Prepare for a “different” type of Kentucky point guard

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 16th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Elite point guard play has been a hallmark of John Calipari’s Kentucky teams. The Wildcats typically pluck one of the nation’s best floor generals from any given recruiting class, drill them in the arts of the dribble-drive offense, their draft stock soaring all the while, then – with Calipari’s customary backing – encourage them to enter the NBA draft, where a first-round selection awaits. From John Wall to Brandon Knight to Tyreke Evans to Marquis Teague, Kentucky under Calipari has become the most desirable landing spot in the country for highly-touted high school point guards looking for the quickest and most seamless path to the NBA. In fact, dating back to 2007-’08, when Memphis rode Derrick Rose’s face-melting talents to the brink of a national championship, Calipari has started a new point guard every season (a salient statistic pointed out late last week by The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy). The run of truly elite point men ended in 2012-13 with Ryan Harrow, whose inability to handle the big stage, and general lack of talent and athleticism, was evident from the start.

There should be little expectation for a regression in point guard play when Ulis (likely) takes over in 2014 (AP Photo).

There should be little expectation for a regression in point guard play when Ulis (likely) takes over in 2014 (AP Photo).

But the streak of alternating point guards continued all the same, as it will in 2013-14, when top-ranked Andrew Harrison, one member of Kentucky’s insane 2013 recruiting class featuring six McDonald’s All-Americans and three players ranked No. 1 at their respective positions, according to ESPN, will take over. Once Harrison leaves (probably after one season), Kentucky will have to brace itself for the likelihood – gasp! – of a point guard keeping his starting spot for more than one season. That was one of the implications of Marian Catholic (IL) guard Tyler Ulis, a consensus top-40 player in 2014, committing to Kentucky Friday. Ulis is not like the star UK point guards of recent vintage – long, physical, equal parts scoring prowess and distributive intuition. The 5’8’’, 150-pound guard is a point guard in the traditional mold – more a shot creator (NBC’s Rob Dauster, apparently impressed with Ulis at an AAU event, nicknamed Ulis “Tyler the Creator”) than a shot maker. Ulis’s stock soared this summer on the AAU circuit after a series of brilliant performances against elite competition, including a 22-point, 17-assist effort at the EYBL Peach Jam in a highly anticipated match-up between his team, Meanstreets, and the Howard Pulley squad led by Tyus Jones, the No. 1-ranked point guard in 2014, who is expected to commit Duke (and has reiterated his belief that he and Jahlil Okafor, the top-ranked overall player in 2014, are a “package deal”).

His rise and consistently, however impressive and validating, will not keep critics and die-hard recruitniks at bay. The skeptics of Big Blue nation will be loud: He’s not a one-and-done? How good can he really be? Fair point, that. Living up to the Caliparian point guard standard, Harrow notwithstanding, is not easy, and Ulis may never become a first-round draft pick. Scouts and NBA front office types will have second thoughts about drafting a player well under six-feet, no matter how well he plays while at Kentucky. But whatever NBA scouts think of Ulis, the most important thing for anxiety-riddled Kentucky fans concerned Calipari has miraculously lost the ability to sway the nation’s top point guards toward Lexington*, is that he produces as a college player, for one years or two or more, and continues to make Kentucky the national championship contender it, with the exception of last season’s Robert Morris NIT-ending disaster, has been since Calipari inherited the head coaching job four years ago. I followed Ulis’s recruitment intently this summer, back when he was one of Northwestern’s top point guard targets (yes, there was a time, before Ulis shot up the rankings, when the Chicago-based guard was the subject of Wildcats’ fans foremost desires, and new coach Chris Collins’ dedicated recruiting efforts). I never actually watched him play in person, but I spoke with plenty of people who did, and almost all of them came away dazzled. CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello offered this description following Friday’s news:

I’m here to tell you that Kentucky fans are going to be pleasantly surprised with Ulis. And I know exactly where they’re coming from, too. I first watched Ulis two and a half years ago, when he was playing with on the AAU circuit with the 15U version of Meanstreets. He played extremely well, making clutch plays down the stretch and leading his team to a win. 

Was I impressed? I guess. But in the end, he was 5-foot-8 (probably 5-foot-5 back then) and I didn’t see him as much of a high-major player. Chicago recruiting expert Scott Phillips happened to be watching with me that day, and he basically said that Ulis was going to be end up playing in a BCS-level league. “He’s a winner and can run an offense,” Phillips said.

Thirty months later, I’m here to tell Kentucky fans the same thing. Ulis might not jump out at you on paper, but he’s exactly what the Wildcats need: a point guard who doesn’t need to score in order to make an impact. Calipari will surround him with plenty of talent, and Ulis will excel in that sort of environment. Can he go against elite-level point guards? Without a doubt. Ulis proved that at the Peach Jam back in July, when he went head-to-head with top-five prospect Tyus Jones and more than held his own, finishing with 22 points and 17 assists and flat-out controlling the game at times.

The other player Kentucky has committed in 2014 is Karl Towns Jr. (shameless feature plug), a versatile big-man with first-round potential. The Wildcats are also in the running for five-star small forward Stanley Johnson, power forward Trey Lyles, shooting guard Devin Booker, Okafor and others. Calipari’s recent recruiting track record suggests Kentucky, despite missing out on a top point guard, will reel in a class among the nation’s best in 2014, falling short of the ridiculous 2013 group though it may. Ulis will be part of that group, and with the right blend of talent surrounding him – the specifics of which will be determined as Kentucky fills out the rest of its 2014 class – should hold up Kentucky’s Calipari-era point guard standard. He should also bring some measure of stability to a position, and a program, that under Calipari has rarely enjoyed it. Ulis isn’t Wall or Teague or Knight or even Mudiay. He is a different breed of point guard.

The prospect of change in and of itself should not inspire doubt. In one year, Ulis will be ready. 

*When Kentucky missed out on second-ranked point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay (and with Kentucky unlikely to land Jones), who committed to SMU, an existential crisis – whereby the Wildcats were, only half-jokingly, “scrambling” for a point guard in 2014 – had arisen. Kentucky was doomed, some believed. 

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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One Response to “Prepare for a “different” type of Kentucky point guard”

  1. DMoore says:

    Everything I’ve read leads to the belief that Ulis will be a great college point guard. However, at 150 pounds, he will have a tough adjustment to the college game. He reminds me of Marcus Paige. Very talented, super bright future, and the kind of point guard who can eventually lead a team to a championship. But he sometimes had trouble as a freshman, especially on defense, when he was playing guards with years of major college experience who could easily bench press him.

    The question is whether BBN will be patient enough for a player to grow into his greatness if he struggles as a freshman. And, whether Calipari will be patient enough, or recruit right over him.

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