When 5'9" Tyler Ulis committed to Kentucky in September 2013, he knew he'd never be the most talked about prospect on the roster, but coach John Calipari convinced him that he would be critical to the team's success. And after seven players left Lexington early for the NBA last June, Calipari's words have proved prophetic. Ulis, the smallest Wildcat by three inches, is now the team's unquestioned leader. "He is our best player," Calipari told reporters at media day, "and it ain't close."
Over the summer Ulis, a sophomore, focused first on recovering from the shin splints that hampered him for much of last year. Even though he'll be asked to score more (5.6 points in 2014--15), he won't shed his identity as a pass-first point guard who smothers opponents on D. He's also out to show that he can be just as aggressive defensively in a smaller, three-guard lineup that won't have Kentucky's usual forest of 7-foot shot swatters for protection.
Practice against his fellow Wildcats has helped Ulis, well, grow. Last season he guarded Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who are both 6'6". This year he's battling five-star freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, both of whom are likely to beat Ulis to the NBA by a couple of dozen picks—if not a couple of years. Ulis doesn't care. "[Calipari] believed in me, even though I'm two feet tall," he says. "And I'm out to prove him right."
PROJECTED TEAM STATS
OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY 117.4 (5th)
DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY 93.3 (12th)
SEC RECORD 14--4 (1st)
Kentucky has produced 10 first-round frontcourt players in the last six NBA drafts. Skal Labissiere could go No. 1 in June, but first the skilled big man from Haiti must polish his offensive game and become the next great UK shot blocker.
With 2015--16 projections for the top six scorers
Coach John Calipari (7th season)
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Jamal Murray* 6'4" Fr.
Skal Labissiere* 6'11" Fr.
Tyler Ulis* 5'9" Soph.
Alex Poythress* 6'8" Sr.
Isaiah Briscoe 6'3" Fr.
Charles Matthews* 6'6" Fr.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
ROUND OF 32
ROUND OF 64
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ULIS)
ELLIOTT HESS/UK ATHLETICS (LABISSIERE)