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Behind the scenes of Jimmy Butler's rise to the brink of NBA stardom

Seven years ago, Jimmy Butler barely had any wordly possessions. Now, he's on the brink of his first All-Star appearance and a max contract.

Jimmy Butler’s smile says it all: It's been a good month for the Bulls' budding star.

Back in Butler’s hometown of Tomball, Texas, they might even use a phrase like “boom times” to describe his strong start this season. Chicago’s defensive-minded shooting guard is averaging 20.8 points and posting career-high numbers across the board. Not only is Butler looking like a leading candidate to become a first-time All-Star, he is also emerging as one of the most-coveted free agents of the 2015 class.

The smile crept across Butler's face again as he thought back to the Tomball teenager who, even though he wasn’t recruited by a single Division-I school, was convinced that he was the best player in the country. 

“Derrick [Rose] and I were both in the Class of 2007,” Butler told during an extended interview in Portland, where the Bulls were playing, on Saturday.“At that time, I never paid attention to the game. I didn’t know this guy was No. 1 in the nation or this guy was No. 10. Some of my teammates did and obviously Derrick was No. 1 in the nation. They’d come to the games and say, ‘Did you see what Derrick Rose did last night? Simeon High School! Chicago, Illinois!’ Everyone in the nation knew who Derrick Rose was.

“Me being myself, I was like, ‘Let him come down here, I’ll give him 40.’”

This season’s success is happening fast for a player with an “ego” – Butler’s term – which was broken down over the next four years. He settled for one year at Tyler Junior College (Texas) before catching on at Marquette. It’s happening fast for a player who contemplated leaving the Golden Eagles on numerous occasions because he was forced to pay his dues, minutes-wise, and because he wasn’t aware that Wisconsin winters would be any different than what he experienced in Texas. This is all happening fast for a man who spent years of his high school life without a permanent home, kicked out of the house by his biological mother at age 13 before he was finally taken in by a friend’s family.

The All-Star talk and max-contract chatter would be hard for anyone to process; imagine how surreal it must seem for Butler, whose only worldly possessions as recently as seven years ago were a well-worn collection of t-shirts and basketball shorts.

Although Butler grew up idolizing Tracy McGrady, he found his own way into the first round of the 2011 draft by refocusing his attention on the defensive end. A big portion of Butler’s defensive impact can be attributed to his relentlessness and indefatigability. While that motor was first recognized by a national NBA audience during postseason matchups with LeBron James, Butler has commanded respect around the league with his rare tenacity, which led to a 2014 All-Defensive Second Team selection.

Jimmy Buter lebron

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that this ball of motion is taking his early-season breakout in stride. Asked if he has heard the growing social media buzz that that he might receive a max-type contract offer next summer, a la Klay Thompson, Butler nods and accepts the idea as both a challenge and an opportunity.  

“Why not have a [max contract] be a goal? When I hear ‘max player’ I just think about being able to take my family to Bora Bora or something, going on a nice vacation. Because I don’t really pay attention to the money,” Butler said. “I just love the game of basketball. As long as I’m happy and it’s my job, I’m good. Money has never been too much of a thing for me. I grew up without it. I can manage with the amount of money I have now.”

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Butler, 25, is earning $2 million in the fourth year of his rookie contract. Back in October, he declined a rookie-extension offer worth at least $40 million over four years. He delayed his eight-figure gratification even though he spent years in high school without a permanent home, making due on a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, couch-to-couch basis. Butler admits that it was “hard” to pass on the extension and jokes that his first reaction, when presented with the offer's terms, was: “Bet! We’re good!”

Upon further reflection, and advice from his agent Happy Walters, Butler decided to play out this season and test his earning potential next summer, when he will become a restricted free agent. Market conditions certainly influenced that strategy: less-accomplished players like Kemba Walker ($48 million over four years) and Alec Burks ($42 million over four years) earned larger deals, while upper-echelon, two-way wings like Thompson ($70 million over four years), Gordon Hayward ($63 million over four years) and Chandler Parsons ($46 million over three years) all struck gold. The prospect of the NBA’s salary cap swelling to the $80 or $90 million range in 2016 also promises to swing some leverage in Butler's favor, provided he is able to take a meaningful step forward this season.

Ultimately, Butler’s thinking boiled down to a belief that he possessed sufficient untapped offensive potential that could bump him up into a higher tier.

“The world knows I love Chicago. This is where I want to be,” Butler said. “I think this is where I’m going to be. After last year, everyone was like, ‘He’s not this. He’s not that.’ I knew better. I wanted to prove to myself that last year wasn’t me.”

Summer Of Work

Jimmy Butler wolves

While Butler averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 2013-14 – all career highs – he shot a career-low 39.7 percent from the field and just 28.3 percent from deep. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 13.5 was modest, even though other advanced stats, like Win Shares, treated him more favorably.

That statistical profile didn’t necessarily scream “monster pay day,” but there were a number of extenuating circumstances at play. Last season was Butler’s first as a full-time starter, and that new level of responsibility required an adjustment period. There were times, he acknowledges, when he was still reminding himself that he “belongs” in the NBA. To complicate matters, he spent most of the season without Rose and without many other established offensive weapons around him. Meanwhile, he was playing 38.7 minutes a night, second-most-in the league, and he was doing it for coach Tom Thibodeau, whose primary concern is always defense before offense. Finally, Butler was dealing with a foot injury that limited him.