LEXINGTON, Ky. – James Ulis is usually the calm one in the family, the rock everyone else turns to for his poise in times of stress. But now his son, former Kentucky star Tyler Ulis, is just a couple of days from realizing his NBA Draft dream, and Dad is a ball of nerves.
“My wife told me, ‘You’re looking different,’” James said. “Well, this is different, because I know how hard he’s worked to get where he is, and he’s controlled what he can control, and now we have to wait. It’s not stressful, but it’s anticipation. I just want to know where he’s going.”
That’s a bigger mystery than ever after Basketball Insiders reported last week that the buzz in NBA circles is Ulis has “a pretty significant hip issue, which some believe may require surgery down the line.” That, combined with his height (5-foot-9), could cause Ulis to “slide deep into the first round or even over into the second,” the report read.
Once considered a fringe lottery pick, Ulis is now a projected second-round selection by ESPN, DraftExpress.com and NBA.com. If the slipping stock is because of the hip, that’s especially frustrating to Ulis and his camp because, they say, there’s nothing to it.
Ulis quickly denied the report, telling mlive.com “my hips are fine” after working out for the Detroit Pistons on Friday. He’s worked out for three NBA teams since the report, including the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday.
“So to me – I’m not a doctor, I’m not an expert, but he’s been fine by my account,” James Ulis said. “He’s never had a hip injury, and I’ll say what he said: his hips are not in pain; they just don’t hurt. I don’t know where that came from, because I’m not aware of it coming up with a team.
“What caught me off guard was people saying he had to have surgery. I think I would know if he needed surgery.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari joined the chorus of skeptics about this supposed injury on Tuesday. He watched Ulis average 36.8 minutes, 17.3 points, 7.0 assists and just 2.0 turnovers per game as a sophomore for the Wildcats last season.
Despite his size, Ulis broke John Wall’s UK single-season assist record, won SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard and became the shortest consensus first-team All-American since 1953.
“Did he look like he had a hip injury?” Calipari said. “There may be something structurally that they’re seeing, that they’re looking at that I don’t know about, but I just can’t believe it.”
Even if it isn’t true, there are plenty of other factors working against Ulis’ draft stock.
ESPN analyst Chad Ford said he’s the victim of being both small (in addition to his height, he weighed just 149 pounds at the NBA combine) and a pass-first point guard in team workouts that better showcase pure shooters and freak athletes. Boston’s diminutive Isaiah Thomas is the only player of similar height in the league, but he’s much bulkier and a better scorer.
“Ulis, he’s going to be a bit of a trendsetter there,” Ford said. “But he has elite court vision (and) he is probably the best passing point guard in this draft. That intrigues some people.”
The five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, who love high-IQ players and are reportedly taking a hard look at Ulis with the 29th pick, certainly fit that profile. That could be a case of a draft-night slide turning into a perfect pairing.
Calipari said he’ll “do a backflip” if Ulis ends up with the perennial contenders, but he believes the franchise would also be hitting the jackpot.
“When you talk about stuff that’s not on paper, that is exactly Tyler Ulis,” UK’s coach said. “Tyler Ulis is going to have a long career. Tyler Ulis will sell a lot of tickets in that league because people are going to want to go watch him play and not believe that he can have an effect on the game at that size. Tyler Ulis, they’ll say he’s too small. Really?
“This kid, you’ve got to forget about his size.”
But nobody ever does, it seems. Except for Ulis, who ditched that as an excuse long ago. If people are still doubting him now, or thinking this supposed hip injury will derail the dream, he’s not surprised. He almost welcomes it.
If he falls in Thursday night’s draft – which he’ll watch at home in Chicago with family and friends – so be it. As always, all he wants is a chance. He’ll do the rest.
“They said he couldn’t start varsity as a freshman. They said he couldn’t dominate in high school. They said he couldn’t be all-state. They said he couldn’t be a McDonald’s All-American,” James Ulis said. “They said he couldn’t play at Kentucky. But he’s always thought he could. He said he was going to make the NBA in the fourth or fifth grade.
“Him reaching that goal, it’s going to be joy. It’s going to be emotional, because he’s had to fight for everything he’s gotten. Everything. To this day, people still walk up to me and say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe how he dominated at Kentucky.’ Some of the people I know said he couldn’t, I see them every now and then, but I don’t say anything. Because we knew.”
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