They're not technically competing against one another, but it remains a competition, nonetheless. Not necessarily for Kris Dunn's starting point guard position, though Dunn clearly has work to do once he returns from injury. But the Bulls' backup point role remains unclear even as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono have occupied it of late. Before long, recently signed Shaquille Harrison likely will get an extended look along with two-way roster player Tyler Ulis.
They all have something going for them, Payne as a late lottery draft pick with an unconventional left handed style, Arcidiacono with his Villanova collegiate success and improved shooting and Harrison with his defensive potential. Ulis understands. He just has to do more. He's always had to. And he has. It's been his life story, and it continues 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates for the Windy City Bulls against the Grand Rapids Drive.
Windy City is 1-1 with an opening home win over Lakeland and a loss to Grand Rapids Saturday. Ulis led the team in scoring both games as the primary offensive threat and playmaker.
As one of the smallest players in the league of the tallest players, Ulis has lived a life of striving to be taken seriously every day. Not that he hasn't been in becoming a basketball prodigy as a McDonald's all-American, invited to the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic and the most unlikely defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference while at Kentucky.
"It keeps a chip on your shoulder," Ulis said after Windy City practice Tuesday.
"It means you can't take days off, can't take any plays off. You have to basically play harder than anybody. You have to play through injuries; do things other guys who are gifted in different ways would not have to do. Seven footers get drafted based on their size. Guys like me and Isaiah (Thomas), guys like that are drafted off what we produce, what we've done on the court day in and day out.
"It's not many guys like us," Ulis added. "I feel we can relate to more people in the world and what they have to go through because we are small in the NBA playing a big man's sport. I feel for people who try to look down on us as players because we have to be doing something right to make it to this level. Our skill set says something. That keeps my confidence high and keeps me driving, and I love to play the game."
Ulis played in high school at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights and already is demonstrating he likely may be too good for the G-league. In two games, he is averaging 24 points along with 22 free throws made in 24 attempts. He hasn't shot well as he works more on three-point shooting, but is adept at breaking down defenses and a flash on the court.
His rugged defensive presence—it's not easy to keep him from going over a screen—makes him a unique player.
"He's very cerebral in a basketball sense," says Windy City coach Charlie Henry. "He has a high basketball IQ. He's been a setup guy throughout his career, running the offense, setting up teammates, very crafty. He's shown that with us getting fouled, generating free throw attempts. We are trying to add to his game his three-point shooting. He's got great defensive instincts and is competitive. You play as high a level as he has at his size…teams have tried to exploit him, and he takes on the challenge. He obviously doesn't like it, but he battles down there, shows competitiveness and that high basketball IQ that allows him to get the job done."
With Thomas hurt, there probably isn't a guard listed under six feet playing in the NBA. Several are likely under six feet, but insist on being listed at six feet, like D.J. Augustin, J.J. Barea, Isaiah Canaan, Chris Paul, Patty Mills and Kyle Lowry. Thomas doesn't back away from the hoop stigma, which might make him the kind of player you want on your side.
"I've always looked up to Allen Iverson," Ulis says. "I feel he paved the way for all of us guys under six foot. Like they say, if he were 6-5 he probably would have been the greatest player to come through the NBA. He left it out there, played through injuries. He did it his way and I feel that says a lot. That's a goal in my eyes of who I need to be, want to be."
Ulis went from mostly ignored at Marian Catholic by recruiters to celebrated as first team all-state and top three Mr. Basketball. He was SEC player of the year as a sophomore playing for the McDonald's game of programs at Kentucky and a Phoenix Suns regular at age 20 after being drafted in the second round in 2016.
After playing 61 games for the Suns in 2016-17 and 71 games with 43 starts last season with a game of 14 points and seven assists against the Bulls, he was surprisingly released before the season started. The Bulls signed him to a two-way contract that gives him up to 45 days with the Bulls for now.
There's Dunn and three other backup point guards, but Ulis has overcome these sorts of odds before.
"I'm just trying to help this (Windy City) team win and trying to prove I can play at the next level," Ulis said. "Play hard and try to win games with this team until my name gets called."
"I feel I can bring some fire offensively and defensively, trying to bring my leadership as well as my facilitating. The Bulls said they've liked me since the draft process. I played pretty well against them and there is opportunity here. So take it a day at a time, win with these guys here and when I am called up be ready and show what I can do with that team."
"I feel like I'm still an elite player," Ulis said. "This is just my first couple of months out of the NBA, so I'm not feeling bad. I left college early; it's a journey. Things didn't work out in Phoenix. It happens when you don't win a lot of games. Anything can happen in the NBA. I'm here now, back home. I have confidence in my game and have shown it at that level. I'm here now to keep it going."
Tyler Ulis never stops. Which also is a good thing for a point guard.