Spring is here, and once again Tyler Ulis is playing like a boss.
Last season, Ulis started very slow as a rookie (3 points, 1.5 assists per game through February) but finished strong after the Suns “strategically rested” Eric Bledsoe for the last two months of the season. He put up 11.9 points and 7.9 assists per game in March, followed by 20.7 points and 6.8 assists per game in April as he won Rookie of the Month in the West.
This year, he’s re-emerging in March again. Slowly but surely. His last four games he’s scored 11, 14, 19 and 23 points on better than 50% from the field, with 8 or more assists in two of those games.
But it was a long, disappointing road in between these stints for the smallest player in the NBA (Ulis is maybe 5’8” and weighs 150 pounds on a fat day). Ulis had plenty of opportunities this season, getting 38 starts in 65 games while playing the 6th most minutes on the team. But he averaged less than 7 points and 4 assists in those games, shooting a woeful 37% from the field.
Finally, he’s looking and moving like the Ulis of old.
“I think it could be the fact that he’s healthy and can move,” coach Jay Triano offered of Ulis before the Clippers game.
Ulis entered training camp only two weeks back into full basketball action after a full offseason rehabbing from ankle surgery - a rehab that turned out a lot longer than anyone outside the organization thought. Then, right around the holidays, Ulis began suffering from back tightness that would come and go. Could have been all those screens he was fighting through, or simply just the rigors of the NBA. Either way, he couldn’t move well on the court.
But even when healthy(ish) it seemed that Ulis had lost his confidence. His shots were all taken while contorting heavily to one side or the other to avoid a defender’s outstretched hand. And he still got blocked a lot. Even his open, uncontested shots came up short. This all adds up to 37% shooting.
Ulis got his minutes this year, but the Suns desperately went through the likes of Mike James, Isaiah Canaan, Josh Gray and even Devin Booker for a while before Elfrid Payton came to town to excite then disappoint.
Finally, Ulis appears to have re-emerged. He had a season high 23 points on Wednesday night, making the Clippers pay for playing the passing lanes and letting him take shots. Ulis made 9 of 16 shots, including 3 of 7 threes, while also tallying 2 assists and 3 rebounds.
Ulis had only 2 official assists in the game but according to stats.nba.com he had 11 potential assists, meaning he set his teammates up but they missed the shot 9 times out of 11. He is averaging 12.8 potential assists per game over the last four games.
“I think getting back in the lineup,” Triano said, “There’s a little bit more of a hunger there too.”
The hunger comes from knowing that the third and fourth years of his contract are not guaranteed.
The Suns have until June 30 to exercise Ulis’ third year worth about $1.5 million. A pittance in NBA terms, but there’s hundreds of deserving players world wide who would love that kind of money to play in the NBA.
Isaiah Canaan is one of them. Canaan came off the streets for an inspired midseason run when Ulis and Mike James (remember him?!?!) were disappointing. Canaan isn’t the passer that Ulis is, nor is he even as good a shooter. But he’s big enough to fight through screens without becoming a coat of shellack on a defender’s hip.
Canaan is unsigned for the 2017-18 season, but it well-liked in the organization and would love a chance to spend a whole year with the Suns. He’s rehabbing from a badly broken ankle, suffered right after having his contract guaranteed for the rest of the year.
Shaquille Harrison is another one. He can play defense, might even win the Majerle hustle award. He takes pride in his perimeter defense, always alert, always ready with a hand out for the steal. And when he gets the steal, he can go end to end to finish on the one-man break. But not unlike the original Shaq, he can’t shoot and doesn’t set up teammates on passes.
As is the case with Ulis, the Suns signed Harrison to a non-guaranteed league deal for next year after he exceeded expectations on a 10-day contract after being called up from the G-League Suns.
On Wednesday night, he had his own career high of 17 points, grabbed 4 rebounds and had 4 steals while hounding Lou Williams into a pedestrian shooting night during a career-high 30 minutes of playing time.
“We were worried about Lou Williams,” coach Triano said after the game. “Lou Williams is a guy that has gone off before, so we were trying to sit [Shaq] until Lou came into the game, but he played so well I had to put him in before Lou even got in the game in the second half. I thought he was a big factor in what we were trying to do.”
The Suns played the Clippers fairly even for three quarters before the deep bench collapsed at the start of the 4th.
In just 17 NBA appearances, Harrison already has tallied 4 steals in three of them.
“Definitely have got to take advantage of it,” Harrison said of his playing opportunity. “Because there’s a lot of people out there that want to be in my position, so I’m just trying to make the most of it as I can.”
Who knows. Maybe the Suns could bring all three players back next year.
But on a good roster, the Suns would have to choose between Ulis, Harrison and Canaan as their fifth or sixth guard. All are fringe NBA players. All bring something different to the table, both strengths and weaknesses.