Tyler Ulis will Never be a Regular Starter Unless He Can Shoot

Oct 12, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) shoots a jump shot over Utah Jazz forward Eric Dawson (18) during the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Phoenix Suns beat the Utah Jazz 111-110. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 12, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) shoots a jump shot over Utah Jazz forward Eric Dawson (18) during the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Phoenix Suns beat the Utah Jazz 111-110. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Suns decided to bench Eric Bledsoe, Tyler Ulis was handed the opportunity of a lifetime: He was to start the final 16 games of the season and show that he can lead a team. He need not worry about winning, just prove that he has the stuff that starting point guards in this league are made of.

Through eight starts it is hard not to argue that Tyler Ulis, still only 21-years old, has the stuff to be a regular player in this league. Averaging 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and only 2.4 turnovers in a league-leading 40.6 minutes, the rookie point guard is in many ways exceeding  expectations, especially for a player of such a short stature.

Totally unafraid of entering the land of the giants, Ulis takes nearly 25% of his shots from within 10 feet and while only listed at 5’10” and almost always the shortest player on the court, is totally capable of creating space for those shots as only 6.1% of those shots have a defender within 2-feet of him. Incredibly, on shots outside of 10 feet only 1.7% of those have a defender within a 2-foot radius as well meaning he almost always has an unobstructed view of the basket.

Ulis’ size also does not preclude him from grabbing a rebound. Averaging 3.5 rebounds in starts, he leads all players under 6-feet tall in the category and is 19th in the league of all players under 6’4″,  a legitimate accomplishment considering that that includes guards and non-starters (according to NBA.com/stats from which all this statistical information is collected, 66 players qualified for these rankings). His 3.5 average is also the most for any under 6-foot player with at least eight starts since 5’11” Ty Lawson averaged 3.7 in 2011-12.

His ball-handling skills are also something to behold as he is only 37th (worst) in the league in turnovers per game since he took over the starters role. Of the four guards in the league to average at least 36 minutes over that stretch, Ulis’ 2.4 is only .1 worse than the leader, Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Jordan Clarkson, although the only other true point guard in that group is James Harden who is averaging 6.0.

But all is not perfect in Tyler Ulis’ basketball world. Although his scoring, rebounding, steals, and turnovers are all fantastic for a player in his situation, his scoring average in particular is one of bulk shooting, and not of efficiency.

Tyler Ulis is shooting a paltry 44-126 (34.9%) from the field, 3-23 (13.0%) from beyond the arc, and 11-17 (64.7%) from the free throw line.

Not at all numbers that can sustain the career of a starting point guard in the NBA.

Granted his stats are that of only eight starts, but of the four players in the league that average at least nine assists per game (Chris Paul (9.1), Russell Westbrook (10.4), John Wall (10.8), and James Harden 11.4)) they each shoot from the field between 42.3% (Westbrook) and 46.4% (Paul) and not one of them shoots less than 31.2% from three-point range or less than 80.7% from the charity stripe (Wall for both).

Granted those four players are all superstars, but the fact remains that when dissecting the most prolific and successful passers in the NBA, they are all at least capable shooters as well.

Even Ricky Rubio, who for the entirety of his career has received a poor reputation as a shooter, has never shot as low as Ulis is in this stretch. Granted his career field goal percentage is only 3.3% higher than Ulis’, his 3-PT and FT percentages are much  higher than Ulis’ right now.

(When Rubio was a rookie he too was 21-years old. He shot 33.0 FG / 31.2 3PT / 82.8 FT in 31 starts. Only his overall field goal percentage was worse than Ulis’ is right now, and even that is negligible).

Ulis is tied for the 114th guard with at least 8 starts this season. His three-point shooting is by far the worst of any backcourt player and he is the only player with a three-point shooting percentage in the teens. In the last five years (including this season) of every player that started at least eight games, there are only eight players including Ulis who had a three-point shooting percentage in the teens, and other than Ulis not one of them was a point guard. Shawn Livingston appeared on the list twice, although it appears that he only shot and missed one three-pointer over that stretch, meaning that only seven individual players have had the distinction of a three-point percentage in the teens, and only six took more than one shot.

Ulis’ problem isn’t just from distance either as his overall field goal percentage as a starter is the second worst of all minimum eight-game starters this season. Furthermore he is one of only 14 guards to have shot at best 34.9% from the field. His 64.7% free throw percentage places him in a less-than-elite category of only 47 guards to have shot at least that poorly over the last five seasons as well (again, only a tiny handful of those were actually point guards).

(What must be kept in mind with all of those shooting stats is that NBA.com/stats only gives statistics for those stats accumulated in starts and does not include statistics from non-starts, nor from those players who never started a game).

There is one giant  positive about Ulis’ poor shooting as a starter – he has never shot this poorly in his college or professional career for a long stretch.

Time PeriodFG%3PT%FT%
College Frosh Year38.6%42.9%80.8%
College Soph Year48.6%34.4%85.6%
College Average46.2%37.1%84.6%
Suns Pre-Starter42.6%29.6%83.9%
Suns Starter34.9%13.0%64.7%

In fact, one of the positives about Ulis coming out of college and then again when he was inserted into the starting lineup was his shooting. Granted the college three-point line is slightly shorter than the pro line, but even his pre-starter three-point percentage was over 50% better than it is right now. Plus his free throw percentage has always been in the 80’s (right around those star point guards mentioned above, not to mention his field goal percentage as well).

As he is only a young rookie, Ulis has plenty to learn about the game moving forward and too much pressure need not be placed on him for his current stretch of poor shooting. If he is to be a long-term starting point guard in the NBA he will have to shoot significantly better, and if he does not turn things around a little bit  prior to the end of the season it will be somewhat disconcerting. However the fact remains that he has a track record of decent shooting proof that if he can return to such percentages, it will place him as one of the league’s regular starting point guards.

Certainly learning the role of an NBA starting point guard is not the easiest of tasks, especially when having to learn exactly when and how to defer to a shooting guard who can put up 70 points on any given night.

That being said, Tyler Ulis has a lot of room to grow, and the Phoenix Suns sure do hope that he learns to find his scoring stroke, once again.