Suns perhaps landed steal of draft in undersized Ulis

PHOENIX — Tyler Ulis is short. But not short and bulky. In addition to being short, he’s also small.

He knows this. He’s known for a long time and he hears about it just about every time he steps on a basketball court — and in recent months he heard about it a lot off the court.

But Ulis has never let his physical stature define him.

The Suns also know — very well, in fact — Ulis’ measurables. They’re astutely aware as well of the things Ulis can do on the court that weren’t measured at the NBA Draft Combine. Which is why they feel they got a steal — if not the steal of the draft — when they selected Ulis with the fourth pick the second round, No. 34 overall, on Thursday night.

Suns’ second-round draft pick Tyler Ulis (left) speaks as first-round pick Dragan Bender listens Friday.

"The skills he brings as a point guard, size really doesn’t matter," Suns coach Earl Watson said Friday. "The old point guard of Gary Payton and Mark Jackson posting up, that doesn’t exist. Pace is everything."

Watson was far from a big point guard himself. He is 6-feet-1 and played most of his 13-year NBA career at around 195 pounds.

"You might talk about who’s he going to guard," Watson said. "Well, who’s going to guard him? It works both ways and size doesn’t matter."

Ulis was measured at 5-feet-9 and 149 pounds at the combine. If he doesn’t add any weight before the season — which is unlikely — he will be the fifth-lightest player in the NBA since 1950.

But that didn’t stop him from competing against the best in the country the past two seasons at powerhouse Kentucky. He averaged 17.3 points per game as a sophomore and earned the Southeast Conference’s Player of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year awards.

"I’ve always been small; it’s nothing new to me," Ulis said as he was introduced to the local media, alongside first-round picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. "I just have to get stronger and be more durable for the (long) season."

Ulis once again will have to prove he can overcome a size gap at a new level. But it wasn’t his size that led to him landing with the Suns. Instead, it was recent reports that Ulis may one day require hip surgery that preceded the fall from early projections as a mid-first-rounder to perhaps a lottery pick.

"Waiting around was hard because earlier in the year it was ‘first round, late lottery,’" Ulis said. "A lot of things changed last week and I have to live with it."

Ulis and a large contingent of friends and family gathered in a hotel suite in downtown Chicago to watch the draft unfold. Among the friends was Suns guard Devin Booker, who befriended Ulis when the two were 8th graders. They both went to Kentucky to play with the other; Booker left a year earlier.

Booker pestered Watson and Suns GM Ryan McDonough all season about Ulis. McDonough on Friday labeled Booker as one of Ulis’ agents.

"I got a text every (game) to watch him play," Watson said of Booker’s reminders. "Glad I won’t get that text anymore. But I watched Tyler play a lot. (And) when we had him out here for a workout, size wasn’t a factor. He dominated the workout, made plays."

When Ulis was still available as No. 34 approached, the return text from Suns brass to Booker broke the news they would be teammates again. But Ulis and his family wanted to see it on the live broadcast for it to be official.

"Tyler told me he was going to the Suns," Ulis’ mother, Kelly Reed said. "I wanted to know: ‘Where did you hear this? Who told you this?’ I wanted to see it on TV. When they said it, that’s when it sunk in."

When Ulis’ name was announced, a true celebration broke out in that two-story hotel suite. Ulis described being briefly chocked — lovingly — by his stepmother, Leslie.

"He wrote a speech about getting drafted in 5th grade," Reed said. "But it was the 76ers then. … To see it finally come to pass is unbelievable.

"He was discouraged because he didn’t get the invite (to the green room in New York), but it worked out for the best and going to Phoenix is for the best, too."

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