Bulls, Butler a perfect fit
In Jimmy Butler, the Bulls found a player with the skills Tom Thibodeau covets
CHICAGO -- On Wednesday evening, as Tom Thibodeau prepared to throw out the first pitch at the Cubs-White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field, Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney was asked which players blew them away in pre-draft workouts.
Pinckney stared ahead, shrugged his shoulders and looked toward his boss, as if to say it doesn't matter how high these hopefuls jumped or how many jumpers they hit in a practice gym.
"They have to be able to play for him," he said.
The Bulls might have found their guy in Jimmy Butler.
Yes, for the 30th straight year, the Bulls were elated the guy they targeted fell to them, in this case, a 6-foot-8 swingman who played three years just up the road from the Berto Center, at Marquette.
The Bulls took Butler with the 30th and final pick of the first round, after trading the 28th and 43rd picks to grab 6-foot-10 small forward Nikola Mirotic with the 23rd pick. (The deal has yet to be approved by the NBA, but league sources told ESPN's Nick Friedell that is a mere formality.) While Mirotic will remain in Europe (he plays for Real Madrid) for the time being, Butler was chosen for the present.
The Bulls see Butler, who averaged 15.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a senior, as a small forward on offense with the ability to defend every position except center, and the 21-year-old is saying all the right things already, talking defense and shutting down LeBron James.
"I think I'm a guard; that's how I'm going to make my mark in this league," he said. "I'm going to put in that work to be able to guard LeBron, Dwyane Wade and all those guys so the Bulls can get to that championship.
"I'm working on my outside shot, so I'll be able to knock it down, but I think the biggest thing is defense," he continued. "I'm going to be a pest, take up everybody's space and make them work for every little thing. I think that's where everything is going to go for me. If I want to get out there, it's going to be on the defensive end, getting stops and running after defensive rebounds."
Why not just buy Thibodeau flowers and chocolates while you're at it, Jimmy.
Of course, that's the kind of attitude the Bulls were targeting, and Bulls general manager Gar Forman allowed that they were thinking about a big swingman who could defend James, so he doesn't act like Michael Jordan again next June.
"It was discussed as we went through the process," Forman said. "And that's not to put pressure on a guy that just got picked, that we're going to throw him out there and expect him to guard LeBron, but we think got a lot of versatility defensively and we think that's a real plus for us."
"After following him for several years, we got the chance to meet with him a couple times during the process," Forman said. "When we did, each time we met with him, he really kind of blew us away. We really feel he's going to fit in the locker room and the culture of this team, and fit on the floor."
The Bulls, as expected, will look for a true scoring guard in the free-agent market whenever the labor situation is figured out. But Forman thinks Butler's midrange game will help spread the floor at the 2 or 3 spot, while he contributes on defense.
Butler's story goes beyond the box score, though. As ESPN's Chad Ford recounted last week, Butler was essentially homeless at 13 after his mother kicked him out. He eventually found a surrogate home with a classmate's family and persevered, spending a year at Tyler Junior College before winding up at Marquette.
Before you get carried away, don't insult him by comparing his story to the Michael Lewis book-turned-tearjerker movie "The Blind Side." Butler's story is his own and should be treated as such. Trust me -- you're going to hear more about it in the coming months, especially if he turns out to be a legit player and not another James Johnson.
Butler said he was hesitant to share his background story during college, but he knew he had to open up to the NBA talent evaluators, and he's happy for it.
"It was tough for me because I never really talked about it," he said. "I kept it inside and tried to keep it a secret, but I knew it had to get out at some point. It just happened to get out now. I'm glad it got out, to tell you the truth, because I've been holding it in for a very, very long time. Everyone was inspired by it, but that's just me. This is my story, this is my family and I wouldn't change anything for the world."
Butler watched the draft with his surrogate family in Tomball, Texas, as his past and future intersected. When his name was called, his head was clear.
"The thought that ran through my head was, 'My dream came true,'" he said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.