After Tyler Ulis announced Wednesday that he would enter this year’s NBA Draft and hire an agent, his father became nostalgic. James Ulis recalled his son, at 13, in a layup line before a game for older boys.
“Playing up,” in basketball parlance.
“This lady said, ‘Oh, he is so cute,’” the elder Ulis said. “‘They must let him come warm up with the team.’”
Tyler Ulis was probably not even 5 feet tall at the time, his father said. “And we had guys on the team 6-4 and 6-5.”
Kentucky fans surely know what happened next.
“The lady was later swearing a little bit,” James Ulis said, “about this little guy that was out there. She thought he was our mascot.”
For NBA people who wonder about a 5-foot-9 player being effective as a professional, Kentucky’s 2015-16 season served as a reminder that size isn’t everything.
Ulis set a school record with 246 assists. He averaged 17.3 points. He also led the team, never in more striking fashion than at South Carolina when Coach John Calipari was ejected less than three minutes after tip-off.
Associate Coach Kenny Payne credited Ulis with directing the offense while the coaches concentrated on defense.
Chad Ford, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN, said the pros got the message. He said Ulis’ consistently stellar play throughout the season eased the “big concern” about size.
Ford now projects Ulis as a lottery pick — the 14th player selected, to be exact.
“I just don’t think there’s any question in anybody’s mind: He was the best point guard in the country,” Ford said, “and might have been by a significant margin.”
In Ford’s estimation, Ulis will be the third point guard taken: after Kris Dunn of Providence and Kentucky teammate Jamal Murray, whom the NBA sees as a point guard although he played shooting guard alongside Ulis.
“I think they’re going to look the other way on the size issue,” Ford said of Ulis.
The size issue has loomed throughout Ulis’ career. Or, as his father said with a hint of exasperation, “He’s always had to hear the short comments.”
Rather than, uh, round upward in listing Tyler Ulis’ height, the family always wanted accuracy. They did not want someone reading, say, 6-foot, and then seeing Ulis up close.
“He’s 5-9,” said James Ulis, who isn’t much taller. “We’re OK with that. His game is a lot higher. I wish people would talk about his game more. He’s 5-9. If we spend more time talking about his game and how great a basketball player he is, it’d probably save a lot of answers (about) his height.”
Early in the season, Tyler Ulis acknowledged that he could use surprise as a weapon. After he left his mother’s home in Lima, Ohio, for better basketball opportunities with his father in Chicago at age 14, Ulis regularly hustled unsuspecting taller players in the Windy City’s playgrounds.
The stakes were not high. “A couple dollars to go to the store and buy some candy,” he said.
Inevitably, size crept into his sophomore season for Kentucky even though Ulis repeatedly showed he was the best player on the floor. The Associated Press noted that Ulis became the shortest first-team All-America selection since 5-9 Johnny O’Brien in 1953.
He was also the shortest player ever named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, and only the second player of any size to also win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Asked if he took pride in being the smallest AP All-American in more than 60 years, Ulis said, “A little bit of pride.”
Then he added, “Not much, because I don’t really look at it as I’m trying to be the best shortest player to ever play the game. I want to be the best in general.”
Before his first UK game, Ulis proved to his teammates that he could stand up to bigger players in college and beyond.
UK teammate Marcus Lee, who credited Ulis with “coordinating most of our doing” this past season, recalled the first impression Ulis made. Thereafter, Lee had no doubts.
“Because the first time I met him he tried to fight DeMarcus Cousins, the biggest person I ever met,” Lee said of that pickup game before the 2014-15 school year.
Ulis had many memorable moments this past season. He exuded a will to win in losses at Kansas and against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
His get-with-it shove of freshman Skal Labissiere at UCLA will live in Kentucky basketball lore.
“The best floor general that I’ve ever coached … ,” Calipari said in a statement. “He coached the team this season as much as I did, and I’m proud to say that.”
Of course, Ulis was not Calipari’s first choice to join his long line of stellar point guards: Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague. But when Emmanuel Mudiay signed with SMU, Calipari turned to Ulis.
Payne, whom Ulis referred to as “Uncle K.P.,” led Kentucky’s recruiting effort.
“He wanted Tyler a long time,” James Ulis said. “He just had to convince Cal.”
Asked if size made Calipari hesitate, the elder Ulis said, “Exactly.”
Once convinced, Calipari made it clear from the start that he did not want Tyler Ulis to think of himself as a four-year college player. Ulis did not think of himself as such.
“I expected two years at the most,” he said.
His father recalled Ulis writing a paper as a second- or third-grader in which students were to explain what they wanted to do when they grew up.
“I’m going to be a NBA player down the road,” James Ulis said his son wrote. “Every step he’s taken, he said he’d do it. College All-American. Lead a big-time college program. He said he’d make the NBA. That’s the next step.”
Before the season, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale wondered aloud if more playing time would equal more chances for opponents to exploit Ulis’ size.
Vitale became a convert. “He can play for me any day of the week, man,” Vitale said late in the season. “He is a giant when the rock is in his hand.”
Ulis not only played more minutes, he played an astounding number of minutes: 39 or more in 14 games. That included never leaving the floor in seven games, including three overtime games (at Kansas, and twice against Texas A&M).
Before the season, Calipari said he needed Ulis on the floor. But the UK coach wondered about the workload for a player asked to run the offense and spearhead the defense as a tenacious on-ball 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 averaged 36.8 minutes, the most for a UK player since Tom Parker (37.9) in 1971-72.
At what amounted to a farewell news conference, Ulis thanked God, Calipari and Kentucky fans.
Asked about his legacy, Ulis said, “I feel like the fans like me a lot more because I’m smaller.”
As media laughter subsided, Ulis added, “I’m happy for that.”