PHOENIX, Ariz. – There are two very different sets of numbers that best describe point guard Tyler Ulis, the Phoenix Suns second-round pick.
First, 5-10 and 149, his height and weight, which measured as the second-shortest and lightest, respectively, at the NBA Draft Combine.
Then, 17.3 and 7.0, his scoring and assist averages, which put him in exclusive company as one of only four players in the nation to hit those respective marks last season.
The latter is what made him attractive to the Suns. The former is what made him available to the Suns.
“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.”
The fact that he was a member of ‘Big Blue Nation’ didn’t hurt either—“I felt it had been too long since we drafted a Kentucky guard,” McDonough joked—nor his position. The Suns suffered significant injuries at the point guard spot a year ago.
“We wanted to solidify that,” McDonough said.
Ulis, winner of the Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s top point guard, was formally introduced at a Friday afternoon press conference at Talking Stick Resort Arena; as were first-round picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
The Suns’ drafting of Ulis reunited him with former college teammate and roommate Devin Booker.
“We’re really close, best friends. I’ll have to hear it for the rest of my life—he told me earlier that he’s going to keep telling me every day, ‘I’m the reason you’re in the NBA’. He did Leon’s job for him,” Ulis said, referring to his agent, Leon Rose. “He told me a couple of picks early, but we were both really excited and I’m happy to be here playing with him again.”
Some projections had Ulis pegged as a first-round pick, given his playmaking ability and on-ball defender skills.
Waiting until the second round to hear his name called was “hard for me” but “I’m happy this is where I ended up,” he said. “I’m just going to come out here and try to learn from guys like (Eric) Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, all those guys who come from Kentucky. It’s already a family atmosphere for me and I feel like it will be easy (to fit in).”
Though some teams were scared off by Ulis’ size, or lack thereof—his combine measurements also included shortest wingspan (6-2), hand length (7½ inches), hand width (7½ inches) and second-lowest standing reach (7-4½)—the Suns were not.
“When he came into our workout here size wasn’t even a factor. He dominated the workout. He made plays. He could score,” said head coach Earl Watson, who watched Ulis play several times this season on the prompting of Booker text messages. “The skills he brings as a point guard, size really doesn’t matter. The old point guard of posting up with Gary Payton and Mark Jackson, that doesn’t exist. Space is everything. You might talk about, ‘well who can he guard?’ Well, who’s going to guard him? It goes both ways, so size doesn’t matter with us. The heart is the most important thing and he has a big heart.”
Booker saw it firsthand. As teammates, Booker and Ulis helped Kentucky tie a NCAA record with 38 wins in 2014-15.
“Obviously, he doesn’t fit the standard criteria for the NBA of a tall guy. He’s small and skinny,” Booker said. “He beat all the odds and made it to the NBA which a lot of small people can’t do so I’m really proud of him for that. I know how hard he’s worked for it.”
Second-round picks do not carry a guaranteed contract like first-round selections. Ulis, however, may be the exception.
For starters, the Suns felt good enough to make the pick rather than draft-and-stash a European prospect. And of course there’s Ulis’ talent, size notwithstanding.
“Teams didn’t really say much to me about my size because there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “It’s just about getting stronger, gaining weight and just being durable for the game. I’ve always been small so luckily it’s nothing new to me. I’m used to it. I learn how to pick my spots and just try to play as good as I can.”
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