In an exhibition at Brother Rice (Ill.) High School the summer before Tyler Ulis’ freshman year, Mike Taylor watched a true point guard do his thing. In Ulis, Taylor saw a diminutive dynamo (Taylor estimates Ulis was 5-foot-3, 120 pounds) who was a prodigious passer with incredible vision. He was so skilled that Taylor and Pat Richardson, the Brother Rice coach at the time, looked at each other and said, “Wow.”
Tyler’s father, James, had asked Taylor, the head coach at Marian Catholic High School, to keep a close eye on his son during the game to see if he could play varsity. After Tyler Ulis’ performance, Taylor told the elder Ulis exactly what he wanted to hear.
“Skill-wise, his skills were far advanced at that point,” Taylor said. “And probably the biggest thing was his passing and his vision. It was evident right from the beginning how creative he was, what great vision he had on the floor.”
Now a 5-9, 145-pound senior at Marian Catholic, Ulis has blossomed into one of the top prep point guards in the country. The Chicago Heights, Ill., native is the No. 33-ranked player in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com, and he will join Kentucky’s backcourt next season.
Ulis was one of 24 seniors chosen for the prestigious McDonald’s All-American game, which was held Wednesday night at the United Center in Chicago. Before an announced crowd of 17,116, Ulis scored five points and dished out three assists to help the West team win, 105-102. For Ulis, the McDonald’s game represented the culmination of a rapid rise from well regarded prospect to potential first-year starter at the bluest of blueblood programs.
Ulis had spoken with coaches from several big-time schools, including Kentucky, prior to the Nike Peach Jam Tournament in South Carolina last July. His recruiting profile rose after he scored 22 points and had 17 assists in a matchup with Apple Valley, Minn., point guard Tyus Jones, the No. 5-ranked player in the class of 2014.
Top-ranked point guard Emmanuel Mudiay was considered Kentucky’s prime target at the position in the class of 2014, but the Prime Prep (Texas) Academy product surprisingly committed to SMU in August. Ulis received a scholarship offer while on an unofficial visit to Lexington less than two weeks earlier and, after weighing offers from Michigan State and Iowa, committed in September.
Ulis is different from many of the point guards John Calipari coached at Memphis and Kentucky. While Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and John Wall were big, physical slashers who averaged at least 14.9 points a game in college, Ulis is a pass-first point guard who uses his speed and smarts to offset his physical limitations. Since 1970,only five players under 6-feet have played at Kentucky on scholarship, according to Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“The question’s always been with him from then and even up to his college recruitment was: Is his size going to be a factor?” Taylor said. “And it really has never been a factor because he just knows how to play the game, and he’s very intelligent out there.”
Though not as physically imposing as many of the point guards who have operated Calipari’s dribble-drive motion offense, Ulis’ creative intuition is something to behold. His ability to read angles and to thread passes through small holes are qualities rarely seen in high school point guards.
Basketball purists pining for the days of the “old-school point guard” will be enamored with Ulis’ game. He shoots well enough to keep defenders honest, but prefers setting up teammates to scoring and said he would rather average 10 points and 10 assists than 20 and 5.
“I love to get my teammates involved first,” Ulis said. “That’s what I like to do, is pass.”
Ulis – who set school records in points and assists at Marian Catholic and this season led the Spartans to a 28-3 record while averaging 23 points, 6.8 assists and 2.8 steals a game – models his game after Chris Paul, the seven-time All-Star for the Los Angeles Clippers who leads the NBA in assists per game.
At Paul’s Elite Guard Camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., last summer, Ulis faced CP3 in a game of one-on-one. After Ulis scored two quick points, Paul (6-foot, 185 pounds) used his considerable size advantage to back down Ulis and score three consecutive points for a 3-2 win.
“I think he kinda cheated,” Ulis said of Paul.
Taylor has had Ulis guard players as tall as 6-7, and said his only complaint with Ulis is that he tends to be too willing a passer. But what most impresses Taylor about Ulis, a team captain the past two seasons, is his ability to, as Taylor put it, “run a team.”
“He moves people, he gets people where he wants them,” Taylor said. “He’s a general out there, he’s a quarterback.”
While Ulis’ slight frame could be problematic against bigger, stronger defenders in college, he could provide something Kentucky has not had since Calipari became coach in 2009: stability at point guard.
A different floor general has started for Calipari the last five seasons, including Harrison in 2013-14 (the streak stretches to seven if you include Calipari’s last two seasons at Memphis). By contrast, Ulis could conceivably run the point at Kentucky for the next four seasons. If point guard Andrew Harrison, a projected draft pick, leaves for the NBA, Ulis could earn the starting spot in 2014.
Still, given Calipari’s proven ability to lure the nation’s top high school point guards, Ulis may have to fight for playing at some point in the future.
"I can’t really see anybody coming in and just taking a spot from me regardless of who [Calipari] recruits,” Ulis said. “I just don’t feel like I’m just going to let somebody come in and take a spot, especially with a year of experience over them.”
Before Ulis arrives in Lexington this summer, he’d like to put on at least 10 pounds. Ulis, who said he has struggled to gain weight over the past year due to a demanding basketball and training regimen, plans to incorporate more protein in his diet and, under the guidance of a personal trainer, focus on lifting weights.
Ulis is part of a four-man recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the country that also includes power forward Trey Lyles, center Karl Towns Jr. and shooting guard Devin Booker. While not as heralded as Kentucky’s 2013 class, which featured six McDonald’s All-Americans, the 2014 group includes two players – Towns and Lyles – projected as top-10 picks in DraftExpress’s 2015 mock draft.
Center Jahlil Okafor, a Duke commit and the No. 1-ranked player in 2014, says Kentucky’s 2014 haul is defined by one trait. “I know Tyler, he’s a winner,” he said. “I know Trey, Devin, Karl – they’re all winners.” Towns, who committed to the Wildcats in November, is excited by the prospect of draining open jump shots and finishing layups off feeds from Ulis.
“I think Tyler is going to really excel at being able to make kickout passes for threes, passes for midrange shots, passes for the inside,” Towns said. “And I think that, he’s going to do well because we’re going to also as teammates help him get open and when he gets open he can thrive for us also.” On Wednesday night at the United Center, Ulis showcased his talents to a national audience. The spotlight was bright but won’t compare with what Ulis will experience at Kentucky.