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Jared Butler: The Interview and Big 12 Title Aspirations for Baylor’s Sophomore Star

Jared Butler’s journey and goal to win the Big 12.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs Syracuse Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Butler will be one of the best players on what might be the best Baylor team ever. With Tristan Clark back from injury, most of the rotation back, and the addition of two major transfers, the Bears are ranked in the top 15 in nearly every preseason poll. So it’s not surprising when Butler says, “I really want to win the Big 12. I think that’s a realistic goal for us, with the guys we have coming back and the humility.”

If you watched the early 2018-2019 Bears, it seemed ludicrous to think the 2019-2020 Bears could be better than the Elite Eight teams from 2010 and 2012, or the No. 1 ranked team of 2017. Baylor opened the 2018-2019 season with a loss to Texas Southern—the then 277th ranked team on KenPom. Butler says, “It was very hard, without a doubt. I don’t think (anybody) thought we were going to lose.”

As Baylor continued to struggle during non-conference, Butler flashed some of the skills that would make him an All-Big 12 Newcomer Team selection. In his third game of the season against Prairie View A&M, Butler had 22 points, and most impressively, he drilled a one handed pass off the dribble to Darius Allen. Butler says, “I never really worked on it until I got to college and realized how useful it was. It is a quicker way to get the ball to your teammate; it’s not something I worked on until I got to Baylor.” This kind of pass became a fixture for Butler:

In December, the Bears turned things around after a terrible start against Wichita State. Baylor trailed 40-9 in the first half against a Shockers team that would miss the NCAA Tournament. But the Bears went on a 46-20 run and nearly came back. Butler says, “At that time during the season, we just didn’t have an identity. With us being a whole new, different team...we were just trying to find who you were. I’m not glad we went through it, but things like that help us be who we are right now.”

During a giant win against Iowa State, Clark hurt his knee and had surgery that ended his season. With their best player out, the Bears had Kansas—and their 14 year streak of Big 12 titles—coming to Waco. Baylor Associate Head Coach Jerome Tang told me in February that, “We were just trying to get things figured out that game with Tristan out.” Butler says, “It was a big game for me. It was going to be the next time I started since the Texas Southern game.” Butler says the team’s goal was to show, “We’re not going to waver. We’re not going to back down. We knew he (Clark) was such a big asset to our team.”

Butler showed he was going to be one of the Bear’s best players in that Kansas game. He finished 4-of-8 from three and had 14 points. Butler says, “I knew I had to step up. The game was getting slower for me.” He aggressively took threes:

Butler was a monster from three in conference. During non-conference, he shot only 24.6% from beyond the arc. Butler thinks his problem was that, “Being a freshman and trying to prove to yourself, the coaches, the whole world that you belong. (That puts) a lot of pressure on yourself.” But he was 7th in the Big 12 in 3-point percentage during league play, as he made 42.2% of his triples. Butler made the biggest gain on the team in 3-point shooting from non-conference to conference play:

Butler’s 3-point shooting is a foundation of four things. First, he has an incredibly quick shot. Butler can line his feet in the air, and he can release the ball in an instant. Butler says that growing up, “My shot was pretty good and my form was okay. It wasn’t unorthodox or I need to change my shot. I was just so fortunate.” Lindell Wigginton found out you can’t tag the big man rolling to the hoop with Butler on the wing:

Second, he has ridiculous range. Butler says, “In high school I took a lot of deep threes. It was very normal to take deep threes...Coach Drew saw I could make it. I guess he gave me that kind of freedom. I think it just became contagious and one of our identities that helped us win a lot of games.” Defenses aren’t designed to stop a man making this shot:

Third, he is the master of pushing the carry and dribble hesitation to the limit. Sometimes Butler gets called for a carry. But he comes away with far more points for the Bears than he causes turnovers. Butler says, “I try not to think about it. I’ve been called for a carry a lot in my life, and also not a lot..depending on how often I might do the move.” With that move, Butler scored 41.7% of his threes while unassisted, per hoop-math. That’s the best mark for a Baylor rotation player since Kenny Chery in 2015.

Defending Butler is nearly impossible. If you think he’s picked up his dribble and is ready to shoot, then he’ll blow past you to the hoop—revealing that he never ended the dribble. If you think he’s going to keep dribbling, then you’ll back off and give him a slight edge—enough time for him to rise and make a shot. Oklahoma defended Butler about as well as you can. Christian James fought over Flo Thamba’s screen, and the big man gave Butler a narrow gap to prevent the drive. But that gap is still too much space, as Butler quickly rose and made it:

Finally, he’s a monster coming off screens. Baylor liked to run a play where Devonte Bandoo took a dribble hand-off off from a big man. Butler could then run around a double screen or a single one. Butler says, “Majority of the time I like to come off the single screen with the big, and the big can’t hedge that far, but it’s whatever I’m feeling and feel like.” When he’s feeling the double screen, there’s not much hope either:

The Baylor-Texas game in Waco last season is one of those games Baylor fans will remember for years. Texas led 62-45 with 9:23 remaining. ESPN gave Baylor a 1% chance to win. But as Bernie Sanders’ fledgling presidential campaign shows, the 1% still has hope in this country. Butler says, “I had a big time mood. Let me stop playing around. I don’t know what it was. I wasn’t going to end the game the way it was going.” Baylor came back and forced overtime.

Despite forcing overtime, Baylor trailed 81-75 with 1:45 left in overtime. Texas had an 89% win probability. But Butler came up court and fired a quick three. Butler says, “There was no conscious. It was more of an instinct. In high school, I took a lot of threes...I knew the score. We were down like six.” If Butler misses, Baylor losses. He makes it, and Baylor wins:

Butler had his biggest challenge of the season in the toughest environment in college basketball. In the final game of the regular season, Baylor played in Allen Filedhouse without Makai Mason. Butler says that playing without Mason, “It changes it a lot. I remember the first game without Makai. The load on me was just so much. The load of taking care of the ball, also scoring and getting everyone involved.”

The Jayhawks couldn’t stop Butler. He finished with 31 points. During the 2018-2019 season, 115 visiting players scored at Allen Fieldhouse. Butler scored more than all of them. Andrew Wiggins never scored 31 in Allen Fieldhouse. Kevin Durant only scored one more point than Butler in his iconic 2007 performance there. But Butler says, “It was kind of weird, going into the game. I was super tired. I didn’t even like want to warm up. I don’t even know what it was.” Butler scored the game’s first points and showed what kind of day he’d have:

The Kansas game highlighted Butler’s decision-making. Kansas often elects to have their guards fight through screens rather than switching the action, something Baylor’s exploited to hit threes. And it makes plenty of sense Kansas doesn’t want big men getting switched onto Baylor’s guards. Butler says, “I just feel the advantage is in my court. I can always score against the big. I can always make someone help. I think I have the advantage; I’m always looking to attack.” Mitch Lightfoot had quite the assignment here:

After losing four straight to end the season, Baylor entered the Syracuse game as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Butler says, “We knew we were going to have’s just a matter of if we could hit ‘em...if you’re not going into the game willing to shoot the ball well, you’re probably not going to win.”

Butler was much better as the year went on.

Playing in his first NCAA Tournament game, Butler ended up banking his first 3-point attempt. Butler says of that shot, “I was really nervous. Not really nervous, but when it went up, it felt like I shot the ball the first time playing college basketball. When I saw it go in, I thought it was going to be a good game.”

Baylor blew past their previous NCAA Tournament high in 3-point attempts against Syracuse.

Butler had a phenomenal game and helped the Bears secure the victory. He finished with 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc. With the game tied at 55, he hit Freddie Gillespie with a no look pass for a dunk:

And with Syracuse pressing, Butler went for the home run play to Gillespie. Butler says, “I have tremendous trust in Freddie. I kind of knew he was going to be open. The guy covering was looking at me the whole time. It’s a high risk pass, but I’ll make that pass to Freddie a lot.”

Butler was right that he made that pass before when trapped. By the end of the season, those kind of plays happen because of the work done earlier in the year:

The 2018-2019 Bears met their end against Gonzaga. The Bulldogs may have been the best team in the country last year. And in that game, Butler accounted for 25% of Baylor’s points. He did that by scoring at the rim against Gonzaga’s sixth best 2-point defense. Butler mixed his dribbling—with creative moves at the hoop—to score against NBA big men:

As Butler prepares for his sophomore season, I run through some possible criticisms about the upcoming team. Butler is honest throughout the interview, so there’s something to take away from his confidence that these issues aren’t real. When asked about distributing minutes with so many quality players, he says, “That’s bogus...we always put winning over our own roles.” Butler thinks they’ll have a better handle on turnovers too, saying, “I think we’re going to play at a faster pace. For me, with a year of experience under my belt and having the ball in my hands a lot, the game is slower for me.”

The biggest worry about the 2019-2020 Bears on offense might be if the 3-point shooting they had in conference play is sustainable. Baylor was the second worst power seven team at making 3-point shots during non-conference play. But during conference play, Baylor led the Big 12 in 3-point percentage. Butler thinks that concern is bogus too. He says, “The guys we have coming back, we practice shooting threes. We’re working on the 3-point line, especially with it moving back and giving us more space on the court.”

The interview ends with Butler understanding why this might be Baylor’s year. He takes stock of where they’ve been and where he thinks they can go. Butler says, “Last year we were trying to prove everyone wrong that we weren’t the last or second to last (Big 12 team). This year we’re going in thinking we’re good enough. The difference in goals shows how much we’ve improved. The guys back are tremendous.”