With Record-Setting Season Over, Butler Pursuing Professional Dreams

By George Mason

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Courtesy: George Mason

FAIRFAX, Va. – For the longest time, college basketball was the end game for Natalie Butler.

Her father, Vernon, had played at Navy and she always grew up hearing about those Midshipmen teams in the 80s. She listened to stories about her dad playing alongside David Robinson – Vernon ranks second all-time in scoring and rebounding at Navy behind Robinson – and reaching the 1986 Elite Eight.

So, for Natalie, the dream was to play college basketball. Professional basketball? That was an afterthought. If thought of at all.

"Honestly, growing up, I just really wanted to do well in college because that is what my dad did," she said. "My dad was a huge inspiration for me growing up as a kid. And my mom, too. She was an athlete (competing in track at Navy) and she did all these things. So I grew up in a family that was very active in doing sports. I would always hear about my dad's college experience and people would talk to me about it. It was just so cool to me growing up and hearing those stories. I really want to do that. I really want to do something in college and be a productive player. I never saw past that."

Now, professional basketball is coming into focus. And it could very much be a reality.

After wrapping up one of the best individual seasons in George Mason women's basketball history, she can think beyond her college basketball career, which included stops at Connecticut and Georgetown.
Butler, a 6-foot-5 center from Fairfax Station, hopes to hear her name called on Thursday night during the WNBA Draft. The Mason graduate student garnered national attention this past season after breaking the NCAA Division I single-season rebounding record and tying the Division I mark for most double-doubles and consecutive double-doubles in a season.

She earned Honorable Mention All-America honors from the Associated Press and was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Two weekends ago, she participated in the WNBA Combine at the Women's Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, playing in front of coaches from 11 of the 12 WNBA teams.

"The fact I am being able to talk to other WNBA coaches and they have an interest in me is pretty insane," said Butler, who is pursuing her master's degree in global affairs. "Because it is something growing up as a kid I never thought I was going to be good enough to do, you know? Pretty crazy."

In the three and a half weeks since the Patriots' record-breaking season ended in the second round of the WNIT with a loss to Virginia Tech, Butler has been busy trying to put herself in the best position to play professionally.

She has been working out with assistant coach Tajama Ngongba, who was drafted in the inaugural WNBA Draft in 1996 and played two seasons in the WNBA before playing professionally overseas. Butler has focused on quickness and agility drills, skill development and lifting to "lean up and build muscle." She has also made sure she has stayed in the shape that allowed her to play a team-high 34.5 minutes a game by continuing her distance runs and sprints.

She then spent Final Four weekend in Columbus, participating in an eight-hour combine on Saturday, March 31. The coaches put the players through drills, have them run offenses to see how easily they pick different systems up and to test their conditioning. Butler battled inside against post players from the likes of Baylor, Texas A&M and California and impressed the coaches enough that she was selected to play in the WNBA Combine All-Star Game later that day.

She spoke to the general manager from one of the teams after the combine and had a phone interview with officials from another team. Her agent, Eric Wiesel of Wiesel Sports, has also spoked to several teams and the Patriot coaches have also reached out to teams on Butler's behalf.

"There was some very, very good talent there within the combine and I think a lot of coaches were surprised by my offensive game," Butler said. "Going against these bigger players I still had the ability to score. So that was really, really positive. A lot of people know about the rebounding, right? But I don't think a lot of people know I was the leading scorer within the conference. Showing them my capability of doing that and running the floor was huge… It was an eight-hour combine. I don't know when in your life you are going to play eight straight hours. It was pretty intense."

Butler, who led the country with 16.6 rebounds a game,  topped the conference with 19.2 points a game and broke the Mason single-season scoring record, plans to be playing professionally soon. Her first choice is to play in the WNBA, which will hold its three-round draft at 7 p.m. Thursday in New York. The first round will be televised on ESPN2 with the second and third rounds to be aired on ESPNU.

But even if she doesn't get drafted, she can still try out to make a WNBA team. And even if she does get drafted, she is not guaranteed a roster spot. All drafted players report to training camp on April 29. Then the teams narrow down the field through a series of cuts before finalizing their 12-player roster on May 17 – a day before the first games on May 18.

If either path to the WNBA doesn't pan out, Butler can still look to playing professionally overseas. She has received interest from several coaches overseas. She could possibly even play in both the WNBA and in a league overseas. The WNBA playoffs wrap up in mid-September, just as most European leagues are beginning. She can always hone her skills in Europe, too, come back and try out again for WNBA teams next year.

"I feel pretty good going to it," she said. "I'm really excited and I'm very thankful the coaches here at Mason are continuing to work with me – Coach T (assistant coach Tajama Ngongba) obviously – and (head) coach (Nyla) Milleson is incredibly supportive with whatever I need if I need to continue treatment and stuff like that, building up to training camp. And they are really excited. So everyone is really excited, which is pretty cool. It is just another opportunity to represent your school. Being able to do that at home is pretty mind-blowing. Not many people get to do that. It is kind of perfect."

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