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Jared Butler’s uneasy path from college star to NBA rookie

With Utah having an embarrassment of riches at guard, Jazz rookie understands this season may be more about learning the game at this level than playing it

Utah Jazz guard Jared Butler (13)  dribbles against Toronto guard Malachi Flynn Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Utah Jazz guard Jared Butler (13) dribbles against Toronto guard Malachi Flynn Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Butler’s rookie season has presented challenges as he splits his time between the Salt Lake City Stars and the Jazz.
George Frey, Associated Press

On Nov. 17, Jared Butler hit a game-winning shot, conducted a walk-off interview, and signed autographs after the game.

Moments earlier he had his hands on his knees and was trying to catch his breath. This was the most minutes he’d played since April 5, when he won an NCAA title with Baylor by beating Gonzaga.

“Shoot, I was dying out there,” Butler said with a laugh after the game. “Haven’t played minutes like that in a long time.”

He found life in those final seconds of the game though. It was all going to come down to one chance and he wanted it. Carefully, methodically, he pushed his way downhill and created just the right amount of separation and space to get off an easy bucket earning the victory in the closing seconds.

He’d scored a game-high 30 points and he’d shown what he can do under pressure, even when he isn’t at his best. But it wasn’t in front of a sold-out Utah Jazz crowd at Vivint Arena. It was in a sparsely filled Bruin Arena at Salt Lake Community College with the Salt Lake City Stars.

Actually, the majority of the crowd consisted of Jazz coaching and player development staff with Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Jazz general manager Justin Zanik and Jazz owner Ryan Smith sitting courtside to watch the Stars’ home opener.

Butler’s biggest moment as a professional basketball player was in a gym with stadium seating on just one side of the court, a bounce house on the other, and there were more people clamoring to get a glimpse of the stars in the courtside seats than there were paying attention to the Stars.

To say that Butler’s transition from college to the NBA has been difficult would be an understatement.

“It’s so hard,” Butler said. “Just every single part of it has been hard.”

To be sure, Butler is certainly not the first collegiate player turned pro to spend some time in the G League. Some players handle the situation better than others. But everyone’s situation is also different.

Baylor guard Jared Butler cuts down the net after the championship game against Gonzaga in the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. From big fish in a little pond to little fish in a big pond, Jazz rookie is learning the ropes of professional basketball.
Darron Cummings, Associated Press

Here’s where Butler finds himself: After a stunningly impressive collegiate season and some really promising moments in the NBA preseason, high hopes were dashed by the reality of where Butler is spending his rookie season. There are not a lot of minutes available for him in Utah.

The Jazz won’t be playing Butler in place of Mitchell or Mike Conley or Joe Ingles or Jordan Clarkson. The Jazz are hunting for an NBA title and while they would like for Butler to develop, they have bigger fish to fry.

If this team was rebuilding or had a core of young developing players it would make complete sense for Butler to get some regular minutes. But the Jazz are only willing to sacrifice a tiny amount as they grind through the regular season. The Jazz want to preserve Ingles and Conley for the postseason, so they’ve allowed two-way player Trent Forrest to step in for small moments — a minute here, three minutes there.

Some people might be seeing the spot minutes that Forrest has been getting and think, why can’t Butler have those? Well, it’s not really productive for the Jazz to take that route. In fact, the Jazz tried that a little bit, and it was kind of counterproductive.

In Chicago, with Conley resting, the first game of a back-to-back set, Butler played in small spurts but wasn’t able to get into any sort of rhythm. His most notable stats in those nine minutes were two fouls and two turnovers.

The Jazz lost that game and they did so because their main rotational players and their core made big mistakes and couldn’t properly contain the Bulls. But after that game, Butler was a ball of stress.

Utah Jazz guard Jared Butler looks to pass during game at Chicago on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Chicago. Although Butler played only nine minutes, he found himself shouldering the blame for the Jazz defeat.
Matt Marton, Associated Press

“In games where you don’t play a lot, you still feel like it’s your fault when we lose,” Butler said. “It’s a tough mental battle. ... I don’t know how to feel right now, because we have a game tomorrow. In college you got a couple of days to sulk and like, regroup. But now I’m just — I don’t know how to feel ... I don’t know.”

Work in progress

Not long after that, the Jazz announced they would be periodically sending Butler to the Stars on assignment to practice and play in games when it made sense.

Ultimately, the decision to give Butler time with the Stars was practical and is in Butler’s best interest. The Jazz believe in Butler and in his future as an NBA player, but he needs time to develop and it’s very hard to develop when you are only going to get a minute here or there at very best and can’t get into any sort of flow.

“It’s hard for any player to get into a rhythm in spot minutes, especially a rookie,” Stars head coach Nathan Peavy said. “Veterans can do it. ... Young players need to learn to produce in short stints.”

To make matters worse, fans and pundits were pretty reactionary about Butler’s short regular-season outings with the Jazz and wondered if he was even worth the draft pick the Jazz used on him. And the 21-year-old sees everything that people say and write and post to social media.

“No rhythm at all and you’re still judged on those minutes and you want to just say ‘That’s not me, that’s not me!’ But you can’t,” Butler said. “Then you get into this mode where you think everything is your fault and I have to remind myself, Jared, you played three minutes. It’s not my fault.”

All of this comes after a roller coaster of emotions from the NBA draft process.

Heartbeat away

After winning a national championship and being named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, Butler declared for the NBA draft. It was the highest of highs and everything in life seemed so perfect.

But then the NBA’s fitness-to-play panel threw in the first wrench. Butler has a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and while a more severe version of this affliction would mean difficulty and danger for someone playing basketball at such a high level, Butler’s case is mild, and he’d been cleared to play every year at Baylor.

Even so, the NBA wanted to be thorough. But a medical condition being investigated by the NBA and halting his pre-draft workouts sent red flags out and his draft stock began to plummet.

Butler, who was at one point considered worthy of a late lottery pick in the draft, fell to the second round, where he was selected 40th overall by the Jazz.

But, he was selected and the Jazz feel like they got a steal.

The next wrench is where we are right now, with Butler’s playing time happening away from an NBA team.

At the very least, Butler is getting to play real minutes in competitive games while with the Stars and that’s what Jazz coach Quin Snyder and everyone else in the Jazz organization want for Butler.

Of course, playing G League minutes is not what Butler dreamed of or thought he was headed for when he was cutting down nets and drowning in confetti as one of the best players in college basketball.

The Jazz are proud of their development system and they aren’t quiet about the prospects that they’ve turned into NBA stars and starters. That’s all fine, but no amount of success from the Jazz’s development system can change the perception of the G League.

“​​I think that’s the reason why it can be so hard,” Butler said. “The perception of the G League is not a glorified thing. Instead it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not ready for the NBA.’ And I think I’m for sure ready for the NBA. But from the outside it doesn’t seem like a step.”

Add blocking out all the preconceived ideas of the G League to a growing list of things that Butler has to mentally battle. That’s on top of watching his Baylor teammate Davion Mitchell earn critical and important minutes with the Sacramento Kings, seeing Forrest get minutes in the Jazz’s rotation, hearing everyone doubt if Butler can be ready if called upon, trying to acclimate to the NBA game and schedule, trying to make friends and connections with his teammates, trying to improve his game and prove his mettle to those who matter, trying to stay positive through the whole thing and not be overwhelmed by any of it.

Anxious times

“Anxiety is at an all-time high for young people,” Butler said laughing in a sort of, I’m joking but I’m not really joking kind of way. “Yeah I’m worried about the future, but that’s one of the things I can’t really think about.”

If Butler thinks too far ahead it can either get his hopes up too much, or it can be a disappointment.

See, the Jazz aren’t in the market for a rookie guard right now. But, Conley and Ingles are both on the tail end of their careers, players get moved and traded and leave or get injured everyday in the NBA. Butler is a huge and valuable insurance policy for the Jazz, and he knows it.

But he also knows that he could be sweetener in a deal and could wind up at the end of a different team’s bench and then who knows what his future would look like.

Butler really wants to get comfortable and to think that his time is coming, but he’s approaching everything with trepidation. He doesn’t want to get too comfortable because he doesn’t want to be caught off guard by anything.

He has allowed small parts of his personality to peek through. Clarkson recently said that he was surprised at how much film Butler watches for someone who doesn’t get a lot of minutes. He’s a workhorse and a junkie and that’s something that has garnered respect.

“He’s quiet, but I find him to be very composed,” Peavy said. “Which is a pretty mature attribute for a rookie.”

Butler seems to feel a lot better when he hears encouragement from his coaches and teammates, which is something to keep in mind. He’s a positive reinforcement kind of guy. He’s also lighthearted and happy when his parents are around, as they were the night of his game-winning shot with the Stars.

The transition to the NBA has been difficult for Butler, but he’s determined to conquer it and to prove that he is made for the league and destined for bigger things.

“I think about all of the times I’ve dreamed of being in this position to play basketball for money, for a living. I’m doing that,” Butler said. “So it’s like, I’m doing what I wanted to do. I can’t complain. I can’t look at it as a bad thing. I’m here and this is what I asked for and I’m playing basketball, everyday. I can handle this.”

Confidence is half the battle.