Newsflash: Tyler Ulis is really good at the game of basketball. Most of us knew this prior to June's draft (clears throat), but even the most enthusiastic Ulis apologists have to be blown away by his play during Summer League, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to fathom how teams passed on taking him in the first round. Dude was the SEC Player of the Year as well as the SEC Defensive Player of the year while playing at Kentucky last season; I don't care if you are 5-foot-2 and weigh less than 100 pounds -- you deserve to be a first round pick with those accolades.
Ulis is uber aware of the fact that he has to be precise with each one of his dribbles because of his size disadvantage, and he already is approaching Chris Paul-like mastery of subtle cadences that either throw a defense off kilter or keep it at bay just long enough for him to strike. I am not saying he is as good as Paul, but there are similarities present with the way they manipulate defenders on the pick-and-roll with a series of fakes and a controlled half-spin hesitation dribble that has paved the way to success for smaller guards like Paul and Isaiah Thomas:
Marquese Chriss misses the shot here, but that is a high level play by Ulis to snake by two defenders whose main objective was to corral him from penetrating, and then whip it back out to a wide open Chriss. If you have ever watched a Clippers game, this sequence is eerily similar to some two-man action ran by Paul and Blake Griffin.
If a defender overcompensates in the paint due to his lethal first step, the former Kentucky guard has an innate understanding of when to dig into his bag of tricks and throw up a floater that he is capable of hitting at a high percentage:
Though this floater is over a fellow mini-me guard in Pierre Jackson, Ulis has an unquestioned comfortability in finishing around and over bigger defenders in the paint. He will either fall back on one foot as he did above, or simply extend the arc of his floater to ascend just over the swiping arm of contest. That's the thing I love most about Ulis' game: He is always making a move based what the defense is showing -- there is no pre-ordained plan that he must stick to. The defense is at his mercy, not the other way around.
If the floater isn't falling for him on a particular day, Ulis will resort to his ultimate money shot, the mid-range jumper. Defenders are caught in a tough predicament when Ulis is slicing in the lane with a boost of a pick: play the pass or come up and stifle the mid-range game? More often than not, it will not matter which choice they make because Ulis will just make a counter move.
Notice how Ulis attacks the big man for an extra dribble until he darts back over to the rolling Alan 'Big Sauce' Williams. That split second forces the defender to call his shot, and once Ulis realizes that there is now an open space, he stops on a dime and rises up for a patented mid-range bunny. Remind you of anyone?
Switching the pick-and-roll is all the rage in (talking head voice) the modern NBA, but Ulis was up to the challenge of exploiting match ups against lead-footed behemoths while playing in Vegas. There is a variation to how Ulis attacks a big man defender; he can back up, get a head start, and utilize his quickness to penetrate the lane and create for his teammates like he does for Dragan Bender here:
Other times -- think late in the shot-clock situations -- Ulis can compound the threat of his quickness into creating a sliver of space to launch a clean look off the dribble:
The ultimate theme of Ulis' game is the control that he exhibits at all times. As I mentioned before, every dribble has to have a purpose, and no move is compromised when he comes around a pick. There is no rushing, no deer in the headlights look about him -- the man just simply knows how to manipulate a defense into doing what he aspires it to do. Even if the first action is sufficiently stopped, Ulis will buy time for a re-screen, putting the ball on a string within the tightest of spaces and making a play that didn't appear to be there in the first place:
It reminds me of watching a patient running back (specifically someone like Le'Veon Bell) allow his offensive line to set up their blocks before bursting through the hole and piercing a defense. What Ulis does on a possession by possession basis should not look as easy as it does.
I realize that Summer League defenders are not the most elite when it comes to containing jitterbug guards off the dribble and within a pick-and-roll setting. Summer League basketball as a whole should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But guess what, none of that matters. Ulis has been playing this way ever since his inception at Kentucky, and there is no reason to think that he cannot continue to only get better with his pick-and-roll/overall floor general mastery under Coach Earl Watson's tutelage.
Rejoice Suns fans, we got ourselves a good one.
*All videos that appear in this article are snippets from the "FreeDawkins" YouTube page. You can watch Ulis' and other player's highlights videos here.