Watch Out for Tyler Ulis, the Little Man Set to Make a Big Impact at Kentucky

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Watch Out for Tyler Ulis, the Little Man Set to Make a Big Impact at Kentucky
Andrew Nelles

The tweak that John Calipari made before the postseason this past year was to get point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more. It obviously worked. And it's a lesson that Harrison will take into his sophomore year.

The Harrison twins are back for a second season, and with that, the Wildcats will likely be back at preseason No. 1 after an up-and-down season that had as much to do with the Harrisons' successes and failures as anyone's on UK's roster.

How could that change in 2014-15? Well, what if Harrison could focus more on what he does best—slashing—and let someone else create?

That someone else is about to arrive in Lexington. His name is Tyler Ulis, no "tweak" necessary.

"No," Ulis told Bleacher Report when asked if Calipari will ever have to encourage him to pass more. "I love to pass."

The incoming freshman is unlike any point guard Calipari has coached in recent years. Since adopting the dribble-drive offense, Calipari has made it a point to go get big and powerful lead guards such as Derrick Rose and John Wall who are known for their scoring ability more so than setting up teammates. 

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The first thing that sets apart a Calipari point guard from any other is his size. And the first thing you notice about Ulis is his size—just the other way around.

Earlier this month at the Jordan Brand Classic, Ulis was listed at 5'9" and 150 pounds. If you brought out the tape measure, he'd probably run.

Ulis has a middle schooler's body—and students from SEC fanbases are sure to have some fun at his expense—but above the shoulders, he's of another age.

"You throw in the skill level and the creativity and the understanding of the game, that's the great thing about him is he just makes people around better," said Mike Taylor, Ulis' high school coach. "Really, he wants to feed the ball to people."

After watching Ulis at the Jordan Brand Classic for three days, his size was like a footnote in my observations.

His incredible vision, Globetrotter handles, old-man basketball IQ and great feel for when and how to set up his teammates are what left the greatest impression.

Well actually, it was a pass that left the greatest impression.

Ulis delivered a wraparound bounce pass from beyond half court that went around a defender near the three-point line, had enough English that it made a slight turn to the left off the bounce and ended up hitting its target in stride for a layup.

"There's an excitement he brings to the game," Taylor said.

The pass-first point guard is a rare breed in today's game, but it's not like they're extinct. It's just that Ulis is different, and it's not just the size. 

Coaches typically tell their point guards to make the easy play. In fact, the Wildcats got much better this past year when they started trusting each other and Calipari convinced them to make easy plays. 

That will be key in 2014-15. But Taylor has some advice for Calipari. Let Ulis take the difficult route. 

Sure, most high-degree-of-difficultly passes—like the one Ulis made in the Jordan scrimmage—end up as turnovers; Ulis' home run passes make the game easier for his teammates. 

"I got to watch him for four years, and every day there was something new that you saw from him, whether it was a skill or just a decision or the intelligence that he showed, and that'll continue to grow," Taylor said. "Our coaching staff, we still sit there in February and March this year and still look at each other and say, 'How did he do that?' He's always coming up with something. For us, there was no end to him amazing us."

Taylor started Ulis at point guard for four years, even as a freshman when he showed up at Marian Catholic High School around 5'2" or 5'3". This past year, Ulis averaged 23.3 points and 6.8 assists. He led Marian to a 28-3 record and to the state quarterfinals while playing the final few weeks of the season with turf toe and an injured wrist.

Ulis emerged as an option for Kentucky last summer when he shined during the EYBL season and UK lost out on top point guard target Emmanuel Mudiay to SMU.

Iowa and Michigan State had spent years recruiting Ulis. Kentucky spent weeks.

The chip Kentucky had was Devin Booker, who is one of Ulis' best friends from the time the two spent together on the summer circuit. Together, the two freshmen will give the 'Cats something they were lacking until Aaron Harrison turned into Robert Horry in the NCAA tournament: outside shooting. 

Booker is considered one of the best pure shooters in the 2014 class, and Ulis has made his perimeter shot a priority over the last year.

"As a smaller guard, I've got to be able to shoot way out behind the NBA three-point line consistently, because you've got to make people guard you and knock down open shots," Ulis said.

Taylor's one complaint with his point guard was often that he didn't shoot enough. In a state playoff game this past year, he told Ulis before the game that he had to come out looking to shoot.

"He hit six threes in the first half and each time he moved back a little further," Taylor said. "He can hit from 30 (feet) and his shot doesn't change."

Outside shooting is probably the weakest part of Mudiay's game right now, and the way things played out could end up as a blessing for Kentucky.

Mudiay and Andrew Harrison may have had a tough time coexisting, as their games are similar. Ulis is not a one-and-done prospect, so he'll be willing to wait his turn if need be, but he'd be happy to play right alongside Harrison.

"Yeah, he's 6'5"," Ulis said when asked if they could play together. This was before Ulis knew whether Harrison would stay or go. "If he stayed, I'm sure we'd be on the court together at one time or another."

On paper, the most likely starting lineup for Calipari will include the Harrisons in the backcourt, Alex Poythress on the wing and some combination of two big men. If game-planning against that offense, pack the paint. Poythress shot just 24.2 percent from three last year.

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Poythress is better suited to play at the 4, only UK has a logjam inside. Giving Poythress a chance at the 3, particularly early on, will be an attempt to open up some minutes inside. It will also be out of respect for the fact that Poythress is back for his junior season. 

Eventually, though, Calipari is going to play the lineup that gives him the best chance to win and not the one that keeps everyone happy. 

In an ideal world, Poythress will become a more natural fit on the perimeter during the offseason, and Andrew Harrison will have evolved after his postseason experience and he'll be more pass-happy by instinct rather than demand. 

But what we learned last year with Kentucky is that all the talent in the world doesn't just equate to everything lining up perfectly. Calipari may have to make a tweak or two to get the best of his Wildcats.

And after he sees what Ulis can do with all that talent, don't be surprised if one tweak is figuring out a way to get Ulis as many minutes as possible.

"I think Coach Cal is going to be really happy when he sees him on a day-to-day basis," Taylor said. "I've watched a lot of Kentucky games and they have a lot of talent, but you need a player that's going to make the others better and look good, and I think Tyler's going to fill that role. I think he'll fill it quicker than people think."

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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