By Joe Henricksen
There is so much analysis, evaluation, questioning and projecting of basketball prospects today in Illinois it borders insane. It's the nature of the beast with this internet/twitter thing in a state that loves its hoops and produces its fair share of high level prep talent.
Through it all, though, everyone gets caught up in the prospect buzz words like "potential," "high ceiling," and "upside." Yes, it's important. Vitally important, in fact, when projecting players to the college level. However, thinking and hoping a player will add this, add that along the way in trying to reach his potential has become all too common.
There is something to be said about the prospect who brings a little of that upside but, more importantly, possesses an unquestioned skill level, knows how to play, understands the game and is just simply a pure, fluid basketball player.
My fellow basketball friends, I give you Tyler Ulis.
The Marian Catholic sophomore point guard is special, a breath of fresh air in this world of "he's big, athletic, long, runs the floor and is loaded with promise" prospects. The Hoops Report's late summer Class of 2014 player rankings had Ulis as the No. 8 prospect among all sophomores. He's now sneaked into the Hoops Report's top five prospects in the class. And he was among the top 20 prospects in the state regardless of class, a list the Hoops Report put out last month. There were and continued to be skeptics, naysayers and some who blasted the thought of Ulis that high on those lists.
And the Hoops Report understands. Really, it does. For some, it can be difficult to rationalize a player that young who is just 5-8 on a list with other players prominently mentioned as high-major prospects. Come on, five-foot-seven?
It's not difficult for me. I'm sold. 100 percent.
Ulis is a high-major prospect, which is why he was among the Hoops Report's top 10 players in the class after watching him play as a wise-beyond-his-years freshman and after putting together a solid, consistent summer. As a freshman he poured in 37 points in a win over St. Viator, scored 20-plus points five times and averaged nearly 14 points a game. And he's taken his game to another level as a sophomore.
There will surely be college coaches scared off by his diminutive size. The high-major head coach will look at Ulis, see his size, then cringe and say, "Is this really the guy that's going to run my team?" Then they will watch him play and say, "Hell, yeah." They will immediately realize what Ulis lacks in size he makes up for in so many other areas.
The Hoops Report, in fact, generally does not like little guards when projecting to college. There just aren't a whole lot of small guards in that 5-7 to 5-10 range who succeed at the high-major level. But the special ones do and Ulis is in that category. Ulis can not only survive at the high-major level, but he will find a way to impact games at that level once someone gives him the ball and chance to do so.
There are other small guards from Illinois that come to mind.
You think former Hillcrest mighty-mite Maurice Acker, a 5-7 waterbug and Hoops Report favorite back in the day who ended up at Marquette. While Ulis has similar playmaking ability, he's a better scorer than Acker and has a little more gitty-up.
There is Decatur Eisenhower's Lewis Jackson, who has had a solid career as a 5-9 point guard for Purdue. Ulis isn't as strong, physical or as athletic as Jackson, but he's clearly more of the prototypical point guard than Jackson was coming out of high school.
Then there is Jerome Randle, the Hales Franciscan star who at his listed 5-10 (probably closer to 5-9) surprised everyone with just how dominating of a player he was at Cal. Randle was all-Pac 10 twice and the conference's player of the year as a senior. Ulis won't be as dominant of a scoring lead guard as Randle, but he's probably a purer point guard.
There will be high-major offers at some point. He's too good, too pure of a point guard for this pint-sized talent to be ignored for too long. The Hoops Report's guess is they will come before the end of his sophomore season, maybe even after he carves up opponents at the McDipper next week with more eyes on him.
Given his size, Ulis knows exactly how to excel on the floor, rarely getting too deep in the lane. Instead of over-penetrating, Ulis uses his smarts. He pulls up with his nifty, stop-on-a-dime pull-up jumper or floater. Or he simply distributes the ball at the perfect time and in the ideal place. With his handle, quickness and smarts, he's difficult to trap and gets where he needs to get.
If you need someone to run the show, Ulis is your guy. He's a quarterback. He's always in control, reads a defense and is a different-level decision-maker, again making you question how he can be this young. He puts players in position to succeed, both in his running of a team and being arguably the best, most precise passer of any point guard in Illinois this side of Rockford Auburn's Fred Van Vleet.
If you need someone to handle constant pressure, get where he wants on the floor and provide dribble penetration, Ulis is your guy. He's instinctive and the ball in his hands just looks natural, so effortless. Ulis has a little extra gear he is able to tap into and, despite his small frame, it's difficult to keep him from penetrating. There are few players in Illinois who handle it like Ulis while still being in such control of their speed with the ball.
With his acceleration in the open court and his developed mid-range jumper, along with an ability to knock down a three-pointer, Ulis is not just a distributing point guard. The kid can score. And his jumper is only going to get better and more efficient with time.
And what about that size? Sure, it's going to be a hinderance at times. Defensively, his light frame will make it tough at times to keep more physical guards out of the lane. There will be mismatches in certain situations defensively at the next level. And his size will always make it difficult for him to finish at the basket; he's not an elite athlete.
But you know what, though? There is something unique now about watching a player who truly gets it, has that awareness and knows how to play the game of basketball while still possessing talent. It's easy to get tired of watching the potential-type guys who have no clue, and it's easy to start appreciating a fundamentally-sound -- and exciting -- player like Ulis. Pound for pound -- and this is a big statement -- Tyler Ulis is the best pure basketball player (not prospect) in the state of Illinois this side of Simeon's Jabari Parker.
Don't get frustrated watching the "prospect" who doesn't know how to play. Don't lament what the high school game has become in terms of the focus on individual players and their selfishness. Instead, celebrate what we still have, which is a basketball player in Tyler Ulis who is easy to appreciate and fun to watch. Ulis will be proving a lot of people wrong.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport