NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Take it from one undersized point guard to another: Kentucky's Tyler Ulis has a bright future in the NBA.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson isn't the best person to ask Ulis' future just because he averaged 11.7 points and 7.7 assists in three Kentucky wins over Alabama this year, including the Wildcats' 85-59 rout in the SEC Tournament on Friday.
Johnson isn't the best person to ask just because he was a coach in the NBA for two franchises before landing at Alabama this year.
Johnson is a good source because he was a 5'10 point guard in the league for 15 years. Johnson may see a bit of himself in Kentucky's 5'9, 160-pound point guard.
"He is a first-round pick," Johnson said. "He's an NBA player. Let's get that out on social media. Coach Avery says he's an NBA player."
In the last 35 years, no player shorter than 6'0 has played more games in the NBA than Johnson's 1,054, according to basketball-reference.com.
Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb and Earl Boykins have thrived in the league -- and Ulis has a few inches on all three. Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star at 5'9.
Ulis may follow in the same tradition.
"He really doesn't have any weaknesses," Johnson said. "He plays bigger than his size. That's what I love about the smaller point guards. He takes a charge. He doesn't back down from anybody. It's going to be a smooth transition for him to the next level."
This seems perfectly plausible now. It wasn't this time last year when Ulis seemed like an outlier in Kentucky's pro pipeline.
(Insert here the quote you'd expect about Ulis not thinking about the draft: "I'm just focusing on the year right now," Ulis said Friday. "We've got a lot more games ahead of us.")
At the end of last season, it was probably lonely to be Ulis. From a team that started 38-0, seven underclassmen -- including three members of Ulis' freshman class -- left early for the NBA Draft. In essence, Ulis was the only regular to return in 2015-16. Alex Poythress played only eight games in an injury-shortened season, and Marcus Lee averaged 10.9 minutes per game.
After the 2014-15 season ended in a 71-64 loss in the Final Four to Wisconsin, Calipari texted Ulis: "Get your guys and let's do this again."
Rare is the Calipari team with a second-year point guard. The normal way of things under Calipari is to cycle through one-and-dones: Derrick Rose to Tyreke Evans at Memphis to John Wall to Brandon Knight. Andrew Harrison played two years at the point for UK, but even when Ulis arrived last season, it was clear the younger Ulis was a true floor leader.
The annual exodus of players to the draft seemed to underscore one thing: Because of his (generously listen) 5'9 stature, Ulis could be a four-year player for Calipari.
Now, Ulis is on his way to becoming a consensus All-American, and he's moving up draft projections. DraftExpress lists Ulis as the No. 32 pick in Friday's mock draft. ESPN's Chad Ford has Ulis ranked 31st.
At this point, Calipari expects Ulis to leave school after this year. From the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal:
"When he came here, you had everybody tell me, ‘You've got a four-year point guard. Now this is how you should do it.' And, ‘He doesn't need to have all pros.' Welp, you were wrong again. I mean, here's this kid that's going to be a pro. He'll be drafted this year, after two years."
Ulis is often on the receiving end of the coach-on-the-floor cliché, but it is appropriate. Without looking back to the bench, Ulis is the one getting Kentucky into plays. He's the one making defensive calls.
"Tyler takes control over our team instantly," forward Marcus Lee said. "He gets us on the same timeline, the same thought process. Cal puts a lot on him."
Said guard Isaiah Briscoe: "When the other team is making a run, he'll gather us together and say we've got to get a good shot next time down the court, or we need to get a stop."
And, of course, Ulis is the one to get everything started. Ulis ranks fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.77 assists-to-turnovers). He and Iowa State's Monte Morris are the only two players among the top nine with more than 200 total assists on the season. In the last 10 games, Ulis has 5.4 assists to every turnover.
Perhaps most impressive, Ulis could make the case he's having the best season of any Calipari point guard. That's what advanced statistics say.
Ulis' 125.3 offensive rating on KenPom is higher than Rose, Wall or Knight. Same with his 35.1 assist rate. True, Ulis is playing alongside the highest-scoring player of the Calipari era at Kentucky (Jamal Murray), but he's also playing without a traditionally great Kentucky frontcourt.
Here's how Calipari point guards rank in offensive rating and assist rate going back to Derrick Rose:
|Offensive rating||Assist rate|
*Source: KenPom.com ^at Memphis
As a 5'9 guard, he's going to be limited as a pro, no question. On one sequence Friday against Alabama -- an NIT-bound SEC team -- Ulis attempted a jumper in the lane only to get it easily swatted away by 6'9 Donta Hall. Ulis eventually got the ball back and hit a 3 and then another on Kentucky's next trip down the floor.
So he can hit a 3. No surprise there. Confidence isn't an issue either.
Ulis was also the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, the first guard to win the award since Georgia's Rashad Wright in 2004. Former Kentucky big men Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein also won the award in the last five years.
Following those bigs out of Lexington now seems like a given.
"That's what Kentucky is for," Ulis said. "It's to get you ready for the next level and win games. I know I have to gain weight and stuff like that, but we don't talk about it much because we're focusing on the season."
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