Tyler Ulis Is Seizing His Opportunity With the Phoenix Suns

The rookie point guard's recent play not only bodes well for him, but also for his team's future.

The Phoenix Suns have had two previous experiences with three-guard experiments in recent years. In 2014, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe made up the original trio. Things didn't work out and Bledsoe is now the only one among them left standing.

Then, in a way, it started all over again with Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker last year. Unlike Dragic and Thomas, Knight and Booker aren't really point guards, so it hasn't been quite the same. The result, however, has been similar. While all three parties remain on the Suns' roster, Knight has been relegated to a backup role and Booker is at the forefront of the bright future in Phoenix.

The Suns have continued to rebuild, but they surprised some people upon selecting Tyler Ulis with the 34th overall pick in this past year's draft. Were they headed back to the well once again? Were they going to pair him with Bledsoe and slide Booker to the three?

Those thoughts were quickly put to bed when Ulis appeared in four of his team's first nine games. Bledsoe, Knight, Booker and even Leandro Barbosa were getting the majority of the minutes in the Phoenix backcourt. As a result, the 5'10" rookie was very unproductive over the majority of this season.

Fast-forward to now, and Ulis' recent play suggests he's learning a thing or two from head coach Earl Watson, a 6'1" former point guard. With years of solid NBA experience, Watson has to understand the life of an undersized point guard. He might be surprised that it's only taken this long for Ulis to break through, though.

Recent Production

In 47 games this season, Ulis has averaged just 4.6 points and 2.4 assists. However, his minutes have been very limited, with him seeing the floor for an average of only 12.1 minutes. If he were to play 36 minutes per game, those numbers would look a lot better (13.6 points and 7.1 assists). That just hasn't been the case...until recently.

In his last eight games, the Kentucky product is posting averages of 10.6 points and 6.6 assists while logging 25.2 minutes. He's shared time with Bledsoe at the point and has spotted him well off the bench. Just Wednesday night, though, news broke that the Suns would sit Bledsoe for the remainder of the season. So what does that mean for Ulis?

If Wednesday night was any indication, he's in for big minutes from here on out. In the Suns' six-point loss to the Sacramento Kings, Ulis racked up 13 points and 13 assists in just under 39 minutes. But that's just what we've come to expect from the rookie.

If we take his numbers from the last eight games and average them over a period of 36 minutes, he ranks sixth in assists among all players to appear in all eight games while averaging 20-plus minutes. That also makes him one of seven players to average 15 or more points and 9 assists per 36 minutes in that same span.

Per 36 Minutes Points Assists Turnovers
Russell Westbrook 36.8 11.5 3.6
James Harden 29.1 10.9 5.7
John Wall 26.2 9.3 3.1
Ricky Rubio 17.2 11.7 2.7
Elfrid Payton 15.8 10.0 3.1
Ish Smith 15.7 9.5 1.9
Tyler Ulis 15.2 9.4 2.0

While distributing the ball with precision passing, the 21-year-old has been wise beyond his years in protecting the basketball -- his 4.7-to-1 turnover ratio is second of the players above. But has that translated to efficiency?

Immediate Opportunity

On the year, Ulis has posted a nERD of -1.7. If you're unfamiliar, nERD is our own way of measuring a player's overall contributions, based on efficiency. So, this means Ulis' inefficient play has taken nearly two wins away from a league-average team with him as one of their starters.

Turning the ball over hasn't been the problem -- it's been his shooting.

Ulis is shooting just 41.9% overall this season (including 28.1% from three), and has accumulated a true shooting percentage of 47%. That last rate ranks worst on the Suns, which, for a point guard in today's NBA, is downright terrible.

The good news is that the first-year player will have a chance to develop his game. He'll be presented with the minutes necessary to improve his shot and his overall efficiency. For now, the Suns can at least see what they have in their young point guard.

Future impact

It's now nearing the end of March, which means we are roughly three months away from the 2017 NBA Draft. From now until draft day, the Phoenix front office will be weighing all their options. They can't afford to miss on what should be a top-5 pick in a loaded draft class, and Ulis' development could very well influence that decision.

There are quite a few young guards topping the short list of elite prospects. The Suns could again add talent there if they feel there's a need to, but if Ulis can prove himself as a capable rotation player or better, the organization could shift their eyes toward guys like Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum. They could even trade back for the size of a Lauri Markkanen, Jonathan Isaac or Justin Patton. No matter which way it goes, the more options the better.

And, if we look further down the road, it might be even more significant. It could open up the possibility for trading a pick (though it would require something huge in return) or, more likely, a trade involving Bledsoe (injuries), Knight or Ulis himself.

If an injury is going to have any positive impact on a team looking to develop and improve talent, this is one of the few ways it can do so.