(First posted at Upside & Motor.)
I was one of the people skeptical of Tyler Ulis’ ability to make any sort of impact at the pro level. My rationale was that while his intelligence is very appealing, he simply lacks a baseline combination of physical profile, athleticism and aggressiveness to make up for his deficiencies.
193 minutes of Summer League play isn’t enough to prove me completely wrong. Summer League is essentially a higher level of the collegiate game; aggregating guys that aged out of that system, guys that were born in different countries and never went through that system, and only a couple dozen or so NBA-caliber rotation players. It makes sense that someone who was great in college would manage to be great in Summer League, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will earn NBA minutes, as recent history is full of examples.
But Ulis’ performance last week should make me reconsider some of my assumptions, especially with regards to whether he can play with the sort of aggressiveness needed for someone his size to beat the odds.
That’s an issue best raised, in my opinion, by Jonathan Tjarks in a post about JJ Barea. Paraphrasing him, Tjarks argued that while people often complain about how Barea (and guys like Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson fit that narrative as well) tends to dribble the air out of the ball and hunt for his own shots constantly, that’s really the only way he can survive in that league.
AGGRESSIVENESS & OPPORTUNITY
I’ve never thought Ulis had shown the inclination to play that way at Kentucky. It must be mentioned that he always played on loaded squads, with plenty of lottery-caliber talent that needed to be given their shots, so he wasn’t given the proper opportunity to stand out as a scoring threat. But the counter to that would be it wouldn’t get any easier for him to assert himself in the actual NBA.
Yet, that’s exactly what he did in Las Vegas, on a team fairly loaded for Summer League standards. Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss were shut down after the first few days but Alan Williams, Dragan Bender, Troy Williams and Kyle Kuric stayed on until the end, and there was never any doubt once Booker was gone that Ulis was the reason they reached the semifinals.
According to RealGM, his 22.7% usage-rate last week was about the same as his 23.2% in his final season at Kentucky but I felt Ulis was a lot more willing to pull-up from range regardless of the shot clock, whenever he felt that was the right thing to do given how the defense reacted, which there was never any doubt he could properly.
It should also be mentioned the Suns did right by him. Ulis was not only put in middle pick-and-roll constantly but was also given a lot of double high ball-screens to get him very good separation from his defender as he went downhill.
Working with the aid of a screen is key for Ulis because while he has hesitation moves and great control of the ball to try getting by his man one-on-one, he has short strides and isn’t particularly explosive, so he can’t get separation.
Ulis is somewhat limited in pick-and-roll as well, as he can’t turn the corner with the sort of burst to attack length at the rim with power. But he proved able to play with the right mix of aggressiveness and productivity last week to maximize what he already had in terms of intelligence and polish.
Ulis pulled up off the dribble quite a bit in Vegas and made a bunch of mid-range shots, stoping on a dime after getting separation through those double high ball-screens or snaking his dribble out of the pick-and-roll.
While there should be skepticism regarding his ability to continue making as many tough shots as he did last week and he wasn’t remarkably efficient or anything (really only nailing 43.4% of his 69 two-point shots), Ulis hit enough such looks, after proving willing enough to take them regularly, that defenses adjusted. Accounting for the threat of his scoring, opponents looked to run him off his shot.
Ulis squeezed his way through traffic for some uncontested layups but whenever he penetrated into the lane, he looked to keep his dribble alive and search for opponents napping or teammates moving to open spots, assisting on 36.9% of Phoenix’s scores when he ran the offense, while also maintaining giveaways at a minimum, as he posted a 3.45 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The biggest concern regarding Ulis as a pro is his defense.
Ulis has lateral quickness to stay attached to his man’s hip and puts in the effort to stay in front. He’s also shown a lot of heart trying to get physical fronting big men whenever he’s found himself caught on a switch and proven to be an attentive team defender.
But Ulis lacks the strength to contain dribble penetration through contact and length to contest mid-range shots effectively or make plays from behind after navigating over ball-screens, aside from not being the sort of athlete who can make any real difference in help defense.
That said, Ulis’ performance in Vegas was encouraging on that end of the court as well. He looked to be very aggressive trying to strip opponents with his quick hands, coming up golden with 17 steals in six appearances.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor and at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara