This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on March 6, 2014.
Jim Lewis won’t soon forget his first real encounter with Natalie Butler. It was Oct. 28, four days after he was named Georgetown’s new women’s basketball coach, the day after the Hoyas scrimmaged against the University of Virginia. Lewis pulled Butler aside and told her she could be a women’s professional basketball player someday.
Most 17-year-old freshmen might respond giddily to such praise, but Butler didn’t even crack a smile.
“Her immediate response was, ‘Well coach, I’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s go,’” Lewis recalled. “That’s Natalie Butler.”
At that moment Lewis, a burly power forward at West Virginia University in the mid-1960s, sensed a kindred connection to his 6-foot-5 freshman center. Butler’s persistent work ethic in practice cemented a trust that continued to build as the weeks wore on and her comfort with the college game improved. When the regular season ended Tuesday night, Butler averaged 36.5 minutes per game, more than anyone on the team.
But that’s not the only category in which Butler leads the Hoyas this season. The former Lake Braddock standout shattered the Big East single-season rebounding record, leading freshmen across the nation with 401 boards this season. In three conference games this season she has pulled down 20 rebounds to tie the Big East record for single-game rebounds. Her hard work in the paint has produced 23 double-doubles this season, coinciding with a scoring average of 14.2 that is currently second best on the team.
It all added up to her unanimous selection as Big East Women’s Freshman of the Year on Wednesday.
“To be honest, sometimes I just sit back and say this is not supposed to be happening my freshman year,” said Butler, the only player on the team to start all 30 games so far this season. “Coming into the season, my goal was basically just to keep my head down and work hard. I didn’t expect to have the production I’ve been having in my first season.”
Butler also didn’t expect to go through a coaching change right before the season started. Complaints over inappropriate conduct and abusive language forced Keith Brown to resign from his head coaching post last October, just 17 months after he had taken the job. Butler’s future at Georgetown was thrown into doubt until Lewis filled in two weeks later.
“When you have a coaching change you don’t know what’s going to happen. You basically have to prove yourself all over again,” said Butler, whose father Vernon starred alongside Hall of Fame center David Robinson on several highly ranked Navy teams in the 1980s. “Coach Lewis has been really great. He’s been really positive, and he’s been willing to work with me. It could have been a nightmare; you don’t know what could’ve happened.”
Lewis’s willingness to throw Butler into the fire accelerated her improvement in every phase of the game. She cut weight and grew stronger as time went on, allowing her to use her 6-5 frame to impose her will rather than succumb to the aggressive pace of Division I basketball. While Georgetown’s young team (10-20, 4-14 Big East) has struggled on the whole this season, Butler’s presence in the paint has allowed them to post a rebounding margin of +8.6 this season, the second best mark in the conference. Butler works alongside senior forward Andrea White, who leads the team in scoring and helps form what Lewis calls the best frontcourt tandem in the Big East.
Butler has also stretched her game outside the paint area, developing a reliable mid-range jumper that has helped her post a team-leading .503 field goal percentage.
“I had an outside shot in high school, but I really didn’t use it as much as I’m using it now, which actually opens up a lot for me in the post,” she said. “If I get double teamed I can take the outside shot and mix it up a little bit. That’s something that I really didn’t do too much in high school.”
Butler has teamed up with sophomore guard Logan Battle, another former Patriot District standout. After battling injuries earlier this season, the former West Springfield captain has experienced a resurgence in recent weeks, currently leading the Hoyas in three-point field-goal percentage (.415). Battle dropped a team-high 17 points in Georgetown’s 91-74 loss to DePaul on Tuesday night, complementing Butler’s 15 points and 13 boards in the regular-season finale.
“I love Logan Battle. She can flat-out play,” Lewis said. “She can do everything. She can block shots; she can run the floor; she can knock down threes. She does it all.”
A rocky regular season now behind them, the Hoyas can look ahead to a fresh start in the Big East tournament this weekend. They open with a first-round game against Xavier (8-22, 3-15) Saturday night.
“I feel like it’s definitely been a learning season for me,” Butler said. “I learned stuff about myself; I learned things about being a team and how strong we are as a team. We’re going to be resilient and keep coming after it. We’re just going to keep working hard. And that’s sort of our mindset going into this tournament.”
The original version of this story was updated to include Natalie Butler being named Big East women’s freshman of the year.