It’s been 125 days since the Phoenix Suns waived Tyler Ulis.
The diminutive point guard, who is now a two-way player for the Chicago Bulls, should really update the bio portion of his Twitter account.
He should know better. He’s even from Chicago, and is now playing in Chicago. Or at least in Hoffman Estates, where I spoke to him after his Windy City Bulls defeated the Lakeland Magic 96-71 in their season opener Friday night:
“Literally, a full circle. I went from Chicago, to Kentucky, to Phoenix. Phoenix the weather out there is a lot different. I’m happy to be home, glad to be back around family and friends. I like the guys on this team.”
Ulis attended Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Ill. where he was the program’s all-time leader in points (2,335) and assists (578). He played for Chicago-based Nike MeanStreets for AAU. He was a McDonald’s All-American, finished third in the 2014 Illinois Mr. Basketball voting behind the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander and ended up as a five-star recruit, 25th best in his class.
His sophomore year at Kentucky, he earned SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, a feat only accomplished previously by some obscure Chicago-born player named Anthony Davis. Ulis played two seasons for the Suns, was waived, briefly latched on with the Golden State Warriors, and is now looking for another chance to dig in at the NBA level.
The Bulls point guard situation right now is a smattering of obscure names battling to entrench themselves into the backup point guard role. The Bulls were already thin even before starter Kris Dunn went down with an MCL sprain. Now, there’s minutes to be won and the skirmish to win them has turned into an outright battle. But Ulis doesn’t view it that way.
“Right now, I’m focused on the Windy City Bulls and I can’t really focus too much on what those guards [in the NBA] are doing,” Ulis said. “I’m rooting for those guys to win, I know they’ve had two tough losses lately. But I know for the most part I’m trying to lock in here with these guys. If I’m called up that’s what I’m prepared for.”
If and when Ulis gets his next opportunity at the NBA level, here’s what he can bring to the table.
Windy City Bulls head coach Charlie Henry is a Fred Hoiberg disciple. He coached under Hoiberg for several seasons at Iowa State. Henry said that 80 percent of what he runs offensively with the Windy City Bulls are Hoiball concepts, and the remaining 20 percent of the playbook focuses on playing to the strengths of his personnel even if that means contradicting Hoiball.
In a basketball world where mid-range jumpers are devalued (especially in Hoiball), Ulis is the antithesis.
In two seasons in Phoenix, 52.1 percent of his shot attempts came from 10 feet from the basket to just before the 3-point line. He’s susceptible to falling in love with these shot and forced a few shots in the game against the Lakeland Magic Friday night.
But, he’s trying to adjust.
“Definitely have to adjust, it’s not just about adjustment it’s also about knocking down the shots that you get,” Ulis said. “Threes I get, make sure I’m making that. Making people guard me [in such a way] where I can get to the spots I want to. But when I’m open, I like to get into the paint and into the midrange.”
In his two seasons at Kentucky, Ulis was a 37.1 percent 3-point shooter and an 84.6 percent free-throw shooter. So the peripherals were there for the outside shooting to carry over to the NBA level.
But it simply hasn’t. He’s shot 28 percent on 1.7 attempts per game in his two seasons with Phoenix. He was 1-for-4 from deep against the Lakeland Magic Friday night (super small sample size alert).
While improving those 3-point numbers is a priority, coach Henry isn’t trying to exterminate a strength of Ulis’ game (mid-range jumpers).
“Naturally, you’d think he’d shoot a little bit better down here than he did at the NBA and he was a pretty good, efficient shooter in the NBA,” Henry said. “The big thing for me is we tell them first seven, last seven. The first seven seconds of the shot clock off of no pass we often discourage it [mid-range jumpers] and the last seven seconds if we’ve explored other options [and] we end up with that, we know that he can make those. We also don’t have a lot of other guys who are going to take those, so Tyler taking his when he’s open later in the clock I’m fine with that.
Size Doesn’t Matter
Ulis doesn’t back down from doing things just because he’s 5-foot-10-inches, 160 pounds and will conceivably be the smallest guy on any court that he steps on the rest of his professional career.
“He competes if you are trying to go at him however you’re going to do it say it’s in the post he’s competitive,” Henry said. “He’s smart and he’s made himself who he is by figuring out what he can get done.”
For most of the first half, the Lakeland Magic matched up their two-way player Troy Caupain against Ulis. Caupain is 6-foot-4-inches and big. There were two instances that I noticed where Caupain got Ulis in the post, ending in an easy floating hook the one time and his teammate having to leave a 3-point shooter to help Ulis out the other (Caupain sensed the double team and kicked it back out to the 3-point shooter who knocked down the shot). Overall, Caupain had a poor game offensively; he needed 13 shots to tally 15 points.
Although Caupain makes this shot, this is an example of Ulis competing on defense. He fights to get over a screen to at least make the shot attempt more difficult for Caupain.
Ulis’ size will make it difficult for him to switch onto anybody which is an issue, but effort is half the battle defensively and Ulis aces that portion of the test.
Additionally, Ulis is smart and he has quick hands. One of Caupain’s two turnovers came when Ulis batted the ball away and grabbed it before Caupain knew what hit him, forcing Caupain to foul.
In the second half, Ulis matched up mostly with the 6-foot-1-inch Jay Wright. The Lakeland guard finished with the same amount of points (2) as turnovers. Everybody on the Bulls was doing something right defensively. The 71 points they gave up to the Magic was the lowest points allowed in franchise history.
Crafty as can Be
Most under 6-foot guards need to be crazy athletic/fast in order to be effective offensively. Think in the mold of Nate Robinson and Isaiah Thomas. Ulis is neither, but he’s crafty and he makes it work.
At the half, he was 2-for-10 from the field, but ended up with 13 points because he hit nine free throws. He ended the game with 13 free-throw attempts and sunk 12 of them.
It’s a part of his game that he never really showed off at the NBA level. In 2017-2018, he finished 14th out of 18 Phoenix Suns players who played at least 100 minutes in free-throw attempt rate. In 2016-2017, he finished 13th out of 15 players.
“It goes back to him being a very cerebral player,” Henry said about Ulis’ ability to get to the line Friday night. “Obviously to get those free throws, when you look at the high free-throw attempt guys in the NBA like James Harden the skill level, the ability to make plays off the bounce, high basketball IQ, knows when he is getting fouled, and will draw attention to it [it’s all there]. He’s [Ulis] very polished in that regard.”
Ulis scored 25 points on 6-for-18 from the field and was clearly the best [and the smallest] player on the floor Friday against Lakeland. He said he’s focused on Windy City, but with the Bulls point guard situation in constant flux his next pro opportunity may be closer than he thinks.
“At the end of the day, they still have to respect the work you put in, respect the things you’ve done at the high school, at the college level,” Ulis said. “I feel like I hold my own for the most part and play at a high level. I’m just waiting to get back to the pros.”