(MCT) — CHICAGO — As the inactivity and frustration piled up last season, Jimmy Butler looked back at the summer league lost to the NBA lockout and the abbreviated training camp caused by the same.
The then-rookie swingman would pout for a bit and, finally, he’d contact his two lifelines. Butler would call assistant coach Adrian Griffin and forward Luol Deng, who’d tell him to stop whining and start working.
“I don’t think I had a moment; I think I had like 50 moments,” Butler recalled, standing inside the Bulls locker room after another prominent rotational appearance. “Ask Griff. I’d come in, pissed at the world, down. He’d say, ‘Man, you’re going to be all right. Just keep working.’
“But I never stopped believing. ... Lu always told me to stay grounded. When you have a great game, it’s all right. When you have a bad one, bounce back. He’s had a key part in my success because it’s easy to see where he has been and where he is now. Guarding him every day and working out with him every day, I knew I would get better.”
Butler has improved enough to solidify — for now — a solid spot in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. His career-high 13 points during Wednesday’s victory over the Mavericks placed a cherry atop the sundae. Butler knows his role is to defend, rebound and provide energy for the second unit.
If he forgets, Deng will remind him.
“Man, I love that kid,” Deng said. “I know what this league is like. I know the opportunity he has in front of him. He has all the talent in the world. So I just want to help him. We go to the gym every night and get shots up and talk about the game. It’s just the relationship we have. And I really appreciate it.”
In fact, part of Deng’s leadership is a repayment of sorts. Griffin, then an active player, served as a mentor during Deng’s rookie season in 2004-05.
“Griff helped me so much,” Deng said. “I just want Jimmy to get all the benefits he can get out of this game. He’s a hard worker and he wants to do well. And he’s getting better. I told him, the NBA is about finding what you can do. When I hurt my wrist the first time (in 2004-05) and knowing (then-coach Scott) Skiles’ system, I was like, ‘If I’m the best midrange shooter, I’ll get to play.’
“I told Jimmy if he plays hard on defense, Thibs is going to see that and he’s going to be on the floor. That’s what he’s doing.”
Butler is averaging 5.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 15.6 minutes. He has played at least 19 minutes in four of five games, including a 30-minute stint. But he’s not satisfied, another lesson he learned from Deng.
“Just because I’m in the rotation doesn’t mean Thibs won’t take me right back out of it,” Butler said. “It’s the same thing: You go early, work out like you did as a first-year player. You leave the gym late. You watch film. You keep working.”