Rasual Butler: Phoenix in Flight

I want to take you back to what I wrote about Rasual Butler over the summer, when I produced my comparison of Hornet players to Dungeons & Dragons classes and compared him to the Paladin Class:

“Paladins are the good champions of the D&D world.  Powerful warriors, they armor themselves heavily and head to battle wielding large weapons.  At the start, they seem quite impressive, but as time goes on and the party gains levels and power, all they get are some lame magical spells that do next to nothing and a few abilities that are only useful in very specific situations.  At this point, that’s what Rasual Butler has come to.  When he came to the Hornets, he was a breath of fresh air.  A shooter who could actually hit shots.  An athletic wingman who was happy to mix it up on defense and block shots.  Sadly, as the team has continued to improve, he appears to have been left behind. It makes me sad.  He’s always been one of the hard-working good ones.”

To give you some background to that quote, last season Rasual Butler played fewer minutes per game than he had since an injury-plagued sophomore year.  He shot 35% from the field and 33% from the three point line en route to averaging 4.1 points in 17 minutes.  In Butler’s last stint of playing time in the 2007-2008 season, he managed 30% shooting from the field and 28% shooting from the three point line.  His best game in that stretch was 10 points on 4-6 shooting with 2 rebounds, which isn’t bad until you realize he started that game and played 32 minutes.

It was a lost year, and I really did think that Butler’s time as a productive member of the Hornets was over.  Even before that disastrous season, Butler only hovered slightly above average as a perimeter shooter, and it was mostly his long-limbed defense that kept him on the floor.  The biggest strike against him bouncing back was that he required big minutes to be able to contribute to a team:  As a Hornet, if he played 20 minutes or less, he shot only 30.1% from the three point line.  When he got more than 20 minutes, he shot 38.7%. 

Big minutes didn’t seem to be in the offing.  The Hornets came into the season with Peja and Peterson set as the starting wings, Posey was looking to take minutes at the small forward, and promising Julian Wright also seemed poised to battle for minutes on the wing.  How could Butler possibly get those 20+ minutes a game?

So when Byron Scott began praising him in training camp, I rolled my eyes.  Some other former training camp  praisee’s had been Cedric Simmons, Linton Johnson, and Brandon Bass, and none of those guys ever did anything substantial in a Hornet’s uniform.  When Julian Wright played well on the wing during the early pre-season games, I completely dismissed Butler – but then Wright injured his knee in Germany.  Over the rest of the pre-season Rasual got Julian’s minutes, played well, and opened the season as the primary backup behind Morris Peterson.  Ten games into the season Peterson also got injured, and Butler took over as the starting shooting guard.  Over the next few months he cemented his place in the starting rotation by hitting 42% from deep in November and December.  When Peterson came back, Butler kept his minutes.  It took Julian Wright months and a Stojakovic injury before he could get any sort of substantial minutes.

As a result, for the first time under Byron Scott, the Hornets have a shooting guard consistently playing more than 30 minutes a game.  Rasual’s minutes have climbed each month, from 22.5 to 29.9 to 30.6 to 34.5 to a bit crazy 39.1.  His production has mirrored his minutes, increasing at about the same rate to where he’s been averaging a nice 15 points per game the last two months while shooting 40% from deep.  He’s teamed with Chris Paul to provide some of the lone bright spots on a defense aching for Tyson Chandler’s return and some toughness in the paint. 

Rasual Butler’s rise from the ashes has been a joy to watch, earning him(at least on this blog) the nickname “The Phoenix”.  My buddy likes him so much now he recently bought his jersey.  I can remember a half-dozen games where he’s put the nail in the coffin, burying big threes late in the fourth to kill runs by opposing teams.  He’s become automatic on the shot fake in the corner that leads to a one-dribble pull up jumper from seventeen feet – and his curls find the bottom of the net more often than not.  He’s shown more confidence this season than I’ve ever seen from him.

I couldn’t be any happier for him.

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