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NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

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How Jared Butler became Baylor’s two-way superstar

A long look at Butler’s growth

After having one of the best seasons in Baylor basketball’s history last year, Jared Butler has been significantly better as a junior. Barring unbelievable stupidity from the voters, he should be the first Baylor player to win Big 12 Player of the Year and be named a First Team All-American.

To make the leap from one of the Big 12’s best players to the country’s best two-way player, Butler had to get better defensively. He wasn’t bad on that end, but when he spoke with over 20 teams during the NBA Draft process last year, he tells me that some teams, “asked about staying on the ball, and if they (Baylor’s staff) hid me.” Butler didn’t think that was true, but he had to prove it this season.

A year later, Butler’s one of the country’s best defenders. He joined Mark Vital and Davion Mitchell as one of 15 players included on the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year watchlist. But things weren’t always that easy on that end of the floor for Butler.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Tech
Butler leads the Big 12 in steal rate and ranks 10th nationally
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The first defensive practices didn’t go well. He arrived at Baylor ranked No. 97 in his class. He was surrounded in the rankings by a man that barely plays at Michigan State and another that signed with Princeton. Obim Okeke, a Baylor graduate assistant and former teammate of Butler’s, told me that Baylor Associate Head Coach Jerome Tang used to call Butler “pinball because he’d get hit and fly off screens.”

With the feedback from NBA teams, and the recognition that he could be better defensively, Butler came into this season determined to show he wasn’t just an amazing offensive player.

While most of the world missed Baylor’s games on Flo-Hoops or watched football games (with Baylor on COVID pause, I would have given anything to see the weird camera work and wrong replays), Butler started the year with some important blocks. He says, “I’ve been working on timing blocks and not fouling shooters.”

Butler’s defensive improvement comes down to four things. First, he’s changed the way he watches film. Matt Gray, a Baylor graduate assistant, let me know, “This year, he spent a lot of time watching film with the coaches. He’s a lot more vocal on days where we’re going over scouts and preparing for the next team.” Sometimes that means letting the coaches know they’d prefer to switch or play a different defensive allotment.

Jake McGee, a graduate assistant, says that Butler’s film watching is, “after every game he is meticulous, almost to—not to a bad extent—sometimes it’s like, ‘hey man, you had 30, I know you had some mistakes, don’t miss the forest for the trees.”

Second, he’s been collecting a bevy of steals. Butler leads the Big 12 in steal rate. McGee told me, “his steal percentage is ridiculous….that’s probably the main thing he’s improved upon.” Against Texas, Butler worked with MaCio Teague to stop Greg Brown, a guaranteed first round pick in next year’s NBA Draft. His defensive acumen comes from the improvement—that McGee references—with his film and scout work. Butler says, “We knew (Greg Brown) had one assist coming in and was long and good putting the ball down, so you had to play him close and as a scorer.” That led to this bucket for the Bears:

Third, he’s improved defensively off the ball. Rem Bakamus, a graduate assistant who spends a lot of time working with the guards, told me, “Jared has developed a really good feel off the ball, as well as on the ball through a lot of film study, talking to Davion and others; it’s funny to think they go back and forth as a competitor now. Jared is such a smart kid and competitor that he made it a point to become better on defense, and you see how well he’s adjusted defensively, he’s up there with Davion and Mark (Vital) in terms of numbers when he’s in there.”

Against Auburn, Butler, Mitchell and Vital made Sharife Cooper’s life difficult. The freshman is projected as a lottery pick and entered the game on quite a run. Butler keyed in off the ball to make it tougher for him as a passer. One advantage to remote interviews is that I could show Butler clips, and in this one, he told me that, “I could take a hop so I was ready to steal once I saw he was passing.” Once again, that’s each skill helping each skill; get a little better in one area, and suddenly everything compounds. Butler’s doing a better job watching film, so he knows Cooper’s tendencies. He’s doing a better job understanding how to defend without fouling, so he knows how to handle guarding guys, which puts him in the right position to hop and collect steals:

Fourth, Butler has improved athletically. A portion of that is tied to age. Butler’s not even 21, and if he elects to enter the NBA Draft, he won’t be on draft day. He’s not even a year older than Cooper, despite Cooper being freshman. That’s worked on offense and defense. A little bit faster now, Butler can stay in front of plenty of players. Against Illinois—a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament—he came up with a big steal before halftime. He says, “Yeah, I remember that one. I just had to make sure I stayed in front of him...” He did:

McGee told me that this season Butler’s been “More mature from the jump. He takes care of his body. Today we worked out at 10, and he asked me to get there 30 minutes early to get into the gym so he could eat breakfast, stretch and prepare for the workout.” McGee adds that, “last summer when some of the pro players came back—Isaiah Austin, Tweety Carter—that’s what I compare it to for him. He gets his work in, get gets off his feet, he goes back to making sure he stays healthy and ready. (That’s) such a testament to the player.”

With improved athleticism, Butler can help and then recover splendidly. That’s an important part of Baylor’s defense. The Bears rank third in turnover percentage, as they force a turnover on nearly 26% of opponent possessions. It’s hard enough to get past Baylor’s guards and forwards, but if an offensive player does, Butler can stunt (help off and lunge at a driver) and recover. Against Texas Tech, he stunted then recovered onto Mac McClung to block a shot. Butler says, “I was happy about that play. I just needed to make sure I could recover in time to contest the shot.”

As good as Butler’s been on defense—and he’s clearly met any challenge folks had about his performance on that end of the floor—he’s improved offensively too. Last season, Butler had an offensive rating of 99.6 during Big 12 play. That metric—for those unfamiliar—tries to calculate how many points a player produces per 100 possessions. This seasons, Butler’s offensive rating is 122 in Big 12 play. A few wrinkles explain that improvement.

Butler’s passing is better. He leads the Big 12 in assist rate. Okeke notes Baylor’s improvement over the last two seasons is because, “We just started believing in each other more. No offense to the earlier teams, but it was more me oriented than team oriented.”

Even with Butler feeling incredible shooting against Kansas, (he finished with 30 points and 7-of-9 from three) he tallied eight assists. He had a chance to take a pretty good floater off a pick-and-roll, but instead he located Davion Mitchell for a triple. He also had a pretty good layup opportunity, but Adam Flagler had a better layup look with Butler’s dime. Both times Butler made the right play. In the press conference after the Kansas game, I asked him about those plays, and he said, “It’s a team that beats Kansas. It’s a team that wins a game. Me trying to do it all by myself, it never works out that way. In order to win a Big 12, we need all 15 guys, all the staff. And I just made sure we played a team game, and I think we’re unbeatable when we play that game.”

The Kansas State game, in Manhattan, was probably Butler’s best passing today. He worked more angles than a geometry test and finished with 13 assists. That’s especially impressive on the road because the scorer isn’t usually as friendly toward the visiting team when crediting the passer with an assist.

Many defenses love to overload the ball side and the hoop. When Butler has the ball though, you realize that preparation is just wasted time before the inevitable suffering from his passing:

My favorite pass of the season came in the Louisiana game. Butler did a Euro Step to hit Mitchell for a three. I asked each about it in press conferences, and neither could quite remember that play. So luckily, thanks to screen share, Butler told me, nonchalantly (which led me to a long search about why “chalant” never emerged in the English lexicon like nonchalant—perhaps a sign I’m a hack or it’s time to get married so I can have someone divorce me when she thinks I’m cheating on her when my excuse for why I’m diligently looking at my phone is because I’m focused on solving why chalant never achieved the popularity of nonchalant) that, “It’s just a play where I saw the defender was too far onto me, so I drove into him and read the help. It’s about reading the help, and then Davion making the shot.”

There’s an old baseball adage that across 54 outs you’ll see something new every game. That mantra probably doesn’t describe basketball, as the proliferation of threes (not something I’m opposed to, but it’s going to continue absent a rule change) makes so many outcomes dependent on the whims of shooting. But I’ve watched thousands of basketball games and never seen something like Butler’s pass to Mitchell above. Analytics are awesome. But we watch basketball to see something unique, and I doubt I’ll see a pass like that one again. The hope I will is enough to keep me watching.

That clip led me to ask about a few other passes, including this one where Butler looks away during the Kansas State game and hits MaCio Teague for a three:

Covering basketball means trying to analyze the smallest details of the biggest plays. So I ask Butler about that pass. I’m interested in what he’s reading. Is he looking to pass instantly? Does Mitchell’s yell draw his attention and clarify why he snaps his head at him? Is the one man zone played by Kansas State the thing that starts Butler’s mental process?

In response, Butler opens up honestly. He lets me know, “It’s not that complicated, Kendall. I’m not really thinking about all of that. It’s just I see the guy, and I think that’s the right play because of where he’s running. It’s really quick.” And that’s really the key thing to all these breakdowns we spend too much time on. Butler spends hundreds of hours watching film and many more hours training and working on basketball.

He can honestly tell me what he sees. But the reality is that he can see something live that doesn’t require him to breakdown the film like he’s searching for clues. He’s already found the answer instantly.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Christian
Butler uses a Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua seal to reach the hoop against TCU. Butler finished with 28 points in Baylor’s victory over the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This last couple of years have been good for Butler off the court too. It’s meant trying new things. A few summers ago, he went out with one of his roommates on the lake. He wore a life jacket, but Butler’s unable to swim. so when they got out on the water, he says, “I started freaking out. But Jackson Moffatt told me everything was going to be okay. He just said, ‘Jared’ and things worked out.”

Butler hasn’t been afraid to say what he thinks. This summer he spoke to Baylor’s student athletes about how they could use their voices to influence positive change. He describes that as an “amazing experience where I got to really speak out and discuss things.” He eloquently explained how they couldn’t just talk about things this summer but actually had to work for concrete solutions. He tied that call for change into his faith, which has been the key foundation he’s credited at nearly every press conference this season.

He was also selected as one of two student representatives on the NCAA Oversight Committee. There are approximately 12 people on that committee; Butler provides a top-level student athlete’s view on some of the key issues facing the sport.

It’s not surprising Butler’s achieved all of this. He gets along well with so many people and works things out if there’s ever a problem. Okeke said that they didn’t get along when Butler first got to Baylor, but now he says that, “Jared is one of my best friends.”

McGee adds his perspective on working with Butler, “I joked with him this morning, I don’t know if there’s a more enjoyable person to work with that pushes you as Jared does...he has a way of teaching the people around him and makes them enjoy their job.” He also says, “If we were accounting students we’d be looking just as forward to working on an accounting project as working in the gym with him. I told him that, and he said, ‘that’s awesome, that’s the kind of person I want to be. I want to build relationships.”

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