In the 113 year history of Baylor basketball, the program has never opened a season ranked higher than No. 12. But with Jared Butler—the almost guaranteed pick for Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, and an assured selection as Preseason First Team All-American—back, the Bears begin the season No. 1 on ESPN’s 2020-2021 rankings.
Last week, Butler spoke with me about his sophomore campaign, the NBA Draft process and his decision to return to Baylor.
To understand how Butler came to his decision and understand his game, it’s helpful to look back at his rise over the last year.
Before COVID-19 would preclude American entry in Europe, the 2019-2020 Bears played a four game series in Italy. And that trip changed the tenor for the team. Butler said, “It was a great experience for individuals living in the U.S. to get to go outside of the country. Italy was amazing; as the team, it really helped us bond a lot. (We) spent 10 days in a foreign country with so many things to do. Playing there was really helpful.”
Their strong performance in Italy led plenty of us to hype last season’s squad. But the Bears blew a double-digit lead to Washington in early November. Macio Teague told me last month that, “Jared might have been the only person that played well.” Butler noted the loss was “probably the best thing that happened to us. It humbled us a lot. Put us on track to where we needed to be and took us down from cloud nine.”
In the Myrtle-Beach Invitational, Villanova and Baylor may have played the most enjoyable game of the season. Both teams shot over 50% from the field. The Bears made 57% of their 3-point attempts. Butler finished with 22 points to lead Baylor to the victory. Butler said, “We were great. Villanova was great. It comes down to who is going to be the tougher team. Who will get a stop on defense. We all knew: who gets a stop?” Baylor managed to hold off the Wildcats and continue a winning streak that would top out at 23 games; the longest in the 24 year history of the Big 12.
To the chagrin of Baylor’s basketball fans, Allen Fieldhouse had been where Baylor’s best teams go to lose. The Bears had led at halftime and fallen. They’d had solid leads with two minutes remaining and perished. And they had plenty of instances where they experienced what one of the 20th Century’s great thinkers, Viktor Frankl, called “Delusions of Reprieve,” which is a belief just before someone is doomed that things are about to actually turn in their favor. But whether it was a call that didn’t get made, or Baylor didn’t make that one final stop or the Bears didn’t hit one big shot, Baylor went into Kansas’ arena 14 times and left with 14 losses. That’s understandable. Kansas has been one of the country’s premiere programs. Buddy Hield dropped 46 points while playing for the country’s top ranked team and walked out of Allen Fieldhouse a loser. Kevin Durant scored 25 points in the first half there, and still, Texas lost too.
History remains constant until it doesn’t. And on January 11, 2020, Butler excised the mentality that haunted Baylor’s past forays in Lawrence, Kansas. Despite dropping 31 points in Allen Fieldhouse in 2019, the Bears lost. Butler said, “The year before, just going into Allen Fieldhouse, everybody on the team didn’t believe we could win. That was really hard for me.”
Butler took control and changed things. He said, “With a whole new group of guys, they didn’t have the monkey of years on their back. They didn’t know how much weight it was. We as competitors looked at someone just as good as us, and we wanted to prove our work was better.” He showed he was ready to make tough buckets early:
Purists often argue about slippery slopes. If we don’t maintain a narrow view of what’s allowed, then someday—though maybe not immediately—we’ll regret how someone manipulates the new strictures.
In the NBA, James Harden has pushed the limits of what’s considered a gather to get more steps than a dieter on the first week with a Fitbit. Butler has done the same thing to the rules about what’s a carry. As college basketball and the NBA allowed players to progressively get away with their wrist closer to the ground than the ceiling while dribbling, a skilled player, like Butler, can now make it nearly impossible for a defender to understand when a player has picked up their dribble.
At the end of the first half, Christian Braun learned how impossible it is to defend Butler. Braun ended up fouling him because he couldn’t be certain if Butler was ready to shoot or still had a path to the basket. When Braun opened his hips, he gave Butler a split second to get to the hoop and draw the foul:
In the second half, Butler showed why Braun wasn’t crazy for thinking Butler would shoot in the first half. Butler said, “This was the moment when I got back in the game. I was like, ‘it’s a little too close for me.’ I think I hit one shot and okay, let’s go. Coach Drew ran some plays. It was just too close. I didn’t want the refs to get involved. I didn’t want outside factors, and I knew it was a big moment.”
Marcus Garrett won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, which is given to the country’s best defender. He can defend any position, and in Morgantown, his efforts over the final eight minutes sent top 25 West Virginia’s season spiraling. But Butler was a little too good for him. Butler said, “He definitely is one of the best defenders. My will was a little bit more. I had scored a bunch before this. I had a lot more confidence and this mode where I was going to get a bucket for our team.”
Perhaps Baylor’s toughest loss in Allen Fieldhouse came in 2017. That Baylor team would also achieve a No. 1 ranking during the regular season. But they committed a catastrophic error late in the game. Al Freeman went under a screen against Frank Mason, and Baylor lost:
History rhymed in Baylor’s favor thanks to Butler. Garrett committed a mistake similar to Freeman’s. Garrett went under and gave Baylor a chance to end the game. Butler said, “I did pause for a second. It was more of wow. But just kind of like, they were just getting confused on how to guard it. Trying to find a different way to stop it. This is the easiest bucket of all the buckets I’ve had.”
After their big win against Kansas, Iowa State came to Waco. And the Cyclones learned the peril of trying to guard Butler. This sequence is nearly indescribable:
Butler provided some words on the play though. He said, “I think my handle definitely has improved...I look back, where did I think about doing that move? It’s just a combination of all the hard work and working on moves, in the house practicing air dribble moves.” That quote got me thinking about this important Twitter question:
When do men stop doing basketball moves in the house? Like at what age does it stop? Bc if I get crossed up at 7AM on the way to the kitchen one more time....— Danni (@dmills3288) August 5, 2020
After hearing Butler say air dribble moves allowed him to hone his handle, men should never cease doing basketball moves in the house.
Oklahoma State didn’t have the season they wanted, but they were substantially better than their record. In Waco, the Cowboys kept the game close. So Baylor turned to a version of the Clippers old “45” play they’d run in the Blake Griffin and Chris Paul era. In that set, two bigs come up and set screens for Butler. He said, “I look at the defenders of the two people that are screening. I choose the one that I think is the weakest. If he’s hedging hard or laying back low that determines what I do. It’s a tremendous play. You can pick and usually get a 4 or 5 man (to attack).”
The Jayhawks returned to Waco for one of the most hyped games in Big 12 regular season history. Baylor broke Kansas’ streak for the most consecutive wins in Big 12 history. The Jayhawks hadn’t lost to anyone since the Baylor game. The two squads would make up 20% of the all american teams and 100% of the league’s all-defensive unit.
After a run late, Baylor had the ball down three. They worked a play for Butler, and his shot just missed. He said, “My mindset is to try and get the best shot off. Just left it short by like four inches, or I would have made the shot. I felt like I had a great shot and could have had it. That’s a 2-of-4 shot if I did it again.”
That was a brutally tough loss for Baylor. They finished 15-3, but were denied a league crown. No team had ever won 15 games and failed to win the league title.
The world deserved to see those teams play in the Big 12 Tournament and the Final Four. Butler, adept at analyzing how things might have changed in those games said, “We would have adjusted to their middle ball screen. We would have had a different plan. It would have been a mindset. The first game, we destroyed them. The second game, they destroyed us on offense. It would have been a mind match. Everyone knowing everyone's moves. It would have been a tremendous game. I can’t say for sure what would have happened.”
In a hotel ballroom in Kansas City, Baylor officially found out the NCAA Tournament was cancelled because of COVID-19. That left plenty of players with NBA Draft decisions.
Baylor could have lost four guys to the NBA Draft. Davion Mitchell, the team’s point guard, told me in January about the possibility he’d leave early, “I really don’t know the future.” Mark Vital, the team’s starting power forward, told me, “It took me a month to decide what to do.” And Teague, Baylor’s other starting guard went through the NBA Draft process and told me last month that he made the decision to come back only two weeks before the NBA Draft deadline.
With the uncertainty about if any of those guys would come back, Butler entered the NBA Draft. He said that he interviewed with 23 NBA teams over Zoom. He explained, “All of the interviews were similar and group meetings and a guy asking questions and listening. Some distinct features. Some would ask me to break down film and hear thoughts. Some had different psychological evaluations and things with them. Some were personal and interrogative.”
The NBA also likes to give out mental tests. That makes sense to some degree. When NBA teams couldn’t get players in live contact drills because of local ordinances restricting travel and gatherings, they could find out someone’s mental acuity and personality. But sometimes things go too far. Butler told me he took the Myers-Briggs personality test. That tests asks people what they’d prefer between two options. Then people are scored on four different categories. Study after study finds the test has no scientific value. Scrolling through Facebook posts from 2012 or texting an ex is a better use of anyone’s time than taking that test. Butler offered no complaint about being subjected to that grave injustice. Maybe that suggests he has the demeanor to thrive in every lockeroom. Or maybe it suggests even the NBA couldn’t escape the bastion of stupidity that is the Myers-Briggs test.
Butler had an inquisitive mindset during the process. He asked teams pointed questions to ensure they provided him the best intelligence about if returning to school or going pro was his best option. He said that the NBA teams liked, “My ability to play with and without the ball. They felt in their system they could plug me in different situations and be comfortable with my role.” He also learned what the NBA wanted him to improve on. He said there were “Three things. Athleticism, being able to improve assist to turnover and my defense. I can get better on defense guarding the ball.”
He told me there were several times he leaned toward staying in the NBA Draft, “Many different times. Especially when you’re training as a professional and the lifestyle you start to enjoy and stay comfortable with staying in the draft. There were times I thought the opposite too. I was leaning one way at times.”
Ultimately, Butler had to balance two things. First, he said, “When it came down to the last few weeks, the big consensus to be a first round draft pick and the chance of me being a first round pick were much slimmer.” He felt like he was going to be drafted somewhere in the second round. Second, Butler also had to consider what Baylor had coming back. By the time he made his decision, he knew Baylor had 3-of-4 other starters back. The Bears also get Tristan Clark—easily Baylor’s best player before he went down with a knee injury during the 2018-2019 campaign—another year removed from his knee surgery. Butler said, “I think Tristan is going through the process of recovery and is gaining valuable mental aspects of his life that will translate to the game. I think he will come back stronger. It just takes time.”
I’ve talked with Butler a decent bit while he’s been at Baylor, and he’s excellent at understanding the risks of decisions. In an age of extreme takes, Butler’s calm and able to consider all aspects of a decision. So while he (and I would include myself too) is confident the college basketball season will happen, he also understands that if a season doesn’t happen, he can still move up in the NBA Draft because, “Even if we don’t have a season, my stock can’t go down.” As a known quantity—there aren’t too many guys that have shown they can score in college like him—Butler will be well-positioned to be a high draft pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
For the third time in program history, Baylor should have the preseason selection for Big 12 player of the year. Perry Jones earned that honor in 2012, and Pierre Jackson did in 2013. Butler said that, “Means the world to me. Even the awards I got this year were pretty surreal. I’m glad I can represent Baylor. What matters is actually winning though.”
To ensure Baylor can win the national title next season, I’ve asked Butler in multiple interviews about Baylor avoiding what Pat Riley dubbed, “The disease of me.” Riley, who coached the Showtime Lakers to multiple championships in the 1980’s, warned that once a team wins a title or achieves substantial success, the players all want more. Guys think they deserve bigger roles.
The 2020-2021 Bears will need incredible chemistry to overcome that challenge. Several really good players are going to play zero minutes some nights. Others will have to deal with scoring less in Waco than they would on other Big 12 programs because the team will be so talented. Butler said, “It will come into play for sure. It won’t impact it too much. Last year everyone had goals coming into the season. Now we have more goals coming into the season. Most of our goals can be accomplished. They can be achieved through us winning and people value winners more than they value numbers. I think that’s what it will come down to. Understanding we can achieve the team goals some way.”
Butler is cognizant this could be his last run in Waco, “I think this is the year where I’m most looked at as an NBA professional. This is the highest on the draft process.”
With the understanding this could be his last chance, he’s focused on winning a national title. He ended his video announcing he was going to return with that lofty goal. To do that, he said they, including himself, have to be “more mature than we were last year. The target on our back is humongous and teams will give us the best shot night in and night out. So much hype around our team; (we) have to keep our eyes set on our goals and what we have to do.”
But he’s confident the team is on track to do that. He said, “I think we’re mature as a team. Look through our routines without the coaches. It’s a great feeling when we can do that without the coaches (having to get on us). Guys understand the process and where we’re at right now.”
During the pandemic, Butler thinks he’s gotten a lot better. Still just 20, he’s one of the youngest rising juniors in the country. He’s now dunking much easier. He said, “The quarantine has helped me out a lot. I was training as a professional and worked out my body for about 2.5 months. Day in and day out it helped it out. It’s not like I hit puberty, but I feel like I’m finally coming into my body.”
The world is unknowable. Maybe we get a vaccine sooner and can pack arenas during the season. Or maybe the season gets pushed back. Regardless, Butler wants one last run and a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament with the best team in Baylor history. He ends the interview with these words about playing the NCAA Tournament later in the 2021 calendar, “I wouldn’t have any problem with a January season and a May Madness...I don’t know if I could pass up on that. I don’t know what situation I could be in in May or March. I would for sure want to play.”