Around the time of the NBA Draft last June, the name Tyler Ulis started to float around more and more, and - it seemed - with the negativity increasing through each mention. Watching him with Kentucky last year, it was clear that he was an undersized player, but his style was clearly one of a guy who had had to deal with that his whole life. I didn’t understood why he fell so far, but I was glad it was the Suns who took him.
During Ulis’ firecracker second quarter on Sunday against the Celtics, coach Earl Watson was engaged in a chess match with Celtics coach Brad Stevens. One of the most aggressive checks came when Watson answered a massive Celtics lineup (featuring Jaylen Brown at shooting guard) with his own four-guard lineup. That meant Ulis, Eric Bledsoe, Leandro Barbosa, Devin Booker and Alan Williams on the court together.
According to nbawowy, they were only on the court together for three possessions, during which Ulis scored five points. It was mostly Ulis’ hard work on both ends that made this combination even remotely possible, as well as the iterations featuring Jared Dudley and Marquese Chriss that came before and after. Switched onto Jae Crowder in the post, Ulis stiffened up to front him and deny the entry pass. Crowder eventually turned the ball over one a 24-second violation.
On the other end, Ulis simply entertained. It was hard not to watch the rookie in that second quarter and not feel like 29 other teams whiffed big on Ulis. Running the pick-and-roll repeatedly, he was able to get into the second layer of the defense and make difficult shot after difficult shot. He made a deep jumper or two fading off a pick, and it sure didn’t look to hard for him to find open space, despite his lack of size.
When the Celtics did attack him with more traditional sets, he made good use of his quick feet to stay in front of Isaiah Thomas and make him work.
The most fun moment of the entire 2016-17 Phoenix Suns season, and it was created by Tyler Ulis and Marquese Chriss. You couldn’t have scripted the signature moment of the post-All-Star youth movement better. Ulis was reasonably pumped after the game:
More important than anything he said, though, was Watson’s comment that performances like this one by Ulis are so impactful that they force a headwind against the previous trajectory of the roster. Watson said, flat out, that Ulis had captured the backup point guard spot, and that his play might make the team make changes elsewhere to ensure that spot stays his.
The most exciting part of all of this playing time for the young players (Ulis, Williams, Derrick Jones Jr.) is the chemistry they’re building on the court together. Ulis in particular is making the bottom of the restricted area his playplace, and Alan Williams his playdate. We could all get used to these two running sweet, sweet pick-and-rolls into the next successful era for this team:
After watching so much of this team since the All-Star break and focusing particularly on Ulis over the past couple games, I think I’ve dialed into what made Ulis so special to the few who did praise him during the draft process. His main skills (court vision, defensive effort, etc.) are all ones that make the players around him better. When he talks, you see it come out. Now, that effusive workmanship is becoming the soul of the Suns’ young core, and it’s very special to watch.
The constant yammering and butting of heads (sometimes literally) will eventually die down as this unit understands its knack for frustrating opponents and uses it as an advantage instead of a threat, but the physical play and endless energy is going to stick around. A lot of that starts with Ulis.
The pinpoint passer and likeable young leader is supporting the point that Suns fans have been clamoring to prove all season: That sometimes just putting undeveloped pieces on the court together can lead to success. Tyler Ulis deserved a chance, and we deserved a chance to see our rookie get work. Now it’s all happening.