Undersized but undeterred: Tyler Ulis leads resurgent Kentucky back toward national-title contention
LEXINGTON, Ky. — There are four main halls in Marian Catholic High, a sprawling one-floor building in Chicago's south suburbs. Having a locker in the correct hall is critical, as it is the difference between four years of convenience or four years of aggravation. On his first day, John Oliver found to his dismay that his locker was in Third Hall, which was essentially band hall, and clear across the school from anywhere he regularly needed to be. He also discovered he had vaguely familiar company.
He knew about Tyler Ulis, as much as anyone can know about a basketball prodigy he hasn't met. And now Ulis, the incoming freshman whose staggering pace and instincts lit up summer league play before he even set foot on campus, was meandering down Third Hall, too.
Despite Ulis's stature—he was about 5' 3" back then, which meant his head reached Oliver's chest—Oliver had no reason to doubt what he'd heard. And because he had played basketball since he was 4 and would continue to play at Marian, he had every reason to start a conversation. Are you Tyler Ulis? Oliver asked. And they were off, discussing how each ended up at Marian, and more. They found their lockers were separated only by one belonging to an attractive senior girl. Once they migrated to the basketball floor, Oliver understood why people praised Ulis, who would start on the varsity team from day one. He delighted in the competitive verve Ulis displayed regardless of how many inches he surrendered, an attitude that matched Oliver's own approach.
Another year and a half passed before Oliver joined Ulis on varsity, but they forged a bond long before. Oliver became part of Ulis's essential supporting cast, a friend and teammate in a small, airtight group. They lost just seven total games as juniors and seniors. Oliver joined Ulis for his predawn workouts at Marian. He celebrated when the scholarship offer from Kentucky came, and he was among the teammates who surprised Ulis with the news that he was a McDonald's All-American, an honor validating the faith Ulis clung to all along: That he belonged, and that everyone would realize this eventually.
Oliver believed it from the start. And this is still significant for Tyler Ulis, the tiny point guard with outsize self-assurance. It's easy for a 5' 9" basketball player to feel he can do anything when his best friend does everything with one hand.
"Everything puts me to sleep," Ulis says on an early February afternoon, roughly halfway through another of his full days.
As one of the most vital guards in the country, he does not need an excuse to snooze—he calls sleeping his only hobby—but Ulis is nevertheless restless. The sophomore's workload for surging No. 14 Kentucky (19–6, 9–3 SEC) is now 36.4 minutes per game, a rate surpassed by only three Power 5 conference guards. The value Ulis provides in those minutes is similarly exclusive: An offensive rating of 128.1 (20th nationally), and a Win Shares total of 5.0 (19th nationally; he's 11th nationally with 3.7 offensive Win Shares). And he is doing this with a grand piano-sized responsibility heaped upon his 160-pound frame: Serving as the face of the most scrutinized, zealously followed program in the country, and therefore being responsible for the mental well-being of tens of thousands of people.
"Nobody has been more impactful for their team, in my opinion, than Tyler Ulis has been," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says.
In context, Stallings was discussing the SEC Player of the Year race. But the discussion needn't be restricted as such.
Ulis's numbers are exemplary: 16.7 points and 6.7 assists per night, figures that jump to 19.4 and 7.6 in conference outings and 23.0 and 8.5 in four games against ranked teams. His impact, though, is felt just as profoundly in less quantifiable ways. In January he founded what Kentucky coach John Calipari calls a workout "breakfast club": Concerned that he was losing weight due to his increased playing time, Ulis asked strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris if he could get in extra lifting. They set the sessions for around 8 a.m. Soon, nearly the entire roster began bench-pressing and squatting and doing planks before class.
Likewise, Ulis's savvy has Calipari approaching him for suggestions on how to extract the best from teammates—apparently it was Ulis's idea to turn freshman Skal Labissiere into a jump-shooting center—but it also pretty much has allowed Ulis to take on actual coaching duties. After Calipari's ejection at South Carolina last Saturday, Ulis was handed free rein with offensive calls, and the result was an 89–62 rout.
"He plays every minute and he controls every game plays in," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says. "You can't rattle him, you can't speed him up and he's tough as nails. He scores, guards, passes, controls the game and knows what his coach wants his team to do. That's what it's all about right there."
As a barrier to production, Ulis's height is about as relevant as his eye color. For some of his current teammates, though, it stopped being relevant during a pickup game argument on a now-fabled recruiting visit, when Ulis made an interesting choice. "The first time I met him, he tried to fight DeMarcus Cousins," senior forward Marcus Lee says. "(The height) went out the window real quick when he tried to fight the biggest person I've ever met." In fairness, the height issue actually probably stopped being relevant at least six inches before that, when Ulis was a soon-to-be ninth-grader. In his first summer league game for Marian Catholic, against Brother Rice, Ulis's passes were so quick they seemed violent. Spartans coach Mike Taylor still talks with Brother Rice coach Pat Richardson about the looks they exchanged during what would have otherwise been an ordinary exhibition.
"All eyes in the gym were on him," Taylor says. "It's easy to say now, but that first glimpse, I knew we had something special."
Andrew A. Nelles/AP
Recruiting proved frustrating. After splitting time between his mother's house in Lima, Ohio, and his father's place in Chicago over the years, Ulis moved in with his dad for high school, immersing himself in the area's high-level hoops. At the end of his sophomore year, while fielding only a few offers from West Coast schools and Iowa, Ulis contemplated transferring to local powerhouse Whitney Young High for still more exposure. (He would have been a classmate of future Duke star and NBA draft lottery pick Jahlil Okafor, among others.) But he stayed at Marian because of his close friends, and his eventual spot on the McDonald's All-American team as a consensus top-20 prospect confirmed Ulis's own perspective that he measured up.
"I just never really thought much about it," Ulis says. "I always thought, once they see me play, I'll be good."
On Kentucky's 38–1 squad last season, he was good. He was also just a cog in a machine, averaging 5.6 points in 23.8 minutes while coming off the bench in all 37 games he played. This season, Ulis is the turbine. Per Synergy Sports Data, his points-plus-assists per possession rate is 1.426, ranking in the 98th percentile nationally. Being short is no longer his burden; being indispensible is.
As a result, his minutes have spiked. At this, Ulis shrugs. He notes that, in his middle-school track days, he was a terrible sprinter but much more adept at distance events. "I've never been one to want to come out of the game," Ulis says. "My coach in high school used to take me out, I used to get mad and stuff. I always want to be in there. Last year, I'd come in and play really hard for four minutes and sub out. Now I have to come in and play hard, same thing, but for a longer period of time. But I've never been a person to get really tired on the court."
To put a finer point on it: Ulis is stubborn. During Marian practice drills, Taylor regularly teamed Ulis with down-the-roster players or gave points to the other side. After delivering a dirty look, Ulis would connive his way to a win. Similarly, Ulis refuses to volunteer for any competition in which he stands a chance of losing. He will not play ping-pong against most Kentucky teammates. "I won't touch the table," Ulis says. Last year, when the video game Super Smash Bros. became an intrasquad sensation, the Wildcats' point guard passed; Ulis tried it on a bus ride back from Louisville, fared poorly and declined to try again.
But obstinacy can be an asset. Ulis played the final game of his high school career with turf toe but without complaint, even as Marian Catholic fell to Edwardsville the Class 4A state quarterfinals. Taylor and Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne recently joked that Ulis limps right until game time, and then no one can tell he's hurt at all. When faced with the significant jump in minutes this year, he sought a way to endure the playing time rather than manage it. Hence the breakfast club, designed to build muscle mass and build up a young roster. It was a lesson that proved useful when the Wildcats dropped back-to-back games to Kansas and Tennessee before rallying to win three straight entering a rematch with the Volunteers on Thursday.
"Right now, we're just trying to get across that everyone has to play hard," Ulis says. "We're not as good as last year's team. We can't expect to come out and win off of talent."
He has recognized for a while that raw ability isn't always paramount. Know his friends, and you know why.
From left to right: John Oliver, Tyler Ulis, Ki-Jana Crawford and Hayes Bynum
It was around 1:30 a.m., on the night of a Kentucky basketball game last winter, when Ki-Jana Crawford's cellphone buzzed. Let's get some Waffle House, Tyler Ulis suggested.
Though he was in bed, and though this was a school night, Crawford acquiesced. He was one of Ulis' close friends from Marian—following one semester of football at Chicago's St. Xavier University, he left the sport and transferred to Kentucky—and he knew well his buddy's affinity for breakfast food. When the bill arrived, Ulis gave Crawford a look. Crawford had seen it too many times to count. Ulis had left his wallet at home.
"He's never prepared," Crawford says. "He loses everything. Loses his keys. His wallet. He's never there completely."
In matters of basketball, Ulis can take care of himself. In other areas, he occasionally requires help. He once misplaced his Marian uniform for a game and borrowed a No. 45 jersey from a teammate. Ulis's friends once drove him 40 minutes to deliver a duffel bag to his little brother for a sleepover, only to have Ulis realize he forgot the bag on arrival. "I can't remember how many times I found his wallet in my couch," Oliver says.
"The others carried him through a lot of situations," says Taylor, the Marian coach. "'We have to get here on time, we have to do this on time, we have to make sure we get this schoolwork done'—because his focus was mainly on basketball, they kept him grounded and kind of steered him in the right direction."
No one more than the kid Ulis met in Third Hall. His friend John Oliver III was born to John and Renee Oliver of Matteson, Ill., on Feb. 12, 1996, without a left hand. As doctors explained it, Oliver's twin sister, Nia, leaned on him in the womb, and how she was positioned limited the ability of her brother's left hand to grow. Doctors usually call it a club hand, Oliver says. In reality, he did not have much of an extremity at all: His left arm ends at the base of his palm.
When Oliver was a child, his parents brought him to a center that helped him learn how to tie his shoe or to do work with one hand. Oliver was, at one point, fitted for a prosthetic hand, but he abandoned it.
"It would just get in my way," Oliver says. "I was most definitely used to doing things my way or figuring them out on my own."
He never saw himself as different, and craved to prove himself to anyone who thought differently. "I love to compete," he says. "People think I'm not able to do this, not supposed to be able do the things I need to do—I take that and feed off it." Oliver played baseball until he began high school, pitching for a while before settling in at first base; he read stories an uncle sent him about former major leaguer Jim Abbott, who pitched for 10 years without a right hand, and his confidence swelled.
He winnowed his interests to track and basketball at Marian and remains the school's record older with a 10.9-second 100-meter dash. Oliver's high school hoops career began on the freshman squad, but he was bumped up to varsity as a sophomore and tasked with monitoring the paint as an undersized 6' 3" center for the next two-plus years. "As soon as he came in, [he had an] impact—blocking shots, rebounding, setting good screens," Crawford says of Oliver, who averaged 5.6 points as a senior but was known as a lock-down interior defender. "If you didn't know John, you'd think he had two hands. You'd think nothing was wrong."
It is no surprise that Ulis felt a pull toward Oliver. Both were comfortable in their own skin; if Oliver needed help zipping up a coat, he'd ask, and it was no big deal. Both have breezy personalities, though Ulis is less inclined to draw attention to himself than Oliver, whose windows-down, full-throated, in-car serenades remain the stuff of legend. "Don't let it be Drake," he says. "You're in for a long ride."
When they shared the floor, Oliver helped Ulis become an even better passer, in their high school coach's estimation: Ulis had to place the ball that much more precisely to a teammate who didn't have two hands to snatch it. (Oliver concedes Ulis's vision resulted in a few surprise dishes caught with his sternum.) But nothing connected them like Oliver's belief that a physical limitation was not a limitation at all. "The things he did on the court without having that left hand were just amazing," Ulis says. "He never got down, he never really even talked about it. The crazy passes I threw in high school, he caught them, finished, blocked shots. He played 100% every time. That's something I took from him as well: He played so hard even though he didn't have that hand. He didn't really care. He just fought through it and didn't make any excuses."
It was, as Crawford puts it, a collective check on this small group of friends: If John can do it, so can you. Ulis could grumble about recruiters doubting him, he could fret over earning the All-American status that was his objective during high school. But if there was ever an inclination to self-pity, he could dissolve it with a glance at the kid almost always by his side.
"If I was going to feel bad about my height or something like that, I would just reflect back on him and the things he does," Ulis says. "Looking at him, I can't even sit there and [complain] if I don't have it as bad."
In what is a remarkable story on its own, John Oliver now plays for Division III St. John's University as a reserve forward. There's quite a distance between Collegeville, Minn., and Lexington. But it turns out you can get to both places the same way.
Courtesy St. John's University
After he was ejected from that South Carolina game, Calipari inspected the box score. He had to laugh. Kentucky's assistants had been bugging their boss to limit Ulis's workload. And now, during a lopsided win in which Calipari only coached for three minutes, Ulis had logged 38 minutes.
Now you know how it is, Calipari recalls telling his staff. You don't want him off the court.
"There are 25 teams in the country right now, if something happens to that player on their team, they're not the same, they're done," the Kentucky coach said recently. "So his importance to this team, it's obvious."
Over time, it became increasingly evident to college coaches that Ulis could register this kind of impact. When Calipari swooped in late and made his recruiting pitch, he talked about the stage Kentucky offered. He told Ulis how he'd have to play. And he also issued a warning: Do not come here, the coach said, if you feel like you're not a pro. Calipari didn't want a 5' 9" point guard who didn't want more.
"I feel like I can reach my goals," Ulis says now, "just like I have before."
He'll assure you anything is possible. And he has more proof of that than most.