The current crop of second-year NBA players has been one of this season's high points in the NBA. Zion Williamson has taken the next step as an alpha creator in New Orleans. Coby White is averaging 16-5-5 in Chicago. DeAndre Hunter seemed to take the leap in year two, averaging 17.2 points before an injury. RJ Barrett has grown into a lead role in New York, Darius Garland is gradually getting more efficient, PJ Washington recently dropped 42 on the Kings, Keldon Johnson is a walking paint touch, Cam Johnson is starting on a terrific Phoenix team... the list goes on and on.
The point here: many guys take time to get better. As they mature and become 20 or 21 in what would be their junior year in college, their positive development is a great sign for their career trajectory and one that ultimately gives the team that drafted them a ton of confidence.
The same confidence should be placed in juniors in college who steadily get better. They're making the leap in similar ways, just not doing it in the NBA. Nobody embodies that seldom-seen sophomore-to-junior leap quite like Jared Butler. Baylor has been one of the clear two-best teams in the nation, due to a stingy defense and veteran group of guards who play off each other well and are first-round hopefuls.
For Butler, a steady hand and a game that largely is under-appreciated keep him slightly lower on draft boards than his teammate Davion Mitchell. Where there isn't sexiness, there is solid, consistent and appealing production. As Butler continues to get better and prove he doesn't have bad nights, he should be viewed as a lottery talent as a low-risk, high-reward combo guard who just keeps improving.
I've been a Butler fan for around a year now. A year ago, I had Butler as a mid-20s guy on my draft board. The theory was that he had very few holes in his game, and while there was little flash to his game, he wasn't going to be a guy that hurt you. He defends his ass off. He makes shots. He's a competent handler and had flashes of impressive playmaking. He was steady, and I like those guys at the end of the first-round if I'm a championship contender.
Butler's numbers haven't drastically improved from his sophomore to junior years. His efficiency and what he shows on the court has, however. He's up to 43.5% from 3 on 6.2 attempts a night -- he was at 38.1% a year ago. Now, he can tout himself as an elite shooter who, again, is on a positive trajectory. He's improved his assists per 100 possessions from 6.2 to 9.5, one of the better marks in the nation, and done so without a notable increase in turnover rate. His 2.2 steals per game ranks fourth among major conference players.
We looked closely at where Butler was in many of these areas, including playmaking and lateral quickness, challenging him to get better in those areas if he was to improve his draft stock and make the decision to return to Waco worthwhile:
Two questions really arose when scouting Butler a year ago.
The first question has been a resounding yes in my book. Butler leverages his superb shooting skill to open up the lane for reads. His aFG% off dribble pull-ups is 53.8%, a very high mark that translates to lead-guard skills. Beyond that, he's created 1.308 PPP as a passer out of the pick-and-roll, 3rd in the nation for players who have as many kick-outs.
A large part of that number is driven by the fact he's surrounded by good players and, well, luck. Butler isn't the one making those shots, so it's hard to give him a ton of credit for the success. But Butler consistently gives his teammates really high-quality looks. The numbers are partially so high because he's able to set them up for easy plays.
Looking at his PNR passing this year, it's hard to believe there was much doubt about his ability to run an NBA second unit or be a competent ball screen creator. He has demonstrated all the prerequisite reads you'd look for from an NBA-caliber guard:
Adept pick-and-roll guards read the action and can make the right pass depending on what the corner defender does. Elite guards manipulate the corner defender with their eyes or posture to setup the shot they want.
While Butler has a ways to go to reach elite status consistently, he's showing flashes of playmaking ability that he didn't quite show as a sophomore. It's in the ability to manipulate and read the corner defender quickly. A few clips in the video above show how he reads the low man effectively, makes timely kicks to capitalize on when the helper commits to the roll and how he can anticipate the "sink and fill" defender.
That's the next level of PNR playmaking, and where guys like Tyrese Haliburton have been able to prove worthy of early NBA minutes: they understand that they can't just read the low man, but correctly figure out where his helper is going to be. In the NBA, most weak-side spacing is going to include a shooter in both the corner and wing positions. When the corner guy helps, the wing defender is likely to split the other two. Most guys are smart enough not to overly commit in one direction or another, trying to seize the advantage from the offense in a cat-and-mouse game.
Butler has demonstrated, in the few moments he's placed into the aforementioned cat-and-mouse dilemma, an ability to manipulate the sink and fill guy so that he can avoid a turnover and set up a teammate for a quality look:
Amongst the passing concerns for Butler were accuracy of hitting teammates in the dunker's spot, instincts to find movement shooters, predictable skips and a propensity to enter the lane without a clear plan of attack. In essence, decisiveness, accuracy and thinking a step ahead.
âThe translation of his passing is much more evident now that he's fixed some of those shortcomings. The videos above certainly addresses decisiveness and reading defenses a step sooner. He's improved in those areas. Give Scott Drew a good amount of credit for including a decent amount of NBA-esque Shake action into the playbook, further proving to scouts that Butler's competency is fit for the pros.
The Bears have utilized a trend popular in the NBA right now: the high single-side bump. In the Shake action (a side pick-and-roll with a shooter in the corner who raises up to the wing as the ball gets driven middle), the idea is to put the corner defender in a lose-lose position: as his man slides up the 3-point line, he can either tag the roller to prevent the layup (giving up a 3 in the process) or stay with his man and hope a layup or dunk will be prevented by the two teammates involved in the PNR.
Over the last year or so, NBA teams have evolved their offense to speedily get into this action, but change it from a corner raise to a guy who starts on the wing. The idea is simple: create the more analytically-pleasing shot (the open dunk) by removing the tagger from being in an area where help at the rim is convenient.
Watch this action the Denver Nuggets ran a ton for Mason Plumlee. It keeps the corner completely empty by placing the tagger on the wing. The read is simpler for the guard, and usually results in a dunk for the roller:
Butler is really good in these situations. He engages the hedge defender just enough to get the roller open and makes the right read. His lob passes are impressive. When the tagger does sniff out the action and stay low enough to take away the roll, he makes the quick decision to hit the shake man on the perimeter:
What he'll also encounter at the NBA level is teams who switch a lot of PNR. One such opponent of theirs, Texas (who has NBA-caliber length and athleticism), switched a high single-side bump. Butler made the right play in an instinctual nature: hit the throwback so they can try and play through the post. His teammate, Mitchell, made a difficult stepback and didn't play through the action, but the read from Butler is important:
We've talked a little bit here about the differences between "good" and "elite", and the indicators of each level. In the pick-and-roll, it's fairly easy as a passer: you judge it off which defenders they consistently can read, and then manipulate.
Spot-up shooting is much simpler: it's your numbers and effectiveness. In cross country, recruiting for colleges is made fairly easy -- your times dictate what level of school you can run at. I'm a firm believer that spot-up shooting is the same. There are factors you can point out mechanically that can lead to usage, versatility and timeliness of release changing/ improving in the future. But if a guy is an effective shooter, there's a strong chance that carries over. As a result, I don't overthink catch-and-shoot form. Speed matters, height of release matters because those change at the next level. But the numbers are the numbers.
Butler has made a leap in this area to the point where, based on his sample, he's moved from "good" to "elite". He's gone from 39.1% on spot-up catch-and-shoots last year to 47.8% -- 22 for 46.
Of course, it's not just the numbers that make me comfortable calling him an elite shooter, it's in the dissection of the indicators around the stats. He's 12-17 on pull-ups or floaters and 7-13 finishing at the basket in spot-up situations. If he's an effective shooter that gets chased off the line, he can make the defense pay as a scorer, and as we've already seen, is an effective playmaker to keep the ball moving if helpers commit.
Butler is mechanically pure. His base is consistent, and his footwork translates towards movement shooting. That's why he was 15-38 (39%) off screens last year (he's only 5-15 this year, but overall going 20-53 is still 37% and a good mark). He was excellent off dribble handoffs and going to his right. It's why that was one of the main strengths in his scouting report a year ago:
Elite shooters are effective in the three main areas to get 3-pointers: standstill catch-and-shoot, on the move and off the dribble. I'm a firm believer Butler has the catch-and-shoot chops to be elite there, and has demonstrated enough as a sophomore to be a credible movement threat.
The scoring off the bounce was a strength last year, and it remains one this year. Per Synergy, Butler is 24-59 (40.7%) on dribble jumpers with a 56.8% adjusted field goal percentage. The number is raised because many of his pull-ups are from three, which adjusts the number to a higher value. For reference, Butler is 8th in the NCAA in aFG% off the bounce for players who have taken 50 or more pull-ups. For players in power conferences, only Ja'Vonte Smart of LSU is higher.
At this point, I'm not sure what I'm missing. Two consecutive years of excellent stats as a movement, spot-up and pull-up shooter. He's an outstanding functional shooter, and the off-the-dribble shot-making has a degree of difficulty to it this year that gives me supreme confidence that it will translate:
Last year, my offensive ceiling for Butler was that of a complimentary player. The role I foresaw was as someone who could lead a bench unit in spurts as a combo guard creator, then play in the shooting point guard role on a team whose primary creator was in the frontcourt. I think Butler's play has officially raised that ceiling, where his self-creation as a 3-point shooter and his playmaking out of the pick-and-roll mean he's going to be pretty potent with the ball in his hands.
The optimal role is still in exploiting his versatility as an off-ball scorer, playing him next to a frontcourt creator and/or another combo guard who might be the primary option. Teams who fit that bill that come to mind are plentiful:
Butler would also be great on a team that enjoys having two combo guards who can toggle between matchups and creation duty in the backcourt. That would enable the coaching staff to exploit one advantage they like on any given night. There are several of those teams where Butler would be a fit:
The great part about Butler's game is that he'd really be a fit anywhere. He blends so well because he's versatile. Shit, he's played in three-guard lineups at Baylor the last two years and still produced. He knows how to be on-ball and off-ball. A year ago, the questions were around whether he could do the on-ball stuff because he hadn't shown it in large flashes. Another year at Baylor has softened those critiques.
Are there still areas where he can improve? Yes. He needs to further tighten his handle and play a tad lower to the ground. His skip passes are a tad lobbed, where some time in the gym and added strength could get those on a rope (they'll need to be, or he'll have a lot of turnovers the way he throws them now). His movement shooting can be more consistent, and he isn't an above-the-rim player right now. The mid-range is sparse, and the best three-level scorers show a mastery from 15-18 feet.
âNone of those seem impossible or even overwhelmingly difficult for Butler to achieve. He may not get there on all of them, but improve two or three and he's a sure-fire starter in this league.
As exquisite as Butler has been on offense, we have to hit on the other side of the ball: it's what makes Butler go from a promising offensive prospect to a two-way terror. His steals rate and impact as a thief makes him stand out from a statistical standpoint.
âHe's so much more than that.
If you just look at Butler's steals, you notice a trend that contributes to those numbers being so high: tremendous ball pressure from his backcourt mates like Davion Mitchell and Maceo Teague. Those two cause so much havoc that Butler can roam free, shoot gaps and get some turnovers gifted to him. So does Baylor's aggressive "no middle" scheme, which forces a lot of skips and cross-court kickouts that free safeties feast on.
But his statistical strongpoint being heightened because of teammates or scheme isn't proof alone that he isn't a high-caliber defender. That's why I get bothered when the love affair with Mitchell's defense (he's absolutely tremendous) is seen as a reason to move Butler down a notch in that category.
Nobody has scored on Butler in isolations so far this year. Nobody. He's added strength to guard the bully slashers and bigger guys he goes against, succeeding against them one-on-one. His first step is quick enough to cut most of those guys off, even the ones who are NBA-caliber. When defending guards, he uses his length well to contest shots and is really, really good at consistently getting a hand up against perimeter shooters:
Butler's physical tools aren't elite, but he does maximize what he has. He's proven successful guarding 1 thru 3 at the college level and should be good against the 1 or the 2 in the NBA. What I seem to like most: he is effective at reading help situations and is really smart off the ball.
The ball-hawking and capitalizing on pressure defense is one thing, and those free safety skills are important. He's already mastered the X-out and splitting the back two, the concepts that he already knows how to read and anticipate on offense. The free safety skills aren't just gambling for deflections and loose balls. He knows how to move away from the ball in ways that provide quality contests to jump shooters and give his team a chance of limiting open looks against them:
Functionality. It's a term I use a lot in scouting reports.
The best players are good at areas they do a lot, areas that are important to winning. Butler isn't the best athlete, most explosive or biggest guy on draft boards. He's older than the typical lottery pick.
What I fail to see, though, is where his game isn't highly functional to the pros. He's smart, he shoots, he's versatile and the numbers back that up. He's a good defender, a versatile defender and has been a huge part of Baylor's rise to the national elite.
Beyond all that, he continues to get better. I want to invest in guys who are still improving. For his age, he's still in peak position where a giant step forward is happening now, and is still possible next. I had Butler as a late-first guy a year ago. With his improvements, it's hard not to put him as a late-lottery guy. There's still a lot of bloom on the rose, as pretty as his features already are.