Suns, Earl Watson Investing Heavily in Tyler Ulis' NBA Future

Annexus Practice Report: Suns Go on First Road Trip

You won’t see Tyler Ulis holding a clipboard this season, but the Suns plan on training their rookie point guard similar to how NFL teams groom young quarterbacks.

With Phoenix loaded at the guard position, significant minutes could be hard to come by for Ulis early on in his career. So the Suns want to keep the Kentucky product engaged on the bench and soaking up as much information as possible.

“He has to be close to our coaches – in the next seat over,” Head Coach Earl Watson said. “He has to read the play calls of the other team. He has to call them back on the bench and learn the other team’s offense.

“So when he gets the opportunity, he’s well-prepared mentally.”

Ulis took the league by storm in his introduction to pro basketball in July. He earned All-NBA Summer League honors in Las Vegas after averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game. He also hit a 35-foot buzzer-beater in the tournament semifinals to defeat the Nuggets.

Regular season NBA games are obviously a different beast, but Phoenix believes it has something special on its hands with Ulis. 

“This kid is unique and he’s real,” Watson said. “It’s not just a Summer League thing with Tyler Ulis.”

Learning how to come off the bench will be a new venture for the 20-year-old. Ulis started every game for the Wildcats a year ago, becoming just the second player in SEC history (Anthony Davis) to win league Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

“This kid is unique and he’s real. It’s not just a Summer League thing with Tyler Ulis.”

— Earl Watson

In his first NBA preseason game on Monday, Ulis played 13 minutes against the Spurs but scored no points on 0-for-3 shooting from the field. Afterwards, Watson told reporters the rookie looked a bit tentative.

Two days later in the Suns’ matchup versus the Jazz, Ulis responded to his coach’s critiques by attacking offensively and dropping 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting in 16 minutes. 

“I feel like Earl is the perfect coach for me,” Ulis said. “He played in the league for 10-plus years. He’s a guy I can learn from. He played my position, so who’s better to learn from than someone who’s done it before?”

The theme Watson wants to get across to his young pupil is to just be himself. And that involves being aggressive with the ball in his hands.

“I immediately grabbed Tyler,” Watson said of his first meeting with Ulis. “I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want you to be this pass-first, -second, -third, -fourth point guard. I want you to be the guy that we fell in love with Kentucky. You score. You assist. You can’t make that decision before the play happens. You dominate. I don’t care who’s in front of you. If you have to score 30, you score 30.’”

Added the man who owns the starting job now, Eric Bledsoe, “He’s just got to learn, get in the game when he can and get that experience. He’s going to be a heck of a player.”

Ulis, despite being one of the shorter guys in the league at 5-10, stands tall with his confidence. And when the time comes for him to show what he can do on the court, he won’t shy away from the challenge.

“At the end of the day, there’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder because everyone’s going to say he’s too small,” Ulis said. “But I feel like if I go out there and show up and perform, it doesn’t matter what critics say.”