Natalie Butler’s rise on the basketball court has been head-spinning. Starting off as a raw freshman with limited skills, Butler transformed into one of the area’s most highly touted recruits at Lake Braddock, then led Division I freshmen in rebounding on her way to Big East Freshman of the Year honors at Georgetown. Her latest step toward the top came with a big decision last week.
Butler confirmed her intention to transfer to the University of Connecticut last Tuesday. Georgetown’s coaching carousel led Butler to look at other schools this spring, a search that ultimately boiled down to Connecticut and Virginia. The Butler family declined to comment on the specifics of the process.
NCAA transfer rules stipulate that Butler must sit out the 2014-15 season before beginning her three remaining years of eligibility. The 6-foot-5 center will be joining a UConn team coming off back-to-back national championships, its latest capping a 40-0 season in which the Huskies won every game by double-digit margins.
Butler appears to be filling a need at UConn, which lost All-American center Stefanie Dolson to graduation this spring. The only other center currently on the roster is Kiah Stokes, who will have graduated by the time Butler is eligible to suit up. Butler would likely begin her UConn career alongside Naismith Trophy winner Breanna Stewart, a 6-4 forward who will be a senior when Butler takes the court as a sophomore.
“Because I’ve followed Connecticut for such a long time, I think she fits into that type of basketball,” said Lake Braddock girls basketball coach John Giannelli, who grew up in Connecticut and began his coaching career in Hartford. “They like to run; they have quick guards. Natalie loves to run the court. They always have a big, athletic girl who can play inside and outside.”
Butler is coming off a spectacular freshman season that saw her lead Georgetown in rebounds (13.3 per game), blocks (1.8 per game) and minutes played (36.2 per game) while averaging 13.9 points per game. She shattered the Big East single-season rebounding record and was unanimously selected as the conference’s freshman of the year.
Her time at Georgetown began in a cloud of uncertainty when complaints of inappropriate conduct and abusive language forced Keith Brown to resign as head coach last October, just 17 months after he took the job. Jim Lewis proved a welcome replacement two weeks later, but his interim status led Georgetown to replace him with former College of Charleston coach Natasha Adair last month.
Butler now enters a more stable coaching situation at UConn, where Geno Auriemma enters his 30th season in charge of the storied program.
Regardless of who’s stalking the sidelines, though, Butler’s former coaches are convinced she possesses the work ethic needed to thrive in any environment. Giannelli recalls the way his star center would show up to practices in January caked in sweat, her body having just endured 45 minutes of running alone on the football stadium stairs.
“During the season and the offseason, she works harder than any player I’ve ever coached, and I’ve been coaching 29 years,” Giannelli said. “She challenges herself every day, so she sets very high goals for herself, and she’s the type of person who won’t stop until she reaches those goals.”
Former Lake Braddock freshman girls basketball coach Josie Caldwell remembers pushing Butler around in the paint, always reminding her that playing at the next level would present physical challenges she’d never seen before. She recognized Butler’s potential early on, and once happened to mention how cool it would be if she were to play for UConn one day.
“She’s a role model for a lot of young girls who are determined and want to pursue athletics,” Caldwell said. “She set a goal; she’s worked really hard; she’s earned it. Nobody handed it to her. She’s appreciative of everyone around her.”