The moment Natalie Butler first felt she was on her way to becoming a real basketball player, like all the hard work she had put in over the previous year was paying off, came in early January in a game against W.T. Woodson. The 6-foot-4 Lake Braddock junior made outside jump shots, tried new moves in the post and hauled down rebounds.
She was no longer a part-time player who had plenty of size but little skill; on that Tuesday night, she scored 25 points and added 23 rebounds in a 58-46 win. Three days later, she recorded 30 points and 21 rebounds in a victory against South County.
Butler’s transformation from a bench player who averaged 4.9 points as a 6-2 sophomore to a dominant center who averages 17.9 points, 19 rebounds and 8.6 blocks has been a rapid one.
Her father, former Navy star Vernon Butler, guided her through workouts that ranged from distance running to hauling bales of hay on her family’s six-acre property in Fairfax Station. Her quick improvement — coupled with her size and work ethic — has drawn the attention of college recruiters.
“I think she’s got the potential,” said one college assistant, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of NCAA regulations that prohibit coaches from commenting on specific recruits. “Potential is what we’re evaluating. Some players look ready as freshmen in high school. She’s kind of made that transformation later. You don’t want to overlook that. You see potential in the areas she has, and you think she can develop into quite a player.”
Butler has seen the shaky footage of her father rising up 25 feet from the basket and hitting one of the most famous shots in the area’s high school basketball history — a buzzer-beater over Northwestern’s Len Bias that lifted High Point to a Maryland state championship in 1982.
But she’s more familiar with the man she’s watched in the gray-haired league in Burke than the one who starred at Navy while playing alongside David Robinson. He graduated as the academy’s all-time leading scorer (he currently ranks second behind Robinson) and became the first player in team history to have his jersey retired.
“He won’t go into it that much,” Natalie Butler said. “I learned a lot through other people coming up and talking to me about it.”
Her pedigree was clear as she towered over her classmates at a young age. But when she saw other girls pass her by in their basketball development, Butler wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue to play.
“Everything was off,” said Butler, who was 5-10 as a freshman. “I was just like, ‘I don’t want do to this any more.’ I was frustrated because nothing was coming naturally. Everyone else was succeeding and going ahead.”
As a sophomore, Butler barely played in the final game of the season, a 30-point loss in the district tournament. She had had enough; this time, she told her father that she wanted to commit to the sport.
“Training camp basically started Wednesday morning,” Vernon Butler said.
The workouts consisted of distance runs, which have increased from one and a half miles to five, jump rope, “step-ups” and weight training. On the family’s property, Natalie helped with the yard work, including pushing a commercial-size leaf blower up hills, shoveling manure for hours and loading and unloading hundreds of bales of hay.
“It’s a lot of work back home, but all that helps with your work ethic and sort of helps with gaining your conditioning,” she said. “You’re pushing this 40-pound, 50-pound leaf blower up a hill and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, my legs are killing me.’ But it definitely helped.”
Butler worked with her 6-8 father on her post moves — “My dad has basically taught me almost everything I’ve known,” she said — and she joined an AAU team, which allowed her to play 54 games in three months, leading to dramatic on-court improvements.
Butler competes against few players her size. The Lake Braddock roster consists mostly of underclassmen, and the team is 8-13 heading into its Virginia AAA Patriot District playoff opener at home against W.T. Woodson on Tuesday.
But that matters little to the college coaches who come out to watch; nine schools have seen her play this season, including Maryland.
“People will say, ‘Why isn’t she picked up yet?’ ” said Lake Braddock Coach Leigh Janis, who played in a NCAA Division III Final Four with Mary Washington. “Well, she wasn’t the player last year she is now.”
Butler has drawn interest from some private high schools in the area, which would allow her to play against better competition, but so far she’s chosen to stay at her neighborhood school. What matters most, she said, is making sure she continues to build on the improvements she’s already made.
So the workouts haven’t lessened; on off-days she is still running stairs at Lake Braddock and pushing leaf blowers on her family property. Butler has come a long way since the days when she would trail her father on distance runs, struggling to keep pace.
“There were some serious tears shed along the way,” Vernon Butler said. “Now when we go to Burke Lake to run, within the first half a mile I can’t see her any more. I can’t keep up.”