Tyler Ulis has everything you could want out of a point guard except size.
The Phoenix Suns rookie is listed at 5-foot-10, 150 pounds and that’s very generous after sitting floor level during the preseason and being next to him after practice. The reported health questions didn’t help matters, but Ulis fell to the second round despite being the second “not a combo guard” 1 selected after Kris Dunn.
The gist on Ulis’ game offensively is efficiency. He maximizes his movement by making all the right approaches with the ball in his hands. Taking precise angles while moving at blistering speeds in an agile way allows him to have a 75-80 percent chance of being presented a “take what the defense gives you” decision to make, and the good news is, he makes the right one nearly every time.
That extends to his playmaking, where he doesn’t make an exceptionally flashy pass, but he will get a lot of “ooh’s!” from the crowd because he finds the windows he’s had to adapt to for years of playing at his size.
Off the bounce, he has good touch on his jumper from about two steps inside the three-point line to the basket, a capable floater and is both intelligent enough to realize when he can draw fouls and knows how to get officials to buy a player of his size being fouled.
In the preseason (and for the rest of his career), Ulis had a very critical checkbox to fill to see if he could keep that 75-80 percent number in a somewhat realistic range in his jump to the pros, most notably being to create his own shot. So far, we’ve seen him be able to do that, but the shot hasn’t been falling. Like Dragan Bender, there’s enough evidence prior to this that we shouldn’t be concerned about a jumper not going down. The far more important thing for Ulis is that he’s still making the correct reads and creating offense, even in bigger size mismatches.
Defense is going to be the issue despite that arguably being what he’s the best at. Ulis has the max levels of effort and peskiness required for someone of his size to play NBA minutes, and when combined with how quick and fast he is, it’s a problem for other ball-handlers. It’s required for me to once again repeat how smart he is because it allows him to jump passing lanes, get easy steals and read where his man is headed with and without the ball is going in order to not get taken advantage of. That last bit he has to do, and he should be able to keep that up.
The size discrepancy, though, is where this chat transitions us into the discussion on Ulis playing this season.
He’s a backup point guard, and most other backup point guards aren’t going to isolate him anywhere on the floor. Still, a below average point guard like Jeremy Lin for example is going to have a listed advantage of six inches in height and 50 pounds in weight. That’s A LOT to give up.
To provide an example of where it can go right and wrong, the backup point guards in the division are Shaun Livingston, Austin Rivers, Marcelo Huertas, and Ty Lawson/Jordan Farmar. Livingston and Rivers would be difficult to buy, especially Livingston, and I’d be surprised to see Ulis play minutes against either. Huertas and the two Sacramento backups, however, have far more conservative offensive roles and at least with these examples, shouldn’t be a problem for Ulis to get by on the other end. But, once again, Huertas is the size of Lin, so it’s a matter of seeing it then believing it.
It’s going to be a pick and choose strategy with Ulis’ playing time if Earl Watson wants to get the most effectiveness possible, and one of the low-key dangers of running three-guard lineups is most likely forcing Ulis into some playing time, which wouldn’t be ideal on some nights. Ulis is a unique rookie, but remember, he’s still a rookie.
This, of course, isn’t going to be a situation that Watson goes to for elongated stretches, and staggering Bledsoe and Knight will be the go-to move. That’s the point that’s hard to get past when it comes to how much Ulis will play. Despite being the only other real point guard on the roster besides Bledsoe, he’s the fifth guard on this team. He has a lot to prove in his rookie season for being a second-round pick, and his progress in doing so will coincide with how much we see him play this year.