James Butler’s goals this season were simple: improve his game by becoming more efficient, help his team win, and make the NCAA Tournament.
The first goal is completed. Butler is averaging 13.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. He was named third-team all-Colonial Athletic Association.
The rebounding numbers are what stand out. The junior forward isn’t the biggest, doesn’t jump the highest, and at 6-foot-8, isn’t the tallest.
“Anyone can rebound,” Butler said. “The smaller guys are more mobile, so you have to hold them off and wait until the last second to get the rebound. When you have a bigger guy, they usually have a longer reach, so I have to get there before they do.”
Butler leads the CAA and is fifth in the nation in rebounds. He’s fifth in Drexel history for rebounds in a season with 359. All-time Drexel great Malik Rose, who has the top three spots (with 409, 404, and 371), should be the only player in front of him on that list when the season ends.
For Butler, the rebounding didn’t start at Drexel. Nor did it start at the Naval Academy before he transferred to Drexel in 2017. It started at home.
You have to be a good rebounder in the Butler family. James, from Fairfax Station, Va., would be falling short of the standard if he wasn’t.
His father, Vernon Butler, ranks second in Navy basketball history with 1,115 career rebounds. Only Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson has more. Robinson and Vernon were one of the most dominant frontcourts in the nation when they led Navy to the Elite Eight in 1986.
“He’s the whole reason I play,” James Butler said of his father. “He’s taught me the game and constantly continues to teach me new things.”
His sister, Natalie, set the NCAA single-season record at George Mason with 563 rebounds before being drafted 30th overall by the Dallas Wings in the 2018 WNBA draft. Natalie began her college career at Georgetown, where she was named Big East rookie of the year, before transferring to UConn. She played two seasons at Connecticut and her last season at George Mason.
And his mother, Mary, is an athlete, too. She ran track and played field hockey.
“Everyone’s had their own degree of personal success, and it’s not really a competition,” Butler said. “Everyone is very uplifting and congratulatory.”
Drexel coach Zach Spiker sometimes searches for words to describe Butler. He doesn’t like when Butler’s double-doubles are looked at as another day at the office, because they’re not normal. Butler is fourth in the NCAA with 19 double-doubles in 31 games.
“There’s no better representative of our program, of bringing your hard hat every day, than James Butler,” Spiker said after a February win against James Madison. “I’m excited for him to have success because he deserves it, and he works so hard."
Butler and Drexel are preparing for the CAA Tournament, in which they’re seeded eighth, and a matchup with No. 9 UNC-Wilmington at 4 p.m. Saturday.
After a seven-game losing streak, the Dragons (13-18 overall, 6-12 CAA) have to win four games in four nights to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and achieve Butler’s other goal.
That opportunity didn’t seem as far-fetched earlier this season when Drexel started conference play 5-2 after winning the Boardwalk Battle in Atlantic City. Drexel is 1-10 since that start, but Butler sees the bright side. The CAA is wide open this year, and seven of those losses were by single digits.