Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis may be one of the grittiest players in the NBA Draft

On Wednesday, Tyler Ulis held a press conference where he announced that he is declaring for the 2016 NBA Draft and hiring an agent.

“I’m ready to take on the challenge of playing at the next level and have declared for the NBA Draft. I will be hiring an agent,” Ulis said. “To all the fans, thank you for supporting me and embracing me from the moment I stepped on the floor. Your enthusiasm and spirit carried me over the last two seasons and you all make it even harder for me to leave.”

No Kentucky press conference would be complete without John Calipari enthusiastically trumpeting his own player, so of course he obliged.

“I’ve coached a lot of great leaders and great point guards in all my years of coaching. Tyler Ulis is the best floor general that I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said. “What I loved is he grew into that position. You couldn’t speed him up and you couldn’t slow him down unless he wanted to do one of those things. He coached the team this season as much as I did, and I’m proud to say that.”

That might be a bit over the top, but even if it is, Calipari hits the essence of Ulis’ game on the head. The 5-foot-9 point guard is the consummate leader on the floor, one of the guys that other players love to have on the floor. This season, he took over and became one of the most effective players in college basketball. He averaged 17.3 points and seven assists per game for the Wildcats this season on his way to being named a first-team All-American, SEC player of the year, and SEC defensive player of the year.

What else do you need to know about the diminutive point guard and his NBA Draft stock? Here’s a quick breakdown.

Strengths

Simply put, there might not be a tougher player in this draft class than Ulis. He plays as hard as any player in the country on both ends, coaches his team on the floor, and gets right in opponents’ face to pester them defensively. I’m not sure any statement encapsulates that as much as this tweet does, courtesy of Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.

He’s a true leader, and he’s one of the guys anybody would love to go to war with on the basketball floor.

Beyond that though, Ulis has legitimate basketball skill that really showed up in a big way this season. First and foremost, Ulis dictates the pace of the game better than any guard in the country. Opponents will never speed him up on their end, but he can certainly speed them up if he wants to lead the break. They’re also likely not to turn him over. His 11.3 turnover rate is remarkably low for a person who has the ball in his hands as much as Ulis. Basically, he’s always in control of what’s happening on the floor.

He can have that control because he has absolutely terrific ball-handling ability, and is able to dart in and out of crossovers and past defenders with his tremendous quickness. Once he gets into the lane, Ulis has high level vision for picking out teammates, and can find awkward passing angles due to his size. His pick-and-roll instincts are also superb.

The Kentucky-product knows how to get the defender on his back and keep him there despite his size. Ulis also has great timing on when to make the right read on either passing to continue the play or shooting to attempt to score.

That’s been the biggest area of improvement for Ulis this season: his ability to shoot off of the dribble. Ulis finished tied for ninth nationally in points off of jump shots off the dribble this year, according to Synergy. That ability to shoot after creating his own space due to that ball-handling and quickness has been important, as it now keeps defenses completely honest in how to defend him. That’s exactly how he became the maestro of a top-five offensive nationally according to KenPom’s adjusted-offensive-efficiency metric.

Tyler Ulis learned a lot from John Calipari. (USATSI)

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his defense, given that he was SEC defensive player of the year (even though my vote would have been Alex Caruso of Texas A&M over him). There might not be a player in the country that pressures the ball at the point of attack better. He can throw off the rhythm of an offense just by getting into the opposition’s grill and pestering it with his agility. That all works to set the tone for the defense that he plays for, although I do have some overall questions that I’ll get to in the next section.

Weaknesses

Ulis’s size is a major factor here. Simply, there aren’t a lot of 5-foot-9 players in the NBA for a reason. It’s tough to make it in the NBA at that size, even if we’ve seen players like Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson do it over the last few seasons. One thing that Ulis has going for him is that he has a wingspan of 6-foot-1.5 that is quite strong for his 5-foot-9 height. But even that is about three inches shorter than average according to DraftExpress’ database.

He also has another problem. He’s not particularly explosive vertically despite his terrific quickness. That affects him in one major way: finishing at the rim. He only shot 49 percent on attempts in halfcourt settings this season around the basket (according to Synergy). To compensate for that, he has developed a solid floater game, which will be essential for him to continue to improve upon at the next level. But finishing near the rim will likely always be an issue.

Finally, there are some pretty real questions about how his defense will translate. That ability to pressure the ball could be a somewhat mitigated by the better ball-handlers of the NBA. Also, his size was sometimes a factor in halfcourt setting in college, as he could occasionally get overpowered by bigger guards either in matchups or on switches. His toughness extends to the effort level he uses to fight through screens, but he can occasionally get lost in them if he’s not all the way out in space. Finally, will he be effective enough at closing out on shooters despite an extremely short 7-foot-4 standing reach? It’s questionable. Basically, his effort level could be mitigated.

Overall Stock Report

In the end, the size concerns are real, but the overall positives far outweigh the negatives. With Ulis, you’re getting one of the few kids in college basketball that truly seem like they could engender respect among NBA veterans early in his career. That’s not easy to do. Plus, his overall game, with the incredible vision and ability to shoot off the dribble, fits really well in the modern day pace-and-space NBA where having a lead guard who can score is incredibly important.

These are all of the reasons that I have Ulis as the No. 15 overall prospect on the CBS NBA Draft Big Board despite the questions. Ulis is a tremendous talent that should be the kind of kid that teams want to have around. At the very least, it’s hard to see how a kid like him couldn’t carve out a solid backup NBA point guard role. But because of his almost preternatural feel for pace and getting his teammates involved, there’s room for more than that, which makes him a worthwhile selection either near the end of the lottery or by the mid 20s.

Specifically, a team like Philadelphia could look to Ulis to be a relatively quick shock to their culture system, and combine with Jahlil Okafor to create a terrific 1-2 Chicago punch at the key positions of center and point guard. Speaking of Chicago, the Bulls could also be a nice fit in their search for stability at the position (either with Derrick Rose healthy or without him). Finally, Utah could also really work as a terrific combination of guards between the smaller Ulis and the bigger Exum, depending the matchup.

Overall though, Ulis is definitely a prospect that you should not simply judge by his size. He has a very real chance to become an NBA player.

Tyler Ulis is the consummate floor general. (USATSI)
Tyler Ulis is the consummate floor general. (USATSI)

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