Phoenix Suns PG Tyler Ulis excels in the NBA classroom

Apr 4, 2017, 7:30 PM | Updated: Apr 5, 2017, 3:17 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) drives against Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson (90) during th...
Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) drives against Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson (90) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 24, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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PHOENIX — Though out of school now for nearly a year, Phoenix Suns point guard Tyler Ulis gets tested on a regular basis.

His most recent exams included matchups against point guards Chris Paul and Damian Lillard, who between them have been selected to 11 NBA All-Star teams.

Still to come: Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP, and Russell Westbrook, perhaps this season’s MVP.

And though Ulis missed James Harden, another MVP candidate, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon provided quite the backcourt challenge when the Houston Rockets visited on Sunday.

That’s quite the nine-day stretch.

“One day he’s going to be a 10-year vet and he’s going to have a rookie come in. He’s going to tell him about all the point guards he played his rookie year, the same way I talked about John Stockton and Gary Payton,” head coach Earl Watson said. “I think it gives you confidence, it gives you experience and it puts you at a higher level; being comfortable playing against anyone else when you face the best in the game.”

In the past three games, Ulis has recorded a double-double (vs. Clippers) and almost a triple-double (vs. Rockets), the latter of which saw him score a career-high 34 points, the 11th-highest scoring game ever by a Suns rookie.

Ulis assumed the starting point guard role from Eric Bledsoe on March 15. And in the 11 starts since, he’s more than tripled his scoring (from 4.4 to 14.8), quadrupled his assist average (2.2 to 9.1) and improved his shooting — across the board: overall, 3-point and free throw percentages — all while playing better than three times the minutes (11.5 to 40.7) he received in 46 games coming off the bench.

Not bad for a second-round pick, who some questioned whether his size — Ulis is 5-foot-10 — would allow him to be successful in the pros.

“I told him a couple of times to watch Earl Boykins because he was like the same height (5-foot-5), the same position and he was a really good player,” guard Leandro Barbosa said. “All the players in the NBA respected him, so I’m sure Tyler is going to get that respect.

“This is only his rookie year and I think he’s doing such a great job.”

Ulis, 21, said he relishes the opportunity to play against the best in the game, guys that he grew up watching and hoped to one day share the court with after a two-year college career at Kentucky.

Ulis may not be surprised by his success, but he knows others could be.

“Definitely because being a smaller guard a lot of people say, ‘you can’t make it, you can’t do this, it’s not going to translate to the NBA.’ Obviously it is,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m just trying to keep proving people wrong and proving to myself that I can do it.”

And how is Ulis doing on his tests thus far?

“If I was a teacher,” Watson said, “I would grade him A+.”


— When the Golden State Warriors visit Wednesday, Barbosa will not be on the court against his former team. He ruled himself out, meaning a sixth straight game will be missed because of a right hamstring spasm.

“It’s a nerve irritation,” said Barbosa, who spoke while riding a stationary bike after practice. “I’ve got to be patient. This is a hamstring. I’m not 24 years old no more. I’m 34, so I got to be smart about that.”

Barbosa has not played since March 24.

— Some good news: forward T.J. Warren is feeling better after sitting out Sunday’s matchup with Houston due to illness.

“He’s doing pushups right now in the middle of the court, so I imagine he’s feeling better,” Watson said, laughing. “They’re playing 1-on-1. I guess Bledsoe won the game, so (Warren) looks like he’s ready to play.”

Meanwhile, forward Dragan Bender will once again be on a minutes restriction. He played 14 against the Rockets, scoring nine points with seven rebounds and two blocks.

“I can’t think it’ll be much higher,” Watson said, referring to Bender’s minutes. “We want to make sure he stays healthy, make sure he recovers. He’s still kind of young, so we don’t want to pound his body too much.”

— Watson was among the 76,168 in attendance at Monday’s national championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium. He was in a row that included former college head coaches Lute Olson (Arizona), Gene Keady (Purdue) and Jim Calhoun (Connecticut).

“It was great to watch…and just listen to them talk about basketball during the game. It was pretty cool. Great experience,” Watson said.

— Another Suns coach was at the game, assistant Jay Triano. He, though, had a rooting interest in the outcome. Triano’s son, Dustin, is a reserve guard at Gonzaga.

“I think I got nudged three or four times, saying ‘you’re not coaching this’ because I was (yelling) ‘Push it! Run! Let’s go! Get back!’ Obviously, I was just hoping for them to finish better than they did, but it was an exciting environment,” he said. “It’s something that he’ll never forget and that’s what you kind of always want to have for your kids.”

— Prior to Tuesday’s practice, the Suns put their uniforms on for the annual team photo.

It was likely one of the last practices of the season with just four games remaining. At practice was college basketball analyst Steve Lavin, who coached Watson at UCLA. Lavin was in town for the Final Four.

Follow Craig Grialou on Twitter

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