NBA Sunday: Tough Juice — Butler putting up All-Star numbers for the Wizards

Published: Sunday, Jan. 14 2007 12:31 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Some things about Caron Butler are straightforward.

His end-to-end hustle, say. His in-your-face defense. And his statistics this season, which are, of course, easiest of all to render in black and white.

Sheets of paper entitled "Caron Butler — All-Star Credentials" are distributed by the Washington Wizards' PR staff to media members before games, noting that the forward is averaging career highs in points (21.2 entering Friday), rebounds (8.1), assists (3.9) and steals (1.9), among other categories.

There are other tidbits, too. One example: Two NBA players are putting up at least 21.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists, game in and game out: Minnesota's Kevin Garnett — no surprise there — and Butler.

"He's a big part of our success, at both ends of the floor," coach Eddie Jordan says. "Most of all, what he brings is an attitude. It's a toughness. It's an aggressive nature. It's a confidence factor. It's a swagger — they call it 'swag' — that says: 'It's my time in my career to show that I am special."'

Butler is blossoming in his fifth pro season, helping Washington recover from a slow start with a 14-4 run to near the top of the up-for-grabs Eastern Conference.

"When you're watching the game, you really don't think he's doing a whole lot," Bulls center Ben Wallace says. "After the game, when you look at the tape, or look at the stat sheet, you realize where he's hurting you. I definitely think he's playing at the All-Star level."

Why now?

"The players, the coaching staff and the organization believe in me, and give me confidence. Confidence is everything in this league," Butler says, leaning back in a stuffed chair in a lounge at the Wizards' arena after a practice this week. "All you need is an opportunity, and I have that here."

Straightforward enough.

Then again, when he's playing, Butler doesn't come across as someone who possibly could lack for confidence. But some things about him aren't necessarily what they seem.

He came into the league as a lottery pick, yet bounced around to three teams in his first four seasons. That took its toll.

"Coming here, getting out in transition, in our up-tempo, equal-opportunity offense, using my versatility, everything seemed to click," Butler says. "And I'm playing alongside two unselfish superstars: Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas."

As much as Butler insists he's OK with taking a back seat, one could forgive him for getting annoyed at questions about what it's like to play with Arenas or what it's like to surrender the spotlight to Arenas. When Butler made his first nine shots en route to 29 points and a career-high nine assists against Milwaukee this month, he wound up a mere footnote, because Arenas sank a game-winning 3-pointer.

"I just try to be the glue," Butler says. "The guy that keeps everything together."

Besides, who could possibly compete with Arenas' attention-grabbing eccentricities? Here's as unusual as Butler gets: When he leaves the floor for a breather, he'll sit down and reach back to grab a straw that he chews on, like gum.

On the court, Butler grinds, grimaces and generally attacks the game of basketball in the physical manner of someone playing football. When outside shots aren't falling, he picks up points on putbacks. The dirty work, not the glamorous stuff taken care of by Arenas, the league's No. 2 scorer and one of Butler's biggest fans.

"As an opponent, you look at him like, 'Man, if he gets mad, he's going to torch me at one end and he's going to hurt me at the other end.' That's the kind of respect he has right now," Arenas says.

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