After playing an important backup role on the Final Four squad that lost their first and only game of the season in the NCAA Tournament semi-finals, Tyler Ulis came back for his sophomore season and showed what he can do in a more prominent role, winning SEC Player (and Defensive Player) of the Year honors, as well as being named a First Team All-American.
Ulis established himself as arguably the best point guard in college basketball as the leader of one the NCAA's most efficient offenses, upping his draft stock tremendously in the process. His 3.57 assist to turnover ratio ranks first among DX Top-100 prospects, while his 7.45 pure point ratio ranks second (behind only Denzel Valentine). On top of that, he scored a smooth 19 points per-40 minutes, on solid efficiency at 57% TS%.
Ulis' value goes far beyond the numbers, though, as he's your consummate floor general who runs a team exceptionally, while also finding ways to put the ball in the basket himself when needed. Kentucky head coach John Calipari freely admitted that Ulis coached our team, giving him the freedom to make adjustments and run the team as he sees fit, due to his outstanding basketball IQ and leadership skills.
He is very aggressive pushing the ball ahead in the open court, getting his teammates good shots early in the shot-clock, in transition or in early-offense situations. He's also very effective in the half-court, showing an advanced understanding of operating on the pick and roll, while also being capable of going out and creating good looks in one on one situations as well.
Ulis is an outstanding ball-handler, showing great command of the ball getting low to the ground, while using his quickness and ability to operate at different speeds to keep defenders off balance. He has a variety of moves he can utilize to create space, including crossovers, behind the back dribbles and subtle hesitation moves, as if often looks like he's playing at a different pace than everyone else on the floor with how calculated and under control he is.
He surveys the floor wonderfully with great timing and patience, whipping the ball all over the court with vision and creativity. While he's aggressive and decisive with his moves, he does a very good job of keeping mistakes to a minimum, only turning the ball over on 12% of his possessions.
While many floor general types are looking to pass the ball almost exclusively, Ulis finds a nice blend between creating for others and keeping defenses honest by looking for his own offense as well.
That starts with his jump-shot, which is a very effective weapon, having made 37% of his 3-pointers in his college career. Ulis is capable of making shots both with his feet set and off the dribble. He has a quick release and good elevation on his pull-ups, showing range out to the 3-point line and doing a nice job finding space to get it off when things break down for his team in the mid-range area.
Although not a prolific slasher, he has one of the best floaters in college basketball, something he'll certainly need at the next level as well to finish among the trees at his size.
Ulis converted just 48.5% of his 107 field goal attempts inside the paint this season according to Synergy Sports Technology, a well below average rate. Not only is he just 5'9 in shoes, but he's also very much on the narrow side at just 160 pounds. Unlike some of the sub six-foot guards who have found success in the NBA, he does not possess freakish athleticism to compensate for that.
There are legitimate question marks about the difficulties Ulis may face seeing the floor and finishing in the NBA, where everyone is that much bigger, longer and more athletic than in college. Ulis will have to continue to find ways to create space without the benefit of elite quickness, using his timing, creativity and smarts, as he won't be able to simply jump over or explode past defenders.
The other question mark around Ulis, as is always the case with players who are severely undersized, is how his defense will translate. In college, he was one of the peskier defenders you'll find, using his super quick feet and hands to put tremendous pressure on the ball, and generating quite a few turnovers in the process. The fact that he has above average length (6'1 wingspan) relative to his height helps compensate somewhat for his lack of size, but what will really help him out the most is how smart and competitive he is. He's the type of player who studies opponents' tendencies and uses them to his advantage, and is not afraid to get mix things up, diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges and playing with a warrior's mentality.
With that said, there will likely be somewhat of a transition to the NBA level, where most of the point guards will tower over him, especially if asked to play more than a backup role. He struggles to put a body on bigger and more physical guards, and it is easy to shoot over the top of him with his lack of size and average length. Until he proves otherwise, Ulis will be a target for opposing coaching staffs to go after in post-up situations as well.
The NBA has become a somewhat friendlier environment in recent years for point guards under six feet tall, with almost a dozen players in this mold finding success the past few seasons. While few expect Ulis to emerge as a star in the mold of Isaiah Thomas or Kemba Walker, it's easy to project him developing into an outstanding backup at the very least thanks to all the different things he brings to the table, not the least of which are his outstanding intangibles. He's the type of player who is very difficult to bet against.