CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler never doubted that he could play in the NBA. But after Luol Deng went out two weeks ago with a right hamstring injury, Butler did wonder if he would be able to step in and play the type of consistent basketball the Chicago Bulls needed from him.
That's when a conversation with the All-Star forward may have changed the course of the 23-year-old's season.
"I think it hit home the most whenever Lu came up to me and said, ‘You can do this,’” Butler said. "'It's your time. Step in and just keep playing the way you've been playing.’ When you hear that from an All-Star, from him, from Derrick (Rose), from (Joakim Noah), that's big. And me only being here for almost two years now, I think that's what I needed to hear. It's not my play that gained confidence, it's my teammates telling me that I can do it and that I'm out there producing. That's what gains confidence more than my play."
Butler showed off his burgeoning confidence again Monday night by scoring a career-high 19 points in a 93-85 win over the Charlotte Bobcats. What made Butler's performance even more impressive was the fact that the second-year swingman produced that way off the bench, with Deng making his return after missing the last five games.
"Jimmy's playing very confident basketball and he's really showing what he can do," Noah said. "I'm really proud of him. He's a hard worker and I think he's somebody who's going to be here for a really long time because he's getting so much better offensively, finishing through contact, and defensively I think that he's already one of the best in the league."
Many in the Bulls locker room were singing Butler's praises -- especially Deng.
"Jimmy's playing great," Deng said. "Jimmy's playing great for us right now. We need that. It helps with the depth of our team. He's just got to keep growing. He's just got to keep growing, keep getting better -- he plays so hard. This is what we've been doing all year. But he's been patient, he's been working on his game and I'm just so happy for him. I'm so happy for him that ... sometimes it takes time to understand the game, the NBA, and what you can do. There's a lot of areas he can get better at but what he's shown so far is just his hard work and he's going to keep on getting better."
That's the only thing Butler is focused on at the moment. He has earned respect from his teammates and coaches by spending countless hours in the gym. They believe that he will get the job done when he hits the floor and that makes Butler even happier when he plays well.
"They never really said 'Be Lu,' they were just saying, 'Be You,'" Butler said of his teammates' attitude. "And be that energy, the guy that guards, that locks down and hustles. That's just what I brought to the table as a starter. That's what I bring to the table off the bench. That's who I am."
Which is why Deng and his teammates love him so much.
"He's so good at asking and listening," Deng said. "He wants to get better, do whatever it takes, and it makes us a better team."
Thibodeau kept Deng and Butler on the floor a lot during Monday night's game, something the veteran coach has only done sparingly over the first few months of the season. Obviously, if Butler keeps playing this way he will earn more time in Thibodeau's rotation, but for the time being his teammates feel as if Butler has already done enough to earn a place in the Rookie/Sophomore Game during All-Star Weekend in Houston. Both Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson openly campaigned for Butler to get the invite.
"If Jimmy's (not) in the Sophomore game, something's wrong," Robinson said. "They don't need to have it no more. That's just ridiculous. Come on, man. Jimmy does his thing and he's going to dunk on some people in the game, too."