I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind

How did Jimmy Butler evolve from under-the-radar rookie to NBA superstar? Some seriously hard work—and the confidence that came from it.
by September 08, 2015

Confidence in one’s self is essentially the biggest asset a successful athlete can have.

And that power of self-belief is the exact reason that by the time you’re reading this, the ink of Jimmy Butler’s signature will be dry and affixed to a new, huge contract.

From an early age, the Tomball, TX, native learned to trust and rely on himself due in large part to spending some of his teenage years without a place to call home. Those experiences from those tough times, along with a Texas-sized work ethic, became pillars of his character. Those pillars are why it wasn’t that difficult for him to turn down an estimated four-year, $44 million offer from the Chicago Bulls prior to the beginning of the regular season.

“He had a number in his head,” Steve McCaskill, Butler’s co-agent at Relativity Sports, tells SLAM, explaining Butler’s thought process during last October’s negotiations. “Ultimately, if they would have offered that number, I’m not sure Jimmy would have signed it, because I think he wanted to play it out. Jimmy’s a guy that likes having a chip on his shoulder.”

Essentially, Butler wanted to prove to himself and to his teammates what kind of player he felt he could become. Former Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau—already a firm believer in Butler’s defense and competitiveness—knew that the work Butler put in before training camp began would translate, so he installed new plays designed to give him more room to flourish and expand his game on the offensive end.

No one could foresee Butler leading the Bulls in scoring, his first All-Star berth and the NBA’s Most Improved Player award—which he essentially wrapped up in December. Combined with his second straight All-Defensive Second-Team selection, Butler will openly admit that he didn’t play his best defense this year with all of the new added offensive responsibilities bestowed upon him.

“I’m not surprised he’s improved,” Thibodeau said during the season. “But the amount he’s improved? I wouldn’t be honest if I said I saw that coming.”

Even after digesting this past season’s accomplishments—20.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.3 apg in 38.7 mpg and upping those numbers during the Bulls’ Playoff run—it’s still hard to believe that a player selected 30th overall in the 2011 Draft could make such a drastic leap so quickly, and in only his second season as a full-time starter.

“Since the moment he arrived [in Chicago], he was always a hard worker,” recalls former Bulls teammate and current Miami Heat forward Luol Deng. “He was always coming in early for extra work,” Deng continues. “We knew he was a great defender, but he really worked on his offense to get to where he is now.”

As recently as the ’13-14 season, the scouting report on Butler focused mainly on him playing the passing lanes and crashing the offensive glass. On offense, defenses often played off him, as he struggled through a turf toe injury throughout most of last season while shooting just 39.7 percent from the field and only 28.3 from three.

Those percentages and his overall production skyrocketed this season to 46.2 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three on 14 FGA per game, third-most on the Bulls behind Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. For the first time in his pro career, Butler had to deal with defenses double-teaming him in hopes of preventing him from abusing smaller guards in the low post.

Let’s just say the scouting report on him is a bit more extensive now, to say the least.

“His confidence,” Rose says when we asked what his backcourt mate’s biggest adjustment was this season. “It was just him going out there and translating what he had worked on and adding it to his game. He was huge.”


The work that fueled that new confidence and the expanding of his game began as soon as the final buzzer sounded on the team’s 2013-14 first-round exit to the Washington Wizards.

Butler didn’t retreat to a tropical island for rest and recovery. Instead, he linked up with personal trainer Chris Johnson, who has trained other NBA players like Tobias Harris, Gerald Green and DJ Augustin.

Johnson had wanted to work with Butler the previous summer but their schedules never aligned. This time around, the two would have all summer to train, and Johnson knew that with the physical tools, eagerness and willingness to learn, his new client could turn into an All-Star.

Johnson had long been an admirer of the footwork of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He felt that with Butler’s size, strength and athleticism, focusing on that facet of his game at 25 would not only give him an advantage, but would also help him play on different areas of the floor.

The training regimen would be thorough, consistent and constant.

“Jimmy and I started with two workouts a day,” Johnson says. “We would do two-a-days all summer, working on his footwork, body balance, shooting and ballhandling. We had a strict routine that we put together that applied to on-court, NBA game type situations.

“Wherever he went, I was there. If we were out of state, we were still working out. Jimmy rarely took a day off. If we took a day off, that means we still worked out at least once that day. If Jimmy was on vacation we worked out twice, if not three times a day. I can recall us sometimes working out five times a day at Marquette.”

As Butler’s confidence grew, the results were immediate: Butler often dominated the open runs against Johnson’s other pro and overseas clients.

“I think [building confidence] was my main thing,” Butler says. “Yeah, I put up a lot of jump shots, worked on my ballhandling, but this game is 99.9 percent confidence. If you think you can do something, you can do it. My confidence is up now. Chris Johnson helped put that confidence in me. He did a lot for me.”

“Jimmy just wants to win,” says McCaskill. “If you outwork everyone, you’re going to have a chance to win. Every time he worked out, we never talked about his contract. It was always about becoming a better player and helping the team win. Every time he was asked to do something, he did it, and he was prepared for this growth in his career. Obviously, I don’t think anyone could predict he would be an All-Star this year, but when you have the talent and you put in the hard work, anything can happen.”

Once the accolades and recognition began to come, no one was happier for Butler than the Bulls teammates that had watched him wait for his chance and then take full advantage to seize his opportunity.

“It’s a great story all around,” says teammate Kirk Hinrich. “The fact that Jimmy did it the hard way, earned his playing time and now he’s got the respect of everyone in the League—I don’t know where we would have been without Jimmy.”

Even with Butler’s emergence as an offensive focal point, the Bulls could never establish any true consistency, as injuries quelled the chemistry of the starting lineup. Then, with a disappointing second-round loss to an undermanned Cleveland Cavs squad, Thibodeau’s firing and impending free agency, all eyes turned toward the coming offseason.

Besides his base in Chicago, Butler has already spent some of this offseason in Los Angeles and overseas on a promotional tour for the movie Entourage with his good friend Mark Wahlberg. While it’s a definite change from last summer’s intense grind, his commitment to the gym and improving his game has never waivered.

The Bulls have said they will be proactive with Butler’s contract situation, and with his status as a restricted free agent, they can match all offers and keep him in Chicago.

At this point, he’s proved his worth. The next goal is an obvious one.

“I want to win a Championship,” Butler says. “That’s the ultimate goal. The better the team does, the better everyone looks. Individual things come from team success and it’s all about my teammates having the confidence in me. You’re remembered in this League for winning Championships. That’s what I’m working toward.”

images via Getty