From Chicago’s blacktop courts to Rupp Arena, Ulis has always exceeded expectations

The basketball courts throughout the parks of Chicago are the last place you would suspect an 8-year-old standing under five-feet tall to find success. But if you were to be standing around the right courts during the summers of the mid-2000s, that is exactly where you would find a young Tyler Ulis defying the first of many sets of expectations as his love for basketball began to blossom. 
Every summer Ulis’ father, James, would take his five sons to the city parks to play basketball. His father was interested to see how his sons, especially the undersized Tyler, stacked up to the competition. Ulis and his brother were more concerned with cashing in on some side bets to buy some candy.
“We just went to people like, ‘Do you want to play for this and that?’” Ulis said. “We’d play them, stash our money and we had a couple plays, and we’d always beat them.”
This was the first time Ulis was truly underestimated. On the Chicago blacktops, he would use the lofty expectations that came with his small stature to hustle people. During his college recruitment, he used them to become an underrated signing for UK. Once on campus, he would not stop breaking the ceilings put on him and his talents.
The 5’9”, 160-pound guard who arrived in Lexington was widely expected to be a four-year player. People had enough faith in his abilities to be a floor general that they expected great things in his college career, like possibly breaking the NCAA all-time assist record held by Bobby Hurley. But thinking ahead and expecting him to not only make an NBA roster, but be a first round draft selection, was out of the question.
The eight-year-old in Ulis probably wishes he had some candy riding on that assumption. As of Wednesday, he will be entering the NBA draft after just two years in a UK uniform and is projected to go as high as the lottery in some mock drafts.

Rash assumptions constantly followed Ulis, eventually working their way from the blacktops to the hardwood once he started playing basketball in organized tournaments. The time that stands out to his father is when Ulis was facing a team from Iowa when he was 13 years old.

At the time, it was excusable to not recognize the tiny Ulis as a basketball player if seen out in public, but this instance in particular was laughable in the eyes of James Ulis.
“Tyler runs out on the court and a lady said, ‘Oh he is so cute. Aw, they must let him come warm up with the team,’” James Ulis said.
Within minutes, Ulis crushed the woman’s expectations and any others like it. He went from younger sibling of one of the players to star of the show, dominating the matchup and eventually earning some swearing from the woman.
Ulis carried that same chip on his shoulder in the 2013 Nike EYBL Peach Jam. In a matchup with the No. 1 point guard in the class Tyus Jones, Ulis failed to out-score Jones, tallying only 22 points to Jones’ 24. Ulis did, however, showcase his floor general abilities in a big way, dishing out 17 assists in the game. 
“Sometimes when you play a tougher opponent or a better team, some kids sometimes don’t have it. We’ve all had games we don’t play well,” James Ulis said. “Tyler is just different in that matter. If it’s a big game, as you can see at Kentucky, he’s going to play better because he knows that.”
Once on campus, Ulis continued to show that he was willing to take on any challenge. 
Whether it was standing up to 6’11”, 270-pound NBA star DeMarcus Cousins in a pickup game over the summer or his reputation of being a pass-first guard known for making the players around him better, Ulis quickly earned the respect of his teammates, and eventually Calipari himself.
“I felt very comfortable since I started. All I had to do last year was throw the ball  to Karl-(Anthony Towns) and run the offense,” Ulis said. “Cal trusted in me with calling the plays and running plays I wanted to run. He basically gave me the keys to do whatever I wanted.” 
The platoon system in his freshman season limited playing time, but Ulis still had enough time to become an instant fan favorite.
He averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists per game in his backup role to Andrew Harrison, but a better representation of his contributions to the team showed in critical moments, such as the rivalry game against Louisville when he led the team in scoring with 14 points.
Riding along on UK’s pursuit of perfection, Ulis’ first season came to a crashing halt following the loss to Wisconsin. As if the loss didn’t add enough hurt, he also had to deal with the departure of seven teammates, including the other three members of his recruiting class. 
Despite being one of the few stragglers left on the team, Ulis used the opportunity to show what he could do with full reins of an offense, and fans — along with the national media — agreed that he didn’t disappoint.
The additions of Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe combined with Ulis to make  a three-headed monster in the UK backcourt that greatly contrasted the twin towers the team had seen the previous year. 
Ulis led the team as a true floor general, putting himself in a position that reminded him some of his hustling days in Chicago. 
Ulis and his brother had a go-to play called “Pippen” when he was playing on the blacktops of Chicago. The play was just a simple high screen and roll, but it showed at a young age his determination to his craft.
“He’s always been out-smarting people since he was that age, and he used to draw up plays,” James Ulis said. “He’s been a student of the game for a long time.”
Ulis got to relive those old times with Calipari fully trusting him with the offense. The trust proved fruitful as Ulis averaged 17.3 points and seven assists per game and had nearly every coach gushing over his ability to control the pace and flow of the offense.
The point guard even showed that he didn’t necessarily need Calipari’s guidance for the offense. After Calipari was ejected against South Carolina, the scrappy point guard took control of the UK offense, guiding the Cats to a 89-62  victory. Ulis added 27 points and 12 assists in the win.
Along with being a leader, Ulis also showed up when the stakes were highest. In his second game against Louisville, Ulis cemented his name in rivalry history after putting on another impressive performance with 21 points and 8 assists. 
Coming off an SEC Tournament that saw him tally a career-high 30 points in the overtime victory over Texas A&M for the title and earn MVP honors, Ulis continued to power the Cats well into March. Following an easy win over Stony Brook in the opening round, UK was given all it could handle by Indiana. 
The Hoosiers ended up overwhelming the Cats, but Ulis did not let the season die easily. The point guard scored eight points in the last 1:08 of the game. Ulis finished with a game-high 27 points in his last time wearing a UK uniform.
With his UK career behind him, Ulis is now faced with his next big challenge of being drafted and making his way to the NBA. With players like the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas carving out a path for smaller players to succeed, Ulis has a chance to become the third player 5’9” or shorter to be drafted in the first round. 
Ulis knows the transition will be hard adjusting to the speed and athleticism in the league. Making it in the NBA will be a lifelong dream come true, but instead Ulis is most looking forward to keeping his former teammates from teasing him.
“Well, you know (Devin) Book(er), Karl-(Anthony Towns) and those guys still tease me every day about still being in college, still going to class, still being a college boy,” Ulis said. “But it will be fun to go up there in those levels and just play with the best people in the world.”
From the park courts of Chicago to Rupp Arena, Ulis was always the biggest believer in himself. The tiny Ulis who played for money to buy candy is the last person people would point to if asked who could become an all-time UK great, but that is just because no one was asking him.