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You’re not supposed to get players like this with the 40th pick in the NBA Draft.
A first-team All-American with an NBA skillset at just 20 years old? Generally, that’s a pick in the top 20 on draft night, not in the second round. But thanks to a combination of circumstance and health concerns, Butler was there for the Utah Jazz to pick after trading out of the first round.
So what are the strengths and weaknesses of Butler’s game, and what might the Baylor Bears star bring to the Jazz next season? Let’s break it down.
Look, I’m just going to list a number of stats here, which I reacted to in approximately Vince MacMahon meme fashion, and expect you to do the same.
• Jared Butler shot 42% from three last year, on eight attempts per 40 minutes.
• Butler shot 51% on catch-and-shoot threes last year.
• Butler actually shot a higher percentage on the catch-and-shoot threes that weren’t wide open: 53%.
• Butler shot 48% on 3-point shots 25 feet or more from the rim.
Oh, wow, those are really incredible stats! You can easily imagine him fitting into the Jazz’s offense in this role alone: just knocking down the open shots that are provided for him as Mike Conley (presumably) and Donovan Mitchell drive towards the basket and force the defense to collapse.
He’s not just a stand-in-the-corner type shooter, though. Because Butler was one of the best players in the country, he naturally got a lot of defensive attention. But because he was able to shoot off the move — coming off screens, popping out from the inside, relocating to the open spot — he was able to get off a lot of catch-and-shoot shots anyway.
This is a great example. Butler senses where the defender will want to help and pops out so far from the hoop that his defender can’t recover. Splash.
He does show an impressive ability to get his shot off the dribble, too, even if it’s not as efficient. He makes about 33% on his pull-up shots, most of which came from deep. That’s not amazing, but A) it was above average for college players and B) it does keep the defense relatively honest when defending pick and roll. And given how good his touch is at other shooting styles, there’s an argument that he’ll be able to get more reps and find more of the balance he has on the catch-and-shoot jumper.
Ballhandling and passing
I’m putting these two categories together because, for Butler’s game, they fit very well together: he’s very good at getting to spots on the floor that he wants to get to, causing the defense to move, and then finding the open guy.
Take a look at what Butler does here, because it’s very NBA relevant. His defender is trying to prevent him from getting around the screen, so Butler essentially pushes him slightly to get the space. Now he’s got a 2-on-1 as the big man rolls down the lane, but he has to wait until the roll starts for the defense to really become concerned. So he hesitates for a dribble or two until the defender has to make a decision.
But that’s not all! Then, he has to make the right read. In particular, there’s one man guarding both players on the far side, and it’s Butler’s job to find the open one. So with his eyes, he moves the defender to the 3-point shooter on the top, then passes a perfect ball to the corner.
He can set himself up to score with some nifty dribbling and misdirection. Again, this works best on the outside, when he can get a defender leaning the wrong way, dribble around a screen, and shoot or take advantage. When he shakes loose inside, his success can depend on whether or not there’s help at the rim.
Being 6-foot-2 and a quarter without shoes on means that Butler has sufficient, but not amazing size for the NBA. He’s probably going to be limited to defending ones and twos. If the Jazz want to switch everything, he’ll end up defending the Kawhi Leonards and the Paul Georges of the world, and that’s going to be a little tough for him ... just as it would be for anybody that height and length.
But on his defensive assignment, he honestly does a very good job. He fights over and around screens, moves his feet well against isolations. He competes throughout possessions. He fouls a little bit too much in college, which means he’ll probably foul way too much in his first couple of years in the league.
I think the most remarkable defensive fact about Butler, though, is that he led the Big 12 in steals despite being pretty small and not very long (he only has a 6-5 wingspan). He does that with the knack for timing steals on the ball when the attacker is vulnerable, and he’s excellent at anticipating passes.
It’ll be interesting to what extent Quin Snyder allows him to freestyle on defense in this way. On one hand, steals are incredibly valuable, on the other hand, so is Rudy Gobert. Leaving Gobert to deal with defensive situations in the paint like those above might be best rather than gambling for some of the steals he got for Baylor.
Regardless, the steals are a sign of excellent team defense instincts, which will serve him well no matter what to what extent he’s allowed to chase them.
Athleticism and quickness
This is the major weakness of Butler’s game.
He’s not an above-the-rim finisher. Just doesn’t have the vertical. Right now, he tries all of these contact-adjacent hook layups from difficult angles, which means he makes shots around the rim at only about 52%. These kinds of shots are only going to get more difficult around NBA length.
Other guards get around this leaping weakness by using their body well around the rim, and especially by drawing fouls. Butler has some of that, but not enough, and it’s a real question whether or not he’ll be able to develop it. Ultimately, I think he’ll be like most point guards in the NBA, and take a low percentage of his shots from the rim area — even the All-Star guard Mitchell only took 15% of his shots from the rim area last year. But as the league becomes more and more oriented towards perimeter play, I think it’s likely to be a weakness though not a disqualifying one.
Will Butler be able to be quick and shifty enough to put real pressure on defenses in the NBA or will longer defenders swallow him up? It’s going to be a real learning curve, but by all accounts, Butler has the work ethic and attitude to improve in these micro-movements that can make the difference between success and failure on any given possession. Likewise, will he be able to make the same steals he did against college opposition, or will the NBA’s players be too precise for that, able to pass it around Butler’s minimal length? We’ll see.
Of course, he slipped due to apparent concern about heart issues, and if he’s not able to play, well, it doesn’t really matter how bouncy or quick he is. But given that the NBA’s heart doctors examined him and gave the all-clear, I think it’s probably safe to consider him at 100%.
Butler’s a lottery talent at second-round cost for the Jazz. His overall prospect profile reminds me of Trey Burke a little bit. Before you boo me, here’s what I mean: he’s a former college Most Outstanding Player with great poise, the ability to shoot from deep, good ballhandling skills, good vision, and he’s a little bit athletically limited. Remember, Burke was the No. 9 pick, but the NBA’s gotten a bit less enamored with the point guard archetype in recent years.
But where Butler has big advantages over Burke is in defensive intensity and smarts, size, and — by all accounts — professionalism. Those were ultimately the issues that caused Burke to fall out of the league before remaking himself into a bench shooting guard. That role, to me, is probably Butler’s floor if the NBA proves too quick for him to do his college stuff with the ball in hand. I can’t imagine him not being able to at least shoot in the NBA.
His ceiling is much higher than Burke’s outcome though, thanks to Butler’s lack of weaknesses. You can see him even as a starting guard one day, albeit a secondary one, because of his theoretical ability to help the team in multiple ways: great shooting, good playmaking, solid defense. Maybe imagine a smaller Malcolm Brogdon, or a Fred Van Vleet. Those guys are ~$20 million players despite finding themselves in the second round or going undrafted, and Butler shares some of their best traits.
Most likely he is probably somewhere in between: a good third or fourth guard on a roster, one worth approximately the mid-level exception. That might look more like Devonte Graham or Immanuel Quickley.
Regardless, to be able to get a player with that range of outcomes at No. 40 is pretty special — good fortune and good scouting in a deep draft. Butler is my favorite Jazz draft pick since Donovan Mitchell.