Caron Butler certainly thought he'd have played his first NBA All-Star Game before today.
But if Butler had fulfilled his promise earlier, the Washington Wizards might never have had a shot at acquiring the man who has become Gilbert Arenas' chief sidekick.
"I always had the confidence that I was an elite player in this league," Butler told The Washington Post after his All-Star selection. "If I hadn't been sidetracked by an injury early on, who knows what would have happened? Maybe I would've made it sooner but, then again, I look at the trade from Miami to Los Angeles as a blessing because without that, I wouldn't be here. This is a perfect fit for me."
Many draft observers thought the Miami Heat had stolen a star when it picked Butler 10th overall in the 2002 draft. He had played beautiful basketball as a junior at Connecticut, mixing smooth jumpers from the wing with authoritative drives to the hoop.
He played decently as a rookie but fell out of the Heat's plans the nextseason, when a knee injury severely hampered him. A trade to Los Angeles seemed to revive him, but the Lakers wanted more rebounding muscle in their frontcourt.
Meanwhile, Wizards officials had run out of patience with former No. 1 pick Kwame Brown.
Brown offered the brawn the Lakers sought, and the Wizards figured Butler would at least play hard every night and provide a third scoring option behind Arenas and Antawn Jamison.
He averaged career highs of 17.6 points and 6.2 rebounds last season, and those numbers offered only a hint of what was to come.
Butler, 6 feet 7, decided over the summer that he was tired of being just another good player. He improved his diet, dropped 10 pounds and dialed up his daily shooting and ball-handling drills.
The new Butler is averaging career highs in points (20.4), rebounds (7.7), assists (3.9), steals (2.2) and shooting percentage (.471).
When asked what's different about his forward, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said: "Confidence. He's got big confidence. He's tough. He's sure of himself. He works on his game, works on his shooting, works on his dribbling. He trusts what we teach him; he trusts his teammates."
Butler's self-assuredness showed up in a 38-point gem against the Seattle SuperSonics two weeks ago.
When defenders played off him early, he beat them with jumpers from the corner. When they crowded him, he crashed inside and contorted his body for difficult layups over men 6 inches taller.
On defense, he swiped one pass and ran the length of the floor for an emphatic slam. Just before the end of the third quarter, he intercepted another, stopped a foot behind the three-point line and rattled in a buzzer-beater.
That bravura blend of skill and effort is one Wizards coaches and teammates have come to expect from Butler. There's a board in the team's locker room where coaches keep a running tally of hustle plays, such as deflections, steals and offensive rebounds. Butler ranks at or near the top of every column.