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On Jimmy Butler and non-linear development

Dec 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) brings the ball past Atlanta Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll (5) during the first half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I’m guessing that you’ve heard about Jimmy Butler by now. He’s averaging more than 20 points per game this year and has, along with Pau Gasol, turned the Chicago Bulls into a solid offensive team, even with Derrick Rose alternately injured and struggling to put the ball in the basket consistently. He’s shooting 48.4% from the field and 80.3% from the line (on 8.1 FTAs per game).

The weird thing is that he’s doing this just a year after he famously struggled with his jumper, shooting 39.7% from the field and 28.3% from three, leading many to wonder if he was really a viable wing option, despite his elite defensive reputation. And that came just a year after he came on strong in the second half of 2012-13, going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the playoffs after Luol Deng went down and holding his own.

One of the problems we have as observers of the NBA is that we assume that a young player will get better and he will keep getting better until he peaks, whereupon he will play at about the same level until he begins declining, at which point he will decline steadily until he retires. But it’s rarely that simple. Jimmy Butler went from a rookie who did two things well (defend and get to the foul line) to an excellent 3-and-D wing, to a non-shooting defensive specialist to one of the best two-way wings in the NBA so far this year, even though he still can’t make threes consistently.

Is every player who has a bad year going to bounce back with their best season yet? Of course not. But maybe it’s worth waiting a bit to throw that guy out with the bathwater. Guys take steps forward and steps back. Sometimes a guy does well right up until the league adjusts to him, and sometimes he adjusts and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes a guy’s role changes and he can’t make it work, only to excel in a different role.

Evaluating a player’s potential development is a crapshoot. And don’t ever let anyone tell you any different.

Caleb Nordgren

Caleb is a proud Chicagoan still adjusting to life away from the big city. He's a journalism student at Michigan State, the Editor of Pippen Ain't Easy and can be found at any given time on Twitter, talking about basketball and generally being sarcastic.