NBA Prospects Tyler Ulis, Kay Felder Following Path of Short-Ball Forefathers

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJune 22, 2016

NEW YORK - APRIL 24: Muggsy Bogues #1 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against Charles Oakley #34 of the New York Knicks in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 1997 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 1997 in New York, New York.  The Knicks won 109-99.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1997 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

When the Washington Bullets took Muggsy Bogues with the 12th pick in the 1987 NBA draft, the 5'3" point guard was a punchline in the next day's local paper. 

"I like Bogues as much as the next guy," Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote. "It's just that the next guy's usually taller."

Bogues, a local product from Baltimore, played himself into the first round during a predraft camp in Chicago; he teamed with Scottie Pippen to go undefeated there and was one of 23 players invited to attend the draft. But even though he was a local, he still had his skeptics. 

"[Kornheiser] made it seem like it was a novelty act having the tallest and shortest players on the same team," Bogues said of him and 7'7" Manute Bol, drafted by the Bullets in the second round in 1985. "I was strong-minded. I was thankful to be playing for my hometown."

LANDOVER, MD - CIRCA 1987:  Manute Bol #10 and Muggsy Bogues #1 of the Washington Bullets poses together for this portrait circa 1987 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Bol played for the Bullets from 1985-88. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Imag
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Bogues got the last laugh, playing 14 seasons in the NBA and finishing 19th on the all-time assists list. He is, however, an anomaly. 

Basketball has always been a game dominated by the tallest among us. There have been 248 players in NBA history who measured 7'0" or taller and only 24 guys 5'9" or shorter*, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and 11 of those 24 played in the 1940s or 50s. (*For the purposes of this article, we'll call those players members of "the short-man group.")

Bogues and Nate Robinson are the only members of the short-man group to be selected in the first round. Only three others—Calvin Murphy, Greg Grant and Isaiah Thomas—have gone in the second. (Well-known Slam Dunk Contest winner Spud Webb was taken in the fourth round of the 1985 draft.) Only 13 players of the short-man group have played multiple seasons in the league.

But the game is shrinking.

Small ball, as in lineups that don't include the typical big man and are guard-heavy, are in vogue. The NBA's most feared quintet this season was Golden State's "death lineup" that featured 6'7" Draymond Green at center. 

Thomas, who was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2011 draft, is making NBA talent evaluators rethink any prejudices against the little man. The Celtics point guard was an All-Star this past season and finished 11th in the league in scoring at 22.2 points per game. Do the 2011 draft over, and Thomas would likely go in the top five. 

That brings us to the upcoming NBA draft.

For the first time in the same class, two members of the short-man group are likely to have their names called: Kentucky's Tyler Ulis and Oakland's Kay Felder. Each is 5'9". 

Ulis had been projected to go in the first round until Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler reported that he has a "pretty significant hip issue," which has had him slipping to the second round in mock drafts. Felder could sneak into the first after his impressive performance at the NBA Draft Combine, where he flashed a 44-inch vertical and averaged 11.5 points, 3.5 assists and 3.0 steals in two scrimmages. 

Is it their time? Or is Thomas, much like Bogues, an anomaly?


Mar 1, 2016; Gainesville, FL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Tyler Ulis (3) moves to the basket against the Florida Gators during the second half at Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Florida Gators 88-79. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klem
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago at a Jordan Brand Classic practice, current Denver Nuggets point guard Emmanuel Mudiay did the obvious with a 5'9" guy checking him: He took Ulis into the post. 

These types of practices can turn into mixtape auditions. Players hardly play any defense, and the best competition is "who can pull off the sweetest dunk?" But Ulis was battling, doing everything he could to keep Mudiay from catching the ball. He then used all of his strength to keep Mudiay, who is 6'5" and already boasted a pro's build, from moving closer to the bucket. 

That's the type of dogged determination that made Bogues a weapon, rather than a liability, on the defensive end. 

"The way I played defense, I don't see nobody play defense the way I played defense—94 feet," Bogues said. "It could be because of the rules, but even with the rule changes, that's the only way I knew how to play, and that's the only way I would have been able to play—pressuring the ball. You don't see that as much today."

Tyler Ulis by the numbers
PPGAPGSPG
2015-1617.37.01.5
2014-155.63.61.0
Kentucky Athletics

At Kentucky, Ulis was a similar pest; he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year this past season. Ulis was also an Associated Press first-team All-American and SEC Player of the Year. Those accolades and the fact he's a product of Kentucky have earned him reduced skepticism.

"Playing at Kentucky every day in practice, he's gone up against NBA size," a scout said. "So he doesn't have an issue dealing with it. There isn't going to be an adjustment there."

The scouts who believe in Ulis also see his intelligence, feel for the game and ridiculous skill. He is the draft's best ball-handler and passer, yet also made 37.1 percent of his threes in two years at Kentucky.

"He can shoot," a scout said. "He can see the court and set up teammates. Not by just assisting guys but moving the ball and making the assist that leads to the assist or making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the assist. He's able to get in the lane and score. He defends. He's definitely an NBA point guard."

Bob Ferry, who drafted Bogues when he was the Bullets general manager, saw in Bogues a pedigree that every successful little guy in the league shares.

"He's got to have really good quickness," Ferry said. "He's got to have toughness. He's really got to be skilled and have good quickness and athleticism. He's really got to be capable of playing physical defense, get in tight on a post player and not give him freedom to post him up."

Ulis checks the boxes in regard to toughness and willingness, but there are question marks surrounding his athleticism.

"The rules to making it as a short guy are pretty well-defined, and I think Isaiah Thomas has just reminded everyone of what those rules are," a scout told Bleacher Report. "You have to be explosive. You have to be quick. You have to be crafty. You have to be strong. You have to be athletically gifted beyond your usual basketball player. All of the guys who have made it have had all of those characteristics. 

"If Tyler Ulis made it, he would be the first one to not have those physical characteristics."

Mar 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Texas A&M Aggies guard Alex Caruso (21) and Kentucky Wildcats guard Tyler Ulis (3) fight for possession of the ball during second half of the championship game of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit:
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

So will Ulis be a bust? 

The same skeptical scout offered this caveat as soon as he finished questioning his athleticism. 

"In Ulis' defense, everyone you talk to who has played with him or played against him says he's one of the most talented players they have played with or against, and one of the toughest, one of the smartest, one of the best basketball players they have played with or against," the scout said.

"It'll be really interesting. He's going to be that guy—it was obvious he was supremely talented; how did teams miss it? Or (B), he's going to be that guy that 20 years from now, man, you remember that Tyler Ulis? He was incredible. He was one of the best college basketball players that didn't make the NBA."


Dec 30, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Oakland Golden Grizzlies guard Kay Felder (20) steals the ball away from Virginia Cavaliers guard Devon Hall (0) during the first half at John Paul Jones Arena. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

If you get dizzy easily or suffer from chronic blinking, the "Kay Felder Experience" is not for you.

Take, for instance, a three-pointer nailed in the final minute of regulation against Michigan State this past season. Note the crossover, followed by a fake spin move, then a step-back, a pump fake and, finally, the shot. 

Kay Felder by the numbers
PPGAPGRPGSPG
2015-1624.49.34.32.0
2014-1518.17.64.82.0
2013-149.56.43.90.9
Oakland Athletics

"He's sideways as fast as he is forwards," Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said. "I always compared him to Barry Sanders. You really had to protect against that. So what he'd do is he'd set you up—get to the rim, get to the rim—and then take that step-back and bury it." 

Kampe scheduled four Power Five conference schools this past season—Georgia, Washington, Michigan State and Virginia—so nobody could say Felder was the product of playing lesser competition. 

Felder lit those major-conference boys on fire, averaging 32 points per contest. Oakland won at Washington, led Virginia at halftime and took Michigan State to overtime. 

No one is questioning Felder's athleticism. "To me, he fits the mold where Tyler Ulis does not fit the mold of the short guy who has made the league," said the scout who believes you better be explosive to make it as a little man.

Felder has a burst that resembles a left-handed version of Nate Robinson. He was the quickest man on the floor during the combine scrimmages, pestering fellow point guards and shaking guys off the dribble with ease.

"He plays way bigger than a lot of guys 6'2" or 6'3" would play," Kampe said. "We alley-oop to him. He rebounds. He had triple-doubles where he had double-digit rebounds. He's a freak athlete."

Felder had two triple-doubles in three years at Oakland, and he was one rebound shy during two other games as a junior. He also led the nation in assists per game at 9.3. 

The consistency with which he scored was even more impressive. Defenses were geared to stop him, yet he scored double figures in all 35 games last season and failed to reach at least 20 points only five times. 

"His step-back jump shot, you can't guard," Kampe said. "I don't care who you are. You can't guard him. His step-back jump shot is his biggest weapon. That's why he can go to Virginia and get 30.

"I would tell you if he was shooting a step-back; I felt like it was going in. And I can't say that about his normal jump shot." 

Kampe believes Felder's ability to get his shot off will translate to the NBA, but the difficulty of the shots he takes had one scout wary. 

"He takes a lot of difficult step-backs," the scout said. "He has a tendency to get out of control. He makes bad passes. He'll dribble into trouble. He just doesn't quite have the feel or basketball IQ that Ulis has even though he's stronger and a more explosive leaper. 

"He's going to have a bigger adjustment. Everyone is raving about his defense at the combine, but he also had a ton of turnovers and took bad shots. Ulis isn't gong to make those mistakes. He's starting off at a better place."

That might be true, but the level of play is less of a concern because of recent success for small-school guards like Damian Lillard (Weber State) and Steph Curry (Davidson).

Felder could have gone to a bigger school, but Oakland was the first to offer him a scholarship. Oakland played without a point guard on the roster in 2012-13, the year before Felder arrived, because Kampe purposely did not sign one. He was keeping the spot open for Felder.

"It was a sign of loyalty to him," Kampe said. "When you get here, we're giving you the ball, and it's going to be your team."

Lillard and Curry had offenses designed around them, and Felder had that same luxury.

"We play a very fast, NBA-type offense in that we run quick-hitters, ball screens, run a lot of dribble drives," Kampe said. "He had a lot of freedom with the ball."

Kampe tried to convince Felder to stick around for his senior season. He believed Felder could pull a Buddy Hield and become a lottery pick with another year in school.

Felder is projected in most mock drafts to go in the second round, which is where Thomas, who also left school after three years, landed.

Bogues sees some Thomas in Felder. They're both left-handed and clever in figuring out ways to get their shots off. Kentucky head coach John Calipari told Bogues he sees some Muggsy in Ulis.

"I'm interested to see what happens with [Ulis] throughout this draft," Bogues said. "I think he's got a real good shot, as well as the kid Kay Felder."

Wherever they land, they owe Bogues for paving the way for the little man.

Bogues will be watching, and if they call for advice, he'll offer this up: "Don't get caught up with the headlines and reading the paper."

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

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