Threat level Orange
Time was, Brianna Butler could suffice as a facilitator on extremely talented Exodus club teams or escape notice while playing in a mostly nationally irrelevant high school in Philadelphia. And all the while everyone who knew basketball knew she was capable of more.
Nowadays, Butler, ranked as the No. 13 prospect in 2012 by ESPN HoopGurlz, is happy to give more. The transition started when, at the behest of her coach, she took control down the stretches of Exodus' biggest games during a successful summer. It continued when she moved with her mother to Brooklyn, N.Y., and transferred to Nazareth Regional, where she and a lot of her club teammates will be among the nation's most closely watched programs.
That transition continued on Wednesday when Butler committed to Syracuse University, becoming coach Quentin Hillsman's highest-profile recruit and in essence accepting the mantle of go-to player that the Orange will need when it moves to what will be a deeper and more competitive ACC.
"I'm ready," said Butler, who also had also considered Kentucky, Ohio State and Penn State. "It will help me develop more offensively and take my game to another level. It will continue the track I've been with Apache (Paschall, her coach at Nazareth and Exodus)."
Paschall says Butler is among the best he has coached, which is saying something for a program that has produced numerous players to major Division I programs as well as the WNBA. He has been urging her since her first year with Exodus to step out of her comfort zone.
Her first year with the team, Butler was stepping in behind a pair of McDonald's All-American guards, Bria Hartley, now at Connecticut, and Jennifer O'Neill, now at Kentucky. Taylor Ford and Tiffany Jones were the holdovers and alpha teammates, and Bianca Cuevas was coming into her own as a wunderkind middle-schooler.
Last summer, Butler finally embraced the leadership and offensive role she'd filled at Penn Charter (Philadelphia, Pa.) and during her earlier club years with the Philly Belles. Exodus NYC won two tournament titles and had one of its best summers ever.
"The first year, I was just trying to fit in," Butler said. "As the years went on, I needed to be more of a scorer and take control more. Last year and this year have been my better years. I have been more vocal and taken the open shots, rather than passing the ball off all the time to my teammates. I feel comfortable playing either way. Even when I'm not scoring, I still feel like I did a lot."
When Butler was younger, she'd watch carefully and tried to emulate as her older sisters, Natasha and Mayange, practiced with their basketball teams. Neither of them stayed with the game -- Mayange went on to become an All-American high-school lacrosse selection. But Butler was hooked.
Butler long has had next-level size and an accurate stroke from long distance. You had to watch carefully, usually during warmups or breaks in the action, to see she also had incredible ballhandling skills. Those she revealed in stages during games, but only after she gained confidence through countless hours of practice.
"You can call me a perfectionist," she said.
Butler says she has a bevy of new maneuvers to unveil this coming high school season -- more off-the-dribble pullups, floaters in the lane and an improved spin move, off two feet now and not just one.
She will need the entire arsenal. Nazareth will enter this season as one of the nation's top-ranked schools. As such, it will get everyone's A-games, and its main counter will be Butler.
"It feels good not being an underdog anymore," she said. "People in the past have put us down and not wanted us to get better. They've made lots of negative comments about us. I feel like you always have something to prove. You have to have a purpose every time you step on the court. Never be mediocre."
Butler says she has been receiving this message for years, from her coach as well as her mother, Mitzi Mitchell, a businesswoman starting anew this year in Brooklyn. And now she's ready.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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