Butler Gains by Losing; Hard Work over Summer Raised Play

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Byline: John N. Mitchell, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As the Washington Wizards prepared to face Philadelphia on Wednesday night in their final game before the All-Star break, the mood was light and Caron Butler was the target.

With Butler a first-time All-Star as the only player in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals, teammates Brendan Haywood and Roger Mason uproariously recounted the first time they saw Butler, whom they remember as mammoth rather than the svelte small forward he is today.

"He was like 6-7, 260 with a big, blown-out 'fro and a belly to match," Haywood said of watching a cherubic Butler on television playing for the University of Connecticut. "I was watching the game with my boy, and I was like, 'Who is this great big fat guy handling the ball for UConn like that? Who is this power forward crossing people over like that?'"

Mason, a reserve guard in his first season with the Wizards, couldn't wait to chime in. The former Good Counsel High School standout first encountered Butler in an AAU game.

"He was talking all this trash. .. He was this big fat guy, and because he was from Racine [Wis.], we didn't think he could play," Mason said. "But when the game started, he was bruising down low. He was killing us, wobbling all around."

As the stories were recounted in the bowels of Wachovia Center, Butler joined in the laughter. He enjoys these moments with his teammates as much as anyone.

That old Butler, however - the one Haywood remembers having "20 percent body fat and breasts" - hasn't been seen in a long time. Nor is he the 240-pounder who had a wonderful first season for the Wizards a year ago.

Despite achieving career highs in points (17.6), rebounds (6.2), field goal percentage (.455) and free throw percentage (.810) last season - his fourth in the NBA - Butler wasn't satisfied with the way he performed.

He spent a grueling summer in Racine working out. The result was a trimmer Butler (226) who has added a deadly midrange jumper to his arsenal and is now one of the best small forwards in the NBA. And although they won just two of their final six games before the break, the Wizards are a league-wide surprise, leading the Southeast Division (29-21) and holding a 3 1/2 game lead over second-place Orlando.

Butler is averaging career highs in points (20.5), rebounds (7. …