Tyler Ulis is the kind of guy you root for. Not necessarily because he's one of the rare NBA players who looks you in the eye when he talks to you. He pretty much has to because he's basically the same size you are, the newest Bulls player at barely 5-10 with sneakers. And those sneakers aren't as flat as they once were.
But the kid from Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights is the kind of guy you root for because he's you. Not because he is your size, but because he always was doubted and had to prove himself with his intelligence, his spirit and his dedication.
"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man's sport, you get looked over. So I'm the underdog," Ulis said Tuesday after his first practice with the Bulls. "I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."
"I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it. I grew up watching these guys. Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you're always willing and hoping that you'll be here one day."
Ulis has been surprising the doubters for many years. The Bulls claimed him off waivers from the Golden State Warriors. Ulis is slated for a G-league contract, but given his history, it may not be so much that Ryan Arcidiacono or Cameron Payne should worry about their position. Perhaps Kris Dunn as well.
"I just try to bring my energy defensively and my pass-first mentality," said Ulis. "You have a lot of scorers and shooters in Zach (LaVine), Denzel (Valentine), guys like that. So I feel like I can fit in and play my style. I feel like we're all young, around the same age. Looking to show our skills in the NBA at this level, showing that we can stick and prove other teams wrong. Bring energy defensively and offensively."
Some around here will remember Ulis from an elite prep career highlighted by a shootout with Jalen Brunson in January 2014 when Stevenson with Brunson scoring 32 points defeated Chicago Heights with Ulis getting 23 points and nine assists, 18 points in the final quarter. Ulis was an all-stater along with Brunson, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander and invited to the prestigious McDonald's game.
Unsurprisingly overlooked or dismissed because of his height, the speedy Ulis only received major scholarship offers late and eventually went to the U. of Kentucky with their brilliant freshman class that included Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Ulis's middle school buddy from Lima, Ohio Devin Booker. That team lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin and while Ulis didn't start any games as a freshman, he led the team in assists. The following season, his final one in college, Ulis was named not only the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, but also the conference Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, at about 5-9. Only Anthony Davis had done that previously.
Sure, Ulis heard plenty of taunts about using the kid's menu and getting a booster seat on the bench. And then he was SEC Tournament MVP with 30 points playing 45 minutes in the final game and then had 27 points in the NCAA tournament loss to Indiana.
He's not your Nate Robinson or Isaiah Thomas type even though he can score. He's more a classic Chris Paul-style playmaker whom Kentucky coach John Calipari called the best floor general he ever coached. That was after Calipari had Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight.
Most of the under six foot guards in NBA history have been scoring oriented, like Robinson, Thomas, Spud Webb, Calvin Murphy, Charlie Criss and Keith Jennings. Most tend to be comets flashing across the NBA landscape in a bright shock, eventually to fizzle out because of their size and use.
It's led to setbacks for Ulis, released by the Suns and recently the Warriors. But there's perhaps a greater role for a player like Ulis in this NBA era. He's the kind of player who changes the pace of the game with his speed and passing, getting teammates to run with him because they know they're getting the ball. He seems to be one of those guys who just refuses to be dismissed.
"It's been tough," Ulis acknowledges. "You get looked over for quite a long time. But at the end of the day no one can take from you what you do on the court."
"Phoenix went the opposite way, but I feel like I proved myself. I feel like I can play at this level. I feel like if I would have shot the ball better I would be in a better position. So you always get the opportunity to show your skill set and all my life I've been able to do that and I don't feel like looking back now."
The Bulls seriously were interested in Ulis in the 2016 draft when they selected Valentine No. 14. Though not as high as No. 14. Valentine, meanwhile, remains uncertain for the Thursday opener with ankle problems. Ulis was drafted 34th by the Suns. The Bulls selected Paul Zipser at No. 48.
"I really did think they were going to draft me," Ulis said. "I fell really low in the draft for reasons, but I'm here now so that's all that matters."
A lot had to do with Ulis weighing 149 pounds at the NBA combine. You know those scouts often select height and weight charts over basketball games.
So Ulis went to Phoenix and the G-league. But by mid season as a rookie he had beaten out Knight with what then coach Earl Watson said was the biggest heart. He finished the last nine games averaging 19 points and 8.1 assists. Teams always try to find bigger and stronger guards, many of whom Ulis generally ends up outplaying. Think Ish Smith in Detroit routinely keeping Reggie Jackson on the bench. Ulis started 43 games for the Suns last season and averaged 7.7 points and 4.4 assists, but 15.3 points and 7.3 assists with substantial playing time the last 10 games. His three-point shooting was an adequate 36 percent in that stretch and his assist to turnover ratio was almost three to one. He's that relentless annoyance guys don't like playing against. Without any true point guard, the Suns, nevertheless, released Ulis.
"I guess it was alarming (being released by the Suns), but my mom always taught me never to expect anything," Ulis said. "When you're on a losing team like that, anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level, but they went a different way."
Ulis spent some time with the Warriors, but they had a lot of guards. The Bulls moved in quickly when he was released.
"Tyler had a real good practice," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
"I think he changes the pace when he's out there on the floor. He picks up full court, he gets up underneath you, he can make a shot. He's got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. I was very impressed with his first workout."
"He's still got a lot to learn. But what he did show was an ability to push the ball down the floor with great pace, and again a defensive intensity in getting up underneath his guy."
"Obviously (point guard) is as important a position as there is in this game," Hoiberg added. "We like where Kris Dunn is right now. We feel like he's making good plays, simple plays for the most part. He had a couple forced plays against Denver in the last game, but he's been rock solid this entire preseason. Cam Payne hasn't shot the ball great, but he's done a nice job facilitating and getting the ball up the floor. And (Ryan) Arcidiacono, I thought played really well the other night against Denver in the second half. You add Tyler to our group, he's a guy that has experience in this league. He's been a starter, has had good moments in the early stages of his career."
So perhaps for Ulis the circle is being completed.
"Me getting waived (by Phoenix) is a blessing in disguise," Ulis said. "I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it. I grew up watching these guys. Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you're always willing and hoping that you'll be here one day."
"It's always good to be home," said Ulis. "It's a little chilly. I've been on the West Coast for a while, but it's great to be here. Family and friends are around. That's always good to be comfortable. I'm excited and can't wait to get started."