Much was made of Tyler Ulis’ height — or lack thereof — when he entered the NBA Draft after playing two years with the Kentucky Wildcats. He measured 5’10 in shoes at the Draft Combine, and even if he mustered an unlikely growth spurt at some point with the Phoenix Suns, Ulis would still struggle to get past 6 foot.
Despite being short in a tall man’s sport, Ulis has managed to adapt and thrive, most recently being named the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year while with Kentucky. Still, he will enter his rookie season in Phoenix facing the same questions and doubters he has dealt with all his life, and the road forward will be his most daunting challenge yet.
Of the 4,061 players to ever play in an NBA game, 125 of them were listed below 6’ in height, according to basketball-reference.com. That is just 3.1 percent of the cumulative NBA population. And of those 125 players, only four were impactful enough to warrant being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as players, with Calvin Murphy being the most recent to play back in the 1970’s and early 80’s.
But talking about Ulis and his Hall of Fame odds is just a teensy bit premature, so while he prepares to begin life as an NBA player, here is a title that is far more reasonable for him to one day earn: best sub-6’ Phoenix Sun ever.
There are not many players for him to overtake in that pursuit, as only six prior Suns have been listed below 6’ since the team began play in 1968. Here is a breakdown of Ulis’ competition (in alphabetical order).
Andre Barrett (5’10, 172lbs)
Andre Barrett joined the Phoenix Suns on a pair of 10-day contracts in March 2006. However, he saw scant playing time under Mike D’Antoni before he was released on Mar. 14. In two appearances, Barrett averaged 4.5 points and an assist in 10.5 minutes — although nearly all his numbers were accumulated during a blowout loss to San Antonio on Mar. 9.
Greg Grant (5’7, 140lbs)
Greg Grant, drafted 52nd overall by Phoenix in 1989, is the first — and only — player on this list to spend a whole season with the Suns. He also ranks as the shortest Phoenix Sun to ever play.
Over his 67-game rookie season, Grant backed up Kevin Johnson at point guard, averaging 3.1 points and 2.5 assists in 10.1 minutes per game. Despite unimpressive offensive numbers, shooting 38.4 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from 3, Grant held onto his job as backup point guard all season for the Suns, who fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals that year. He would leave for the New York Knicks as a free agent the following year.
Brevin Knight (5’10, 173lbs)
Acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a trade before the 2003-04 season, Brevin Knight saw the court three times in a Phoenix Suns uniform before being traded to the Washington Wizards for Jahidi White. Knight, who had a solid NBA career, averaged 0.7 points, 1.3 assists, and a steal in 6.3 minutes per game behind Stephon Marbury in Phoenix.
Phil Pressey (5’11, 175lbs)
Phil Pressey spent nine games with the Suns last season while the team watched their point guards fall like dominoes. He signed two 10-day contracts with the team beginning in late February and started off strong, averaging 6.7 points, 6.7 assists, and 1.3 steals while playing hard-nosed defense over his first three games. However, his playing time dwindled as other players returned to health, and he was not retained past his second 10-day deal. He finished his stint in Phoenix averaging 2.4 points, 3.2 assists, and 0.8 steals in 12.6 minutes per game.
Yuta Tabuse (5’9, 165lbs)
The first Japanese-born player to play in the NBA, Yuta Tabuse turned out to be more hype than substance. He averaged 1.8 points and 0.8 assists in mop-up duty during four early games in the 2004-05 season before being waived Dec. 16 so he could re-join the Long Beach Jam of the ABA.
Isaiah Thomas (5’9, 185lbs)
Isaiah Thomas only spent half a season in purple and orange, but his impact while here sets him apart as the standard-bearer for height-challenged Suns.
Acquired from the Sacramento Kings in a sign-and-trade deal on Jul. 12, 2014, Thomas teamed with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic as part of the doomed triple point guards experiment. Thomas, however, was impressive in his time here, averaging 15.2 points and 3.7 assists in 25.7 minutes over 46 games (45 off the bench). He recorded 16 20-point games in that span and carried his solid play over to the Boston Celtics when he was dealt there at the 2015 trade deadline.
Tyler Ulis (5’10, 149lbs)
Ulis has done well for himself thus far, earning a guaranteed NBA contract as a second-round pick and garnering All-Summer League 2nd team honors while leading the squad with a steady hand. Merely remaining on the roster into January should be enough to push Ulis ahead of Barrett, Knight, Pressey, and Tabuse on this list, but more will be needed from him if he wants to reach the top.
“I learned a long time ago that the one thing that a lot of players are afraid of is somebody that plays hard all the time,” Grant told suns.com back in 2009. “When you come at them hard all the time, and not stop and be very consistent, no matter how good they are, it just wears on them and it breaks them down. I always just trained and conditioned myself to get to the point where I will always be on the attack. As long as I felt that way, I didn’t care about everybody else’s talent. I knew eventually I would get to you.”
Even though he’s more Pickles Kennedy than Calvin Murphy in terms of accomplishment at this point, Ulis possesses the right frame of mind to be successful in the NBA. He displayed the same tenacity Grant spoke of during his six Summer League appearances, showcasing a relentlessness that suggested he would always be equal to the challenge. If Ulis can embody that mentality every time he takes the court, we may be calling him the best sub-6’ Phoenix Sun in short order.