Jimmy Butler's rise to stardom came rather unexpectedly. But two players who knew the reigning Most Improved Player and All-Star before his fame knew the signs were there.
Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade and small forward Luol Deng, who will square off against Butler and the Bulls tonight in Chicago, were aware of the player Butler was when the Bulls made him the No. 30 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and have marveled at the player he's become.
Deng spent the first two-and-a-half seasons of Butler's career in Chicago, acting as a mentor for the Marquette standout. Butler entered the league as a defensive standout but didn't see many minutes behind Deng, who led the NBA in minutes per game each of Butler's first two seasons.
Deng said at the Heat's shootaround Monday morning at the United Center that Butler's confidence has helped transform him from a defensive plug to one of the game's best two-way players and the Bulls' unquestioned leader averaging 22.5 points per game.
"He's more confident, I think that's what it is," Deng said. "(In the) beginning when Jimmy first came, he's trying to figure out what type of player he's going to be, how to get going offensively. He's always been a terrific defender. Now it's confidence, putting himself out there as a leader. So every night he has to go out and stand up for everything that he says."
Before Wade was earning three NBA championships and solidifying himself as one of the game's all-time greats he, like Butler, was an unknown prospect playing for Marquette. In 2003 Wade led the Golden Eagles to their first Final Four appearance since 1977 and was the No. 5 pick in the famed 2003 NBA Draft.
He, too, has been impressed by Butler's ascension to the top of the league.
"One of the biggest things is he has a motor. He's a guy who came in this league as a defender and then started transitioning his game as an offensive guy, and that takes a lot out of you to be able to do both," Wade said. "And he has the motor to be able to do it. He's just worked on his skills. He doesn't over-complicate the game. He doesn't go and try to cross people over and try to get the crowd to ooh and ahh.
"He plays a solid, basic game. Get to his shots, get to his place, be very physical, aggressive, and he's going to keep it on you all night. He's done a great job of making himself a household name in the NBA."