Kentucky signee Ulis draws raves in McDonald's All-America practices

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 1, 2014 

  • WEDNESDAY

    McDonald's All-American Games

    7 p.m. (ESPNU) — Girls' game, featuring UK signee Alyssa Rice, Louisville signees Myisha Hines-Allen and Mariya Moore, and Perry County Central's Randy Napier as head coach.

    9:30 p.m. (ESPN) — Boys' game, featuring UK signees Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Karl Towns Jr. and Tyler Ulis along with Louisville native and Ohio State signee D'Angelo Russell.

CHICAGO — A scholarship offer to play basketball at the University of Kentucky means a heightened profile on the recruiting trail.

When a player commits to UK, the spotlight shines even brighter.

That's certainly been the case for Tyler Ulis, the 5-foot-9 point guard from the Chicago area, who will play in the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday and for the Wildcats next winter.

Ulis was portrayed as John Calipari's backup option last fall, when it became clear that Emmanuel Mudiay and Tyus Jones would choose to play elsewhere.

He didn't look like anyone's backup plan Tuesday, when a gym full of scouts and recruiting analysts couldn't help but watch him during a practice that featured all of the best high school players in the country.

Ulis spent much of the morning matched up with Joel Berry, one of the top guards in the nation and a future North Carolina Tar Heel. Whenever Berry got the ball, Ulis was right there in his face. Whenever Ulis had possession, he was giving the defender fits.

"Tyler is just a pest on the court," Berry said. "He competes. And I think — because he's usually the smallest guy on the court — he has to compete harder than anyone else. And I love that about him, because it makes me better. I have to keep my handles right, do everything perfect, because one little mistake and he takes advantage of it."

Ulis emphasized the importance of being an aggressive defender. His hands are always moving, and he fights through every screen. He gets close enough to his opponent that their bodies are almost touching, yet he rarely allows a player to dribble around him.

The most amazing part of Ulis' game might be that he defends without fouling. At least he doesn't get whistled for it.

"Yeah, I do a couple of things that are probably fouls but aren't going to be called at my size," Ulis said with a sly smile. "I just try to get as many steals as possible, because, like I said, a guard my size has to be a great on-ball defender. ... You just have to be very aggressive and very pesty."

Ulis didn't want to give away too many of his secrets. "It's just little things that no one can really see," he said, flashing that smile again.

Whatever he's doing, it works.

The future Wildcat's performances this week have brought rave reviews from the scouts and analysts who have watched him play.

His fellow All-Americans feel the same way.

Berry said he had never played against anyone quite like Ulis. Arizona signee Stanley Johnson — once UK's biggest recruit — called Ulis one of the best point guards he had ever shared a court with.

"His decision-making is prime," Johnson said. "He's small, but his angles (are great). He finds me all the time. ... He can make threes, he can hit people low. And he's not afraid to get in the lane, which I love to see out of point guards. He's not afraid to get hit."

Johnson won't get to play alongside Ulis next season, but Devin Booker will.

Ulis and Booker formed an instant bond on the camp circuit, and they had been talking about attending college together for months before either committed to Kentucky last fall.

When Booker heard what some of Ulis' peers and evaluators had been saying about him, he couldn't help but grin.

"I've always tried to tell people about Tyler. It's finally catching on to them," he said. "He's the best — or one of the best — point guards in the nation. I'm going to stick with that. And I can't wait to compete with him in college."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: UKrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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