Suns’ Tyler Ulis’ breakout rookie season showcases NBA’s latest second-round steal
When a player is picked in the second round of the NBA Draft, there’s at least one major flaw in his game that’s preventing him from going in the first round.
For Phoenix Suns point guard Tyler Ulis, it didn’t take a scout to tell you what it was.
The listed 5-foot-10, 150-pound point guard proved at Kentucky he was one of the best players in college basketball and, most importantly, that he had the skills and athleticism that would translate to the NBA.
It appears, however, that teams couldn’t get over his size. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough expressed this belief last summer.
“We think, frankly, the only reason he’s there is because of his size,” general manager Ryan McDonough said, referring to Ulis’ 34th overall selection. “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. For a young guy, he just went into Kentucky with all these great players around him last year and this year and just ran the show. He just ran it and controlled the game.
“Once he was there, that was too good to pass up.”
Whether it was his performance in the summer league or little blips on the radar in the first couple of months of the season, it was clear that Ulis could play and had a chance to be a rotation player in the future.
With a crowded point-guard rotation of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, however, it looked unlikely for Suns fans to expect anything more than that from the 21-year-old in his rookie season. But with the Suns shutting down both veterans at different points after the trade deadline, Ulis went from third on the point guard depth chart to starting.
All Ulis has done in the opportunity is shine.
Since the All-Star break, Ulis is fifth among rookies in points per game at 12.7, and his 7.4 assists per game is the best average by over 2.5.
The emergence of Ulis, not only as a legitimate NBA player but perhaps something more, has many clamoring to the possibility of him becoming a starter.
Tyler Ulis since becoming a starter:
10 assists/2 TO
Is he the future starting PG of the Suns?
— NBA Jumpshot (@NBAJumpshot) March 20, 2017
Tyler Ulis is going to be a legit starter in the NBA. If I’m the Suns I’m selling Bledsoe and Knight and moving forward.
— Aaron Bruski (@aaronbruski) March 18, 2017
Before going full-speed ahead into the argument of Ulis as a potential starter, the positive effect of his play is something only he brings to the Suns and something very few players in the league do in general.
Looking beyond his play for a minute, Ulis’ best contribution to the Suns this season came with a revamp of the second unit — before Bledsoe was shut down — and a clear increase in the team’s ball movement.
Three of the five team leaders in passes per game in the first 10 games since the break are original members of the second unit to begin the second half of the season: Ulis, Jared Dudley and Alan Williams. Ulis also set up more three-pointers than Bledsoe had over the stretch, with 5.2 attempts per game from three coming after a Ulis pass as opposed to the 4.4 mark by Bledsoe.
Ulis and Bledsoe are comparable in passes per game — they make around 50 each — but Ulis is setting up nearly two more field goal attempts per game.
He’s the best passer on the team, and some of his assists in the past few games show why.
Something to recognize is Ulis making up for never being able to see over the defense. Still, he has sensational court vision.
Watch Ulis run a two-man game with Alex Len in the clip below. With Len open, Ulis is unable to make an easy pass because of the taller defenders. What does he do?
The most overlooked and underrated part of the evaluation of Ulis as a prospect was his scoring. He has great touch on his jumper extending out to 20 feet, and in the nine games that he’s scored at least 15 points, the jumper’s always been on.
Ulis is shooting well above league average in the close-midrange areas as the shot chart shows.
Where that becomes a problem, however, is in Ulis’ reliance on that area instead of scoring where it should be the easiest: at the rim.
He has 141 field goal attempts from those three close-midrange areas compared to 77 at the rim. That’s only 35 percent of his total attempts inside 16 feet coming around the basket.
To compare it to some of the best scorers under 6-foot-2: of shots inside 16 feet, Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry take more than 75 percent of their shots at the rim.
Where there’s hope is comparing Ulis to the point god himself, Chris Paul, who checks in even lower than Ulis at 33 percent.
Paul is a once-in-a-generation player, but he at least provides the blueprint for Ulis to stay effective as a scorer despite shooting 12 percent under the league average at the rim.
Ulis, deservedly so, had a lot of hype out of college as a defensive player.
His main strength was being a pest, showing the toughness to pick up a player full court and the foot speed to stay with them.
He has a truly unique combination of awareness and intangibles to consistently pinpoint the perfect time to swipe at the ball.
Want to have someone else bring up the ball to avoid this nuisance, like the older Paul? Good luck getting him the ball.
If you’ve watched your fair share of NBA basketball, you know how difficult it is to make plays like this multiple times a game without not only getting called for fouls but also picking up the reputation as someone who doesn’t foul on steal attempts and receives the benefit of the doubt more often than not (one might recall a certain Morris twin).
On-ball defense in the halfcourt is another story.
In some matchups, the Suns have elected to have Derrick Jones Jr. guard the point guards, leaving Ulis off-ball against a lesser offensive threat.
This won’t fly when Ulis is a starter during a point in the team’s season that isn’t labeled after large war machines.
He’s in a fascinating paradigm of, without a doubt, being a good defensive player, but the limitations of his size become more evident with extended time.
When teams decide to specifically target Ulis, he’s in trouble. Reggie Jackson, a prototypical point guard at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, turns a post-up into a simple turnaround touch shot.
The Warriors provided a specific example of what happens when a team opens the game by targeting him.
Screens have proven to be a big issue for Ulis. The big men screening him are simply too large for him to quickly jump around if it’s well-timed and set, something good teams do in their sleep.
Yes, Stephen Curry is one of the best players in this galaxy, but watch the opening buckets by Curry and what happens to Ulis when a screen is set on him. He, quite simply, gets eliminated from the play because all his momentum is stopped.
These are the type of problematic elements in Ulis’ game that would become more glaring in a starter role or by spending more time on the floor against starting point guards off the bench.
What’s difficult to do for Ulis, like much of the Suns’ roster, is taking a serious evaluation of him after the team shut down Bledsoe.
There’s not one individual on the team to blame for a 13-game losing streak, but in that same facet of the season, the experience the players get far exceeds the importance of how they play, especially from an analysis standpoint.
Many teams playing this version of the Suns are going through the motions, fully aware of the level of their competition and doing just enough to blow them out in the fourth quarter.
Ulis especially is also going from averaging 10 minutes a game to 40, making a serious call on those aforementioned interior shooting percentages, his 24-percent three-point shooting or those earlier defensive clips unwise.
What we can determine from his run this season is that he’s an NBA player who deserves minutes as a prototypical “change of pace” guard. Whether that’s in a minor role in a rotation at 10-15 minutes a game, as a serious contributor off the bench at 20-25 minutes a game who can fill in as a starter or as the long-term starter himself remains to be seen.
What we do know is the Suns got a steal in the second round, and with the team having him on a contract over the next three years making under $1.2 million per season, he could very well be one of the best bargains in the entire league.