer mentality.”

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Will Perdue break down the Bulls season opener vs the Raptors. They’ll explain why Bulls fans should be very happy with the debut of rookie Lauri Markkanen and Kendall points out why he expects the Markkanen/Lavine combo to be great on the offensive end. They’ll also go over their concerns at point guard, and Will shares his story of how Greg Popovich dealt with a losing Spurs team in 1996-97.