Sorry, devotees of analytics, but Tyler Ulis defies numbers. His approach to basketball eludes easy numerical measurement. To borrow from the introduction to the classic television show The Twilight Zone, his skill comes from a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. It can be a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That might be laying it on a bit thick, but watching the Kentucky point guard play does that to people.
Mike Taylor coached Ulis in high school. He marveled at how Ulis saw possibilities on the court. He takes no credit for a quality that in athletic parlance is called Basketball IQ.
"I wish I could take credit," Taylor said. "But I don't think the music teacher really taught Mozart how to play."
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That's definitely laying it on thick.
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg defined Basketball IQ in terms of anticipation, if not clairvoyance.
"Good point guards and good players see plays before they happen," Greenberg said. "The best was Magic (Johnson). He could see a play develop. What I call see plays early. Tyler Ulis sees plays early."
During pre-Bahamas practices in the summer of 2014, reporters saw this quality for themselves. Before an outlet pass reached Ulis, it was already apparent that the ball would be quickly redirected. A long distance touch pass found its target in stride often enough to make a lasting impression. This from a freshman who had been on campus for only a few weeks and had yet to play a college game.
Ulis flashed what Taylor calls "wow moments" during last season. A 45-foot (or farther) pass that found Devin Booker in the Southeastern Conference Tournament comes to mind.
"I play with my mind the whole game," Ulis said this fall. "It's a big part of my game. I have to out-think guys."
Taylor suggested that, on occasion, coaching could get in the way of such a cerebral player. Think of that metaphorical music teacher trying to restrict Mozart's creativity.
"He's the type of kid you don't try to overcoach him," Ulis' high school coach said. "You don't try to tell him what you see because he sees what you see and more. More often than not, you just loosen the reins and let him go. And good things happen."
It's interesting to ponder how a player possesses such a talent.
Another ESPN analyst, Jay Williams, played point guard for Duke. He described a process that includes several phases.
"It starts off being innate," he said. "I didn't play point guard in high school."
Williams taught himself a feel for the game and how it should be played.
"More film you watch," he said. "More time spent with your players, and understanding their sweet spot.
"Jason Kidd was one of the best I've ever seen. I think Tyler has that quality."
Perhaps, necessity played a role. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Ulis was not going to overpower opponents. No bullyball, as UK Coach John Calipari called Andrew Harrison's playing style the last two seasons.
Instead, Ulis has had to out-think, out-smart and out-anticipate bigger, stronger opponents.
When asked about this brains-rather-than-brawn explanation for Ulis' effectiveness, Taylor said, "Oh, I agree totally. It allowed him, because of his limitations, to be really creative with his body and mind.
"You can see his mind working out there, if you're watching closely. You can see his mind working, constantly working."
'It's just natural'
It's tempting to think Ulis evolved as a player, resorting to cunning when brute force did not work. That would be incorrect.
"I've always been small," Ulis said. "I've never been big. It's not like I ever had to change my game. I feel like it's just natural."
Ulis was a quick learner, Taylor said.
"He didn't sit there and bang his head against a wall a thousand times," Ulis' high school coach said. "He realized it pretty quick. Boom! You see it in the development of his game. If you walked in and saw him as a freshman in high school, some of these same traits you're seeing now, you would have seen them then. You just would have seen them in a 5-2 body."
Williams said the idea of an undersized player using his mind as a means to compete as "100-percent accurate." Sam Cassell, who played for Florida State before a long and successful NBA career, was such a player.
"Not the fastest," Williams said of Cassell. "Not going to blow by you. Actually, slow as molasses. I couldn't stop him because he knew the game."
Of course, Ulis is not slow. He is short, but not small. His heart and his mind are as big as any opponent's.
Although plenty athletic, Ole Miss star Stefan Moody fits the mold of undersized player who learned to compensate. He saw his size (5-10, 179) as an advantage as a first-year player in the Southeastern Conference last season.
"I probably snuck up on a lot of people," he said. "Not knowing who I was. I'm probably one of the smaller guys in the SEC. Only so much is expected when you're a certain size because a lot of people look for height, and instantly judge who you are and how good you are by how big you are.
"But there's a lot more to it than that."
Moody, who has had his vertical leap measured at 46 inches, does not complain about the importance people place on size.
"That's just how this generation is," he said. "And I'm in it. So, by the end of the day, if a taller player is what you like, then that's what you like. But I'm just going to show you that that's not what's important."
Moody agreed with the idea of a player evolving to find a way to succeed.
"Your brain kind of does that itself, really, with experience," he said. "Over time, your brain learns how to adjust automatically."
More minutes more difficult
The unsettling thing for Kentucky opponents this coming season is that Ulis now has last season on file. He can use the experiences of 2014-15 going forward.
Earlier this preseason, Calipari spoke of an improved Ulis.
"He's doing things he didn't do a year ago," the UK coach said. "He's way more comfortable doing stuff. You're seeing runners now. He understands, 'I can drive in there and still get lobs, but now I've got to stop a little shorter. He's shooting the ball way better.
"He's healthier. Last year he played the whole year with shin splints, so there were games he was 80 percent. This year's he healthy."
Not everyone is convinced that Ulis will be better than ever.
Going against form, the usually bombastic Dick Vitale was cautious. He said that playing a larger number of minutes as a starter this season can expose a player's weaknesses (read: Ulis' lack of size).
"I think he's going to be fine," Vitale said of Ulis. "He makes up for a lack of size with his toughness and his quickness. I'm just saying, generally, we've got to wait before you make a rash statement: Guys saying he's the best point guard in the country. I think you've got to wait a little while. I really do."
Early this preseason, Greenberg and another ESPN analyst, Sean Farnham, declared Ulis as the best point guard in college basketball this coming season. Ulis downplayed the significance of this designation.
For what it's worth, Sports Illustrated placed Ulis at No. 7 in a list of top college point guards posted in late October.
Calipari has acknowledged the difference increased minutes can make. That could be especially true for a player like Ulis, who relies on relentlessness to be an effective defender.
"You can't play that way for 38 minutes," Calipari said. "I'd like to keep him out there, but I just can't see it."
Ulis did not recoil from the idea of playing more than 30 or 35 minutes a game.
"I don't feel like there is a max," he said. "I'll play as much as he needs me to play. My stamina is pretty good. So I'll be good in that area."
You might say playing more than 30 minutes a game requires mental toughness. If it's a mind game, Ulis seems well-equipped to compete.
"I feel I was blessed with a high IQ," he said. "I'm not the tall guy. I'm not big and strong. So I have to use my IQ to my advantage."