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Kentucky's Ulis doesn't sell himself short on court

Calipari calls 5-foot-9 guard 'best floor general I've ever coached'

POSTED: May 27, 2016 11:55 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


As the NBA moves more toward speed, Ulis' 5-foot-9 height might not be much of an obstacle.

— Tyler still rides in a booster seat.

A lady at the University of Kansas had that sign when Kentucky visited in January.

To be in the NBA you have to be this tall, with lines marking 6-1 and 6-2.

That was on a guy's poster for Kentucky at Texas A&M in February.

"Yeah, I look at them," Tyler Ulis said months later, as the other measurement was getting closer. "I laugh. They try to get my attention. It's funny. I show my teammates, we all laugh at it."

One crack after another about playing for a major program, Kentucky, at a listed 5-foot-9, plus skepticism usually so obvious that Ulis could feel it from his own so-called fans, the citizens of Big Blue Nation, when he first arrived in Lexington two seasons ago. So just imagine what comes next when he joins the NBA via the June 23 draft, for a new wave of doubts and signs and reheated tired one-liners shouted from the stands.

Booster seats.

Kid's prices at the movies.

Nap time.

Draft Combine: Tyler Ulis

Watch as Kentucky's Tyler Ulis completes some drills at the NBA Combine

Fine. Bring it. Been there, heard that. Ulis rates himself completely unfazed by the snark, not even using it as motivation to prove people wrong. If anything, he seems above it.

"I keep a good attitude because my confidence is high," he said here as part of the pre-draft combine. "I don't really think about what people say. Everything's always worked out well. I was this small at the high school level and it worked out. Obviously it worked out in college. And I feel like it's going to keep working out."

All the way to the possibility of the guy who was 5-foot- 3 when he played varsity as a high school freshman outside Chicago and 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds last season as a sophomore being drafted in the first round in about six weeks, according to scouts and executives.

That's right. Ulis made the height qualification.

He is projecting to the 20s -- the other measurement, the one that indicates his standing as a pro prospect -- after capitalizing on an increased role in 2015-16. Kentucky went from a backcourt with Devin Booker, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison to the latest annual roster shift and Ulis went from 23.8 minutes a game to 36.8 after three guards had left for the pros. Front offices that were intrigued by his freshman campaign, with intelligent play and the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation, became convinced by the sophomore season.

He coached the team this season as much as I did, and I'm proud to say that

– Kentucky coach John Calipari

It didn't hurt that his continued development came at the same time Isaiah Thomas of the Celtics turned into an Eastern Conference All-Star at 5-9, an inspiration to Ulis as the two became acquaintances while trading text messages. Ulis built his own case, though, as a leader and by being named consensus All-America, the SEC Player of the Year by coaches and the media and the conference Defensive Player of the Year by coaches.

"I've coached a lot of great leaders and great point guards in all my years of coaching," Kentucky's John Calipari said in a statement when Ulis announced he was turning pro. "Tyler Ulis is the best floor general that I've ever coached. What I loved is he grew into that position. You couldn't speed him up and you couldn't slow him down unless he wanted to do one of those things. He coached the team this season as much as I did, and I'm proud to say that."

Calvin Murphy made the Hall of Fame at 5-foot-9. Muggsy Bogues played 14 seasons in the NBA, plus another in the minors, at 5-foot-3, and 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson just had an 11th campaign in 2015-16. Earl Boykins had a career at 5-foot-5, Spud Webb at 5-foot-7.

Being 5-foot- 9 suddenly doesn't appear to be such an obstacle, especially as the league moves more toward speed.

"I feel like if I was 6-1, 6-2 I'd be No. 1 or No. 2," Ulis said. "But I'm not 6-1, 6-2. I'm 5-9. I got what I have, I love it, I feel like I've worked for what I got. I'm just going to keep playing."

No joke.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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