Tyler Ulis: Point Guard of the Future

Mar 5, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (left) controls the ball against Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas in the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Celtics 109-106. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (left) controls the ball against Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas in the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Celtics 109-106. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Fast forward to the NBA Draft in June and imagine that the Suns do not land Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz. Is that such a bad thing?

For a little over a year now Suns fans have debated whether or not Eric Bledsoe is the future of the Phoenix Suns at point guard, considering his age does not lineup with much of the rest of the team’s core. This is a complex discussion which has many variables that when ironed out could mean the difference between trade or contract extension.

With the upcoming draft featuring point guards as potentially five of the top-7 players – the aforementioned two projected as potential superstars – the ferocity to which the questioning of Bledsoe’s future in Phoenix has only intensified.

But what if the Suns do not land one of those top point guards in the draft? And what if the Suns are able to use Bledsoe in a package for a player such as Paul George or Jimmy Butler (among other options)? Would they need to sign an expensive free agent or bring in a stop-gap who might actually slow the growth of the Suns’ current young core?

With the current push towards the development of the future, specifically with the benching of Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis has received an expanded role far exceeding that which he enjoyed prior to the All-Star break. Not only has he proven to be a solid point guard in all important facets of the game – low turnover-rate, high assists rate, ability to score among the giants – but he has already gained the faith and trust of his veteran teammates and coaching staff, an extremely important trait for a young point guard.

In the team’s most recent eight games Ulis has averaged 19.9 minutes, an average that on individual occasions he only met or exceeded twice in his first 36 appearances. Now as the first guard off the bench, Ulis is putting up 8.9 points, 5.3 assists, 1.1 steals, with only 1.5 turnovers. His is also shooting 48.3% from the field, a significant jump over his pre-break average, which I will illustrate in a moment.

But even as a reserve Ulis isn’t just playing against the second-string of the opponent’s roster which might help to inflate the averages of his statistical line.

The Boston Celtics game is a perfect example. Playing in the final moments in a lineup that included Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the opportunity to take a game-winning shot was no fluke. He was on the court at that moment not only because Head Coach Earl Watson wanted him to gain experience in that setting, but also because he was trusted to make the right play if it was needed of him – and boy was it. In the final moments Ulis had his nose in Isaiah Thomas’ face, which in it of itself helped lead to create the turnover that Ulis himself managed to recover and setting up the game’s final shot.

It is also no coincidence that the Suns’ only three-game winning streak of the season occurred after Ulis began receiving these extra minutes. The team has responded with a 3-5 record over that stretch, a slightly better win percentage over the prior 59 games: 37.5% to 31.6%.

Early in the season when Ulis was only making brief rotational appearances, his time was limited and he might only see the court for a few short minutes, save for a small number of expanded opportunities.

Extrapolating those total appearances to a more time intensive per-36 minute stat line, Ulis averaged

12.3p / 2.7r / 5.1a / 2.2s / 3.0t / 39.2% FG% / 33.3% 3PT%

Compare that line to his post All-Star break line of:

16.6p / 2.7r / 9.5a / 2.0s / 2.7t / 48.3% FG% / 33.3 3PT%

and you see significant growth and improvement in only a short window.

Ulis’ scoring, assists and field goal percentage have all jumped, while he is also actually decreasing his rate of turnovers. (Oh, and in that Boston game: zero turnovers. Eric Bledsoe had 4 and played less than two minutes more than Ulis).

Let’s say that Tyler Ulis actually received 36 minutes a game, was given the starter’s responsibility, and he kept his post-All-Star break averages over the course of an entire season. Guess how many players today average a minimum of 16 points and 9 assists a game?


Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and John Wall.

You know who else did that?

Steve Nash, from 2004 to 2012 (16.3p and 10.9a).

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Now, one would be foolish to build a cathedral on Ulis’ future over only an eight-game stretch. The Suns, and fans, will have to see a lot more from him (at least a consistent level of play) over the final 17 games to even place in the back of their minds that Ulis MIGHT  be the point guard of the future if they don’t draft another this summer, if they trade Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and if – so on and so on.

The undeniable truth however is there: Tyler Ulis has a ton of upside that if cultivated could make him a regular starting point guard in the NBA for many years to come.

He could even be the Phoenix Suns’ starting point guard of the future.