Physically, he's as unimposing as a hoops prospect gets. The former Kentucky point guard is generously listed at 5'10" with shoes and weighed just 149 pounds at the combine. Between those measurements and a report of a "pretty significant hip issue" from Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, Ulis carried enough question marks to fall from mid-to-late first-round projections into the second round.
But the floor general also had a rich resume to his name. He'd been a McDonald's All-American. He'd averaged 17.3 points and 7.0 assists as a sophomore for the Wildcats. He'd established himself as a potent scorer, savvy setup artist and dogged defender.
Physical issues aside, there were no basketball reasons for him to fall that far on draft night.
"We think, frankly, the only reason he's there is because of his size," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said after the selection, per ArizonaSports.com's Craig Grialou. "He's the SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, high character, high IQ; in some ways, I see a coach on the floor."
Ulis' stock is heading in the right direction again after his six-game sprint through the Las Vegas Summer League. He averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 assists (second among regulars) and 2.8 steals per game, good enough for an All-NBA Summer League second-team selection. He displayed an advanced feel for the game, plus a flair for the dramatic.
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He still needs to pass the big league's physical tests, not to mention carve out a niche in a crowded Phoenix backcourt. But his skill level is high enough for him to at least hit the hardwood during his rookie year.
The Suns have an affinity for guards, particularly those who played their college ball in Lexington, Kentucky. While that might have helped Ulis land on their radar, it also clouds his path to substantial playing time. His first NBA backcourt features former Wildcats Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Archie Goodwin and Ulis' former teammate and close friend Devin Booker.
But Ulis stands out in that group, and not just because of his diminutive build. He is the consummate pure point guard, a label none of these other guards comfortably wear. Bledsoe and Knight come close, but both fare better as scorers than distributors.
Ulis can create—and convert—his own shot when needed, but he has the vision, creativity and selflessness to lead an offensive unit. His point production in Vegas was nice, but his coach-on-the-court leadership easily emerged as his greatest strength.
"In control, making the smart play, leaving scorch marks on defenses—this was Ulis showing the same command that prompted John Calipari to call his University of Kentucky point guard the best floor general he ever coached," NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper wrote.
If the Suns properly develop their young talent, they'll eventually need someone to set the table for Booker, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Ulis has the mental makeup to play that role and set their preferred defensive tone.
But for now, Phoenix looks unlikely to take the ball away from Bledsoe and Knight—the team's top two scorers last season—for any prolonged stretches. Ulis will probably fill third-point guard duties for the time being, though this roster does seem ripe for a trade that sacrifices backcourt depth for a frontcourt splash.
Not to harvest the low-hanging fruit, but Ulis' lack of size will be an enormous issue until he proves otherwise.
Standing 5'10" presents its own challenges when trying to survey the floor, finish among tall trees or bother bigger players on defense. However, that's not Ulis' only problem. He weighs about 35 pounds less than the league's shortest active player last season, Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (5'9", 185 lbs). Plus, Ulis isn't the freak athlete some of this league's sub-6-footers have been in the past.
Even with a deep collection of dribble moves and the ability to change both speed and direction, Ulis can have trouble creating separation. He's a pesky, instinctive defender, but he'll struggle to body up players in the post or prevent them from shooting over him.
To his credit, Ulis brings the right approach to his unique challenge. He always thinks a play ahead, relentlessly hustles, backs down from no one and refuses to let his size determine his impact.
"I've always been small; it's nothing new to me," Ulis said, per Fox Sports Arizona's Chris Gabel. "I just have to get stronger and be more durable for the season."
Still, the Suns may well bring him along slowly. Already deep at the lead guard spot, they might have Ulis do a lot of his growing at the NBA Development League level.
Ulis has enough intangibles to support a lengthy NBA career. He knows how to play the game and be effective at such a small size. He'll always be a fan favorite and shouldn't have trouble endearing himself to teammates who will directly benefit from his style and guidance.
His rookie season, however, probably won't include a lot of volume or efficiency. Unless the Suns balance their roster with a trade, there aren't many point guard minutes available. And for everything Ulis displayed in Sin City, his mediocre-or-worse shooting marks—41.2 percent from the field and 31.3 percent outside—might have foreshadowed problems with the size, strength and physicality of NBA defenders.
He'll have time to figure this out. Barring roster moves or injuries, most of his rookie development will come during practice or in the D-League.
But the 82-game campaign will provide opportunities along the way. Though probably few and far between, those moments will be the latest reminders not to dismiss Ulis solely because of his size.
Complete 2016-17 Per-Game Stat Predictions
- Minutes: 10.4
- Points: 4.0
- Rebounds: 1.1
- Assists: 2.4
- Field-goal percentage: .393
- Three-point percentage: .334
- Steals: 0.6