Isaiah Thomas put little guys back on the map. Is the recent rise of Tyler Ulis merely a coincidence? Or are little guys making a comeback?
Standing at just 70 inches tall, Tyler Ulis is not just one of the smallest players in the league today, he’s one of only 67 in NBA history to ever to see the court at that height or below. There’s only one other regular rotation player that currently rivals Ulis in that department, and his name is Isaiah Thomas. You may have heard of him.
A few weeks ago, the two met for a game that would have drifted off into the irrelevant annals of the NBA in March had it not been for these two sub-six-footers, and two specific interactions in particular.
The first play that may be forever etched in the brains of hoopheads was the jump ball between the two that Thomas won in the first half. The second, and arguably more memorable one, occurred at the very end of the game, when Ulis hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer with the same ball that Thomas had coughed up seconds before.
NBA Draft (@NBADraft) March 6, 2017
This was supposed to be Isaiah Thomas’s third win in Phoenix in as many tries since the Suns traded him over two years ago. Yet, it was Ulis being lifted into the air by his teammates while Thomas walked off in shock. Sure, Thomas still had himself a game, dropping 35 points and five assists. And to his credit, it’s gotten to the point where those numbers aren’t even that surprising for Thomas — he’s now expected to be the baddest dude on the court, period. On this night, you could conceivably make the argument that he wasn’t even the baddest dude under six foot. You’d be wrong, of course, but not earth-is-flat wrong.
Ulis scored a career-high 20 points on eight of 12 shooting and dished out five assists in 33 minutes played. He hounded Thomas all night on defense, even gutting him for a steal and drawing a foul early on in the game. All this from a rookie who recently ousted Brandon Knight from the rotation, the same player for whom the Suns traded Thomas for back in 2015.
That trade deserves some revisiting, because hindsight has shown it to be far more brutal than anyone in Phoenix could have ever imagined, to the extent that it now appears to be one of the worst NBA deadline deals ever.
Thomas had played third fiddle on a high-scoring Suns squad that featured a starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. A few days after Dragic was traded in a separate deal, the Suns sent Thomas packing in favor of Knight in a four-team-swap involving numerous other players and picks (they also traded a Lakers’ first round pick to the Sixers, which could land in the top five this year or next).
The thought was that the Suns could build a team around Bledsoe and Knight, a 23-year-old shooting over 40% from three at the time, whereas they could not with Thomas. These past two seasons, Knight has struggled in Phoenix, particularly from three, and hasn’t played even a single minute since the All-Star break with the Suns instead opting to see what Ulis can do leading the second unit.
Thomas, meanwhile, has become arguably the most clutch player in the league and a future hero of Boston folklore. He’s a two-time All-Star as a Celtic, he’s second only to Russell Westbrook in scoring this year, and he was even in the MVP conversation for a (very) brief moment in time. Thomas essentially became James Harden-lite after getting traded. And, instead of receiving a bounty in return, the Suns gave up a potential top five pick to the Sixers in order to see the deal through. Ouch.
To be clear, the expectation is not for Ulis to fill the hole left by Thomas’s departure. That’s Devin Booker’s job, himself a terrific second-year player with smooth fundamentals, sneaky athleticism, and a dripping-wet jumper to boot. The Suns drafted him a few months after the trade in question and, with Bledsoe and Knight in the mix, created a triumvirate of former Kentucky guards (Ulis is now their fourth UK guard). They’ve also committed a significant chunk of change to that trio, with Knight alone set to make almost $44M over the next three seasons. It’s difficult to imagine the Suns allowing $14M+ to rot on the bench for three straight years. So where does that leave Ulis? The Suns couldn’t possibly make the same mistake twice, right?
Now, many a wise man has claimed that comparisons are odious. And aside from their mutual lack of height, that’s true of any made between Ulis and Thomas. On the offensive end, especially, they are very different players. Thomas scores 29 points per game and is the focal point of a half-legitimate contender. Ulis scores fewer than five points per game and has only recently began leading the second unit for a team with the NBA’s third-worst record.
Since entering the rotation, however, Ulis has been steadily gaining both minutes and confidence. He’s averaging 10.6 points per game in March (which, go figure, nearly matches Thomas’s rookie number, albeit in a much smaller sample size) to go along with 6.6 assists and only 1.4 turnovers.
He’s a pass-first point guard, utilizing his handles to probe the defense and find open teammates. When he does shoot, Ulis has an impressive array of floaters to go along with his steady mid-range game, none of which would be surprising if you were paying attention during his Kentucky days.
A player’s height is a tough thing to overlook, though, and that problem plagued Ulis even at Kentucky. His coach, John Calipari, pounded the pavement for Ulis last year in an unsuccessful National Player of the Year campaign, asserting, “He’s the player of the year in the country, everybody knows it… But they’re afraid to say it because he’s 5‘9.” In his next breath, Calipari did the odious deed and mentioned the recent success of Thomas. The outspoken coach then proclaimed, “I think the little guy is coming back, and this guy is proving it.”
Ulis may not have proven his way into a first round selection at Kentucky, but that doesn’t matter much anymore. He’s found a spot to prove that he belongs in the league. Starting for the first time in his career last night against Sacramento, Ulis notched his first career double-double with 13 points (kindly ignore the 6-18 shooting) to go along with 13 (!) assists. In all fairness, he was outshone by his former UK teammate and fellow rookie, Skal Labissiere, who scored 32 points, including 21 in the fourth for the Kings. You know who else puts up fourth quarter scoring numbers like that?
Ah, comparisons. Odious and yet inevitable.
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