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Phoenix Suns rookie point guard Tyler Ulis uses his size to his advantage

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While Phoenix Suns other two rookies and Devin Booker are getting all the headlines, Tyler Ulis has been one of the most efficient players on the team and the catalyst for the Suns' disruptive defense.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns needed power forwards in the worst way, and took two of them among the Top 8 picks of the NBA Draft. But GM Ryan McDonough apparently couldn't stand the thought of passing on a Kentucky Wildcats point guard before the night was out. He took Tyler Ulis with the 34th overall pick, and gave him a first-round-level contract with two guaranteed years and two team options.

The 5'10", 149 pound Ulis would have gone in the lottery if he were a little bigger. But best friend Devin Booker says Ulis is exactly the right size just the way he is.

"He uses his size to his advantage rather than disadvantage," Devin Booker says.

Suns coach Earl Watson describes how Ulis can do that.

"To play defense in the NBA," Watson said. "The best thing (for an opposing point guard) to handle pressure on offense and defense is to feel your body. If I can feel your body, I can bump you off and go around you."

Ulis doesn't body up the opponent, doesn't let him get leverage to go around the corner. That allows Ulis to stay in his space and reach for the ball.

"You can't feel Ulis because he's so small you don't know where he went."

Where he went is even lower to the ground than you'd think. The ball has to bounce, and Ulis is right there poking at it when it's at the furthest distance from the opponent's hand.

"When he's under the ball and you're looking around," Watson said with a smile, "You've got eight seconds to get the ball over half court."

But the biggest concern was that Ulis would crumble at the first hard screen by a true-sized NBA center. Screens are used to separate the defender from the ball handler and force the defense to scramble to recover. Either he has to fight through the screen fast enough to keep pace, or he has to switch onto the other player while his teammate picks up the ball handler.

Clearly, the Suns won't be switching on screens when Ulis is on the floor. He can't just take on the big who will immediately back him down into the post. So he's got to be good at staying with his man, or taking the right angle to pick him up again after getting past the big.

In doing that, he has to avoid getting killed on ball screens. While Alan Williams is positively leveling opposing guards for the Suns, Ulis has not been flattened yet. He slithers, glides and/or sidesteps the screener while not losing too much ground on the ball handler.

So far, so good but no plan is 100% executable. He has occasionally been forced to switch with mixed results. Twice in the game against Boston he found himself defending Jaylen Brown, a good 80-90 pounds heavier than Ulis. Once, Brown forced Ulis into a foul. The other time, Ulis got the steal as Brown tried to bull his way to the rim.

Ulis can take contact when he has to. He's even taken a good bit of contact on the other end of the floor, earning seven free throws on shooting fouls in two games.

Setting the size/hurt part aside, Ulis has been a revelation in his first two pro games. He's doing everything efficiently, and helping create a sometimes unstoppable offense generated by suffocating defense.

Here he is in game one against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Ulis was efficient, with only 1 missed FG and 1 turnover on the bad side of the box score, versus three made FGs, 5-6 FTs, 11 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and three steals.

And here is game two against the Celtics.

Ulis finished with 10 points on 4-11 shooting, 5 assists, 6 steals and 4 rebounds with no turnovers.

"I feel like my flow is really good," Ulis said after game one. "I didn't have to change my game as much as I thought I would. I was really comfortable."

"He's tremendous pressuring the ball and setting the tone on the defensive end," Summer Suns coach Nate Bjorkgren said. "And then offensively his leadership and getting guys together."

The Suns have been looking for a playmaker like Ulis for years.

Recent Suns first round PG picks

Ulis is the third 20 year old point guard taken by the Suns in the last five drafts, including Tyler Ennis and Kendall Marshall. Neither Ennis nor Marshall has become a big time NBA player. In fact, both will be struggling to stay in the league beyond their current contracts.

Let's compare Ulis' first Summer League game to those of the Suns previous 20-year old point guard draftees.

In Tyler Ennis' first game (18th pick, 2014), he scored 7 points, dished 1 assist, grabbed 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Over five SL games, Ennis averaged 4.2 points (on 21% shooting) with 3.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds. Ennis wasn't the primary scorer on the team, but he had a lot work with. Also on the floor with Ennis were fellow rookie T.J. Warren (22 points, 4 rebounds), Miles Plumlee, Archie Goodwin and Alex Len. Dionte Christmas and Seth Curry even came off the bench for that crew. That team was supposed to be stacked, but Len and Plumlee never meshed, Len hurt his finger, and Archie had a tough second round of SL games.

In Kendall Marshall's first Summer League game (13th pick, 2012), he failed to score and dished just 5 assists while second-year player Markieff Morris absolutely dominated for the Suns in that game with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 6 blocks. This was the Suns second game, as Marshall missed their first (a win) because of a contract-signing delay. Marshall topped out at 15 points and 10 assists in his 4th game, but shot only 31% from the field for the four games.

Final Word

Which of these back up point guards would you prefer?

  • 10.5 points (46% FG), 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 4.5 steals
  • 4.2 points (21% FG), 3.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals
  • 7.0 points (31% FG), 6.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals

It's only two games, I know. Ulis could fall flat without Devin Booker's presence deflecting back court attention. But so far, I'd take Ulis over any of those three.

Ulis still has a lot to prove. His opposing point guards to date have been Russ Smith and rookie Demetrius Jackson. Neither is a proven NBA player. Ulis won't face a true NBA point guard until training camp, when Eric Bledsoe bull dozes his way past Ulis on the way to the rack after a good screen from Len, Chandler or Williams.

If Ulis can survive Bledsoe in training camp, his future would be even clearer.