Tyler Ulis was a star in college basketball. Viewed as a driving force behind Kentucky's success the past two years, the 5'9" ball-handler plays much bigger than his height.
But it wasn't until late in his second season that Ulis began generating NBA buzz. Naturally, his lack of size was always tough to see past, despite his well-documented effectiveness in the NCAA. And we haven't seen many players under 6'0" drafted in the first round.
However, following an electric final two months and inspiring overall career at Kentucky, Ulis now finds himself in position to draw mid-first-round interest in the 2016 draft.
|Tyer Ulis 2015-16 Numbers|
Ulis' assist-to-turnover ratio stands out more than any other stat. Not only did he take care of the ball (two turnovers per game) as a lead guard averaging 36.8 minutes, but he finished seventh nationally in dishing.
He also poured in 17.3 points a game, good for second on the team behind Jamal Murray.
His 34.4 percent three-point mark was somewhat disappointing, but he did knock down 55 total triples (on 160 attempts) and 85.6 percent of his free throws. Ulis shot 42.9 percent from deep as a freshman, though that was on the smaller sample size of only 77 attempts. So teams shouldn't put too much stock in the drop-off in long-range accuracy.
Ulis is quick off the bounce and sharp off the dribble. His handles and footwork are highly advanced. He changes speeds, takes the right steps at the right times and controls the pace of games.
An excellent passer, Ulis has terrific facilitating and setup instincts as the offense's quarterback. He understands how to manipulate a defense and free up shooters or finishers, whether it's by hesitating off ball screens or driving-and-kicking.
More than anything else, Ulis is a fantastic decision-maker who always seems to know what buttons to press. He has an unteachable feel for the game, which isn't going anywhere, regardless of how much his size holds him back as a pro.
Coaches and executives are bound to value his basketball IQ and ability to run an offense, as well as his poise, toughness and competitiveness.
As a scorer, Ulis is unsurprisingly skilled, with the ability to sink pull-ups, floaters, runners and threes. He converted 44.7 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math. Ulis isn't a shot-hunter; instead, he capitalizes on what the defense gives him.
Meanwhile, at the other end, his lateral quickness and intensity translate to pesky on-ball pressure. He doesn't project as the defensive asset he was at Kentucky, but his relentless pursuit could make him an irritating defender to shake.
Can he be effective in the pros at just 5'9"? While it's only natural that believers point to Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, Ulis isn't as bouncy or potent.
At 160 pounds without size, length or explosiveness, it's reasonable to question how well he'll fare at the rim, where he shot just 47.6 percent in the half-court, per Hoop-Math.com. One might ask whether he'll be able to create enough separation, both on layups and jump shots.
His defensive value will also take a major hit when jumping from college to the pros. There are going to be starting point guards who are just too big, powerful and long. It's a concern that has to lower the height of his perceived ceiling.
Few players under 5'10" have had successful NBA careers. The 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues was one. But the parallels to Ulis go beyond comparable size. Bogues was a leader, just as Ulis is, and the exciting former Charlotte Hornet put up astounding career averages of 7.6 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game.
Bogues never averaged more than 11.1 points in a season, and chances are Ulis won't be a big scorer either. But like Bogues, Ulis' passing efficiency, setup ability and toughness should still take him places.
Despite Ulis' rise, his ceiling only appears so high, given the routine physical disadvantage he'll face. Interested teams will hope for him to effectively run their second unit. He has the potential to become one of the game's top backups, depending on where he ends up.
Ulis' scoring numbers won't translate because he's likely to struggle converting in traffic among the trees. Fortunately, though he doesn't offer significant upside, his floor still sits above ground level. He won't be out of a job anytime soon.
Despite the challenge of playing in the big leagues with such limited size and strength, his fundamentals, quickness and track record are simply too convincing. In a worst-case scenario, he'll find himself averaging 10-15 minutes playing a bench role.
Ulis will be an option for teams in the Nos. 15-25 range. Extreme likability will help Ulis trigger a bite in this year's first round.
"His personality, he just lights it up. He smiles, he has a great personality, has great character," basketball skills trainer Eric Nawracaj told the Advocate-Messenger's Larry Vaught last year. "The Ulis family is great. He is a genuine kid and everybody loves him, and I knew UK fans would love him."
Don't count on him to follow the Celtics' Thomas as the game's next sub-6'0" All-Star. However, there is a place in the league for Ulis, who compensates for size with skills and prized intangibles. Look for him to catch on and ultimately develop into a valued backcourt reserve.