Former Intel CEO Andy Grove is credited as having said: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
Apparently, no one told Tyler Ulis.
A rookie campaign for the Phoenix Suns that saw Ulis win the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award for April and average 16.1 points and 8.5 assists in 39.5 minutes per game after the strategic resting of Eric Bledsoe has given way to a sophomore season of reality checks. From Feb. 7 to Mar. 8 of this season, Ulis appeared in just two games, playing less than 10 minutes in both. This followed him losing his starting point guard role in late January to best friend and natural shooting guard Devin Booker.
When the guy you’re in charge of getting the ball to takes over that role himself, it’s a bad sign.
Ulis has been unable to recapture his inspired play from last season’s tanktastic conclusion, averaging just 6.7 points and 3.9 assists this season while shooting 37.3 percent from the floor and 26.9 percent from 3.
But that’s not the worst of it. No, the part that is worrisome is that Ulis simply hasn’t played with the same intensity that he displayed early in his Suns career. It was that tenacity — especially on the defensive end — that helped him compensate for his 5’10 height and runtish build. With that, too, lacking, interim head coach Jay Triano has struggled to find cause to call Ulis’ number.
While difficult to prove, it’s hard to believe Ulis didn’t get a bit complacent after the success he experienced his rookie season. Having been gifted minutes last season and yet to be truly humbled by the league, it’s easy to imagine him entering 2017-18 feeling like the first tiger to discover a new hunting ground, padding through the underbrush, it’s belly swollen with goat meat. But while seeking out a sun-drenched location to bask in, another tiger — haggard and desperate — has strode in and is now feasting where the former once hunted.
Enter Shaquille Harrison.
Harrison signed a pair of 10-day contracts with the Suns after the All-Star break and was rewarded with a multiyear contract on Mar. 13 due to his boundless energy and effort on the defensive end of the ball. He quickly ingratiated himself to Triano with his defensive work, claiming the backup point guard role for himself and relegating Ulis to butt groove maintenance on the bench.
“He’s a very good defensive player,” Triano told azcentral’s Scott Bordow in early March. “That’s what he does best. That’s his forte. He takes a lot of pride in it, and I think he’s got a great wingspan and reach and anticipation for the ball. He has super active hands, and that’s one of the things we’re looking for.”
Ulis should take note. Traino said nothing about Harrison’s offensive abilities, mainly because Harrison is an abysmal shooter. And yet he’s playing ahead of Ulis — all predicated on his feisty defensive work.
“I’ve been like that since going back to fourth or fifth grade,” Harrison told azcentral. “I don’t know why, but it’s always been fun for me to play defense. Where I come from, if you got scored on it was embarrassing. You didn’t want to let your man score, so that’s always been my mentality.
“Some guys don’t like playing defense. I get joy out of it. That’s my calling card, my niche. Defense is who I am. Defense is who I will always be.”
For Harrison, defense is everything. It’s the sunlight for his leaves, the oxygen for his fire, the pumpkin spice for his latte. He knows that if he’s not bringing it full bore on the defensive end of the floor, he probably won’t be out there long. Compare that mentality to what Ulis said about playing defense back in September during Media Day.
“It’s just about competing,” Ulis said. “You know, at my size, I have to be a defender, so it’s not that I love defense because no one really loves defense, but, you know, it’s just that I’m a competitor and I don’t really want no one scoring on me.”
There is a noticeable difference in tone between Harrison and Ulis regarding defense, and as the undersized player, Ulis doesn’t have the luxury of being the less enthused of the pair. Facing bigger and taller opponents on a nightly basis, Ulis needs to be on the attack every time out. Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history at 5’3, would never have survived 14 seasons had he not been a defensive instigator. He never saw a favorable matchup in that span but was never a significant liability because he battled tooth and claw. After all, you don’t earn the nickname Muggsy on the outdoor courts by resting on your laurels.
Perhaps finally facing a threat to his spot in the NBA will remind Ulis that he hasn’t arrived and that he must continue to scrap if he wants to stick in the league. Unfortunately for Ulis at the moment, however, Harrison needed no reminder. Where Ulis had a relatively unobstructed path to the NBA, Harrison had to grind. Ulis was drafted No. 34 in 2016 out of Kentucky; Harrison went undrafted in 2016 out of Tulsa. Ulis signed a rookie-scale contract with Phoenix; Harrison signed a training camp deal with Phoenix. Ulis spent the 2016-17 season with the Phoenix Suns; Harrison spent the 2016-17 season with the Northern Arizona Suns. Ulis spent last summer recovering from right ankle surgery; Harrison spent last summer battling on Phoenix’s Summer League team, leading the squad in steals per game.
“A lot can be said for how he has embraced trying to be a defender and how hard he works,” Triano told azcentral about Harrison a few days before the Suns signed him for the remainder of the season. “That’s how you take advantage of opportunities.”
And forgetting that is how one loses opportunities. Complacency is always a threat and succumbing to it always a possibility. Every year, 60 players are drafted into the NBA looking to take a job currently held by someone else, and as Harrison proves, there are countless more who go undrafted looking to do the same. Any player believing they are safe from this process because they have a contract in hand is sorely mistaken.
“People don’t understand, when you’re in the NBA you get comfortable sometimes,” Booker told azcentral when asked about Harrison. “And there’s people who are dying to be in that position. He gets that chance to go out there, and he’s giving it his all every second he’s out there. It’s not about making or missing, it’s not about remembering plays, it’s the effort that you can see him give and the passion that he plays with and the competitive spirit he has.”
It’s an apt description of Harrison by Booker — as well as a much-needed wake-up call for his bench-bound best friend.