Marian Catholic senior point guard Tyler Ulis hasn't received a lot of local publicity over the years like area classmates Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, but despite being only 5-foot-10 and small and skinny in stature, the Kentucky commit might be the most exciting player to watch in the Chicagoland area.
Ulis is a candidate for Mr. Basketball in Illinois and averaged 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game in his junior season at Marian Catholic, but he didn't have a lot of recruiting interest or media fanfare in Chicago during his early years of high school because of his size.
"I was just looked past because of my size," Ulis told CSN Chicago. "I was about 5'3" coming in as a freshman, so, I mean, what college would want to pick a guy that is 5'3" as a freshman to offer a scholarship? I just knew that I would grow one day and get a few inches and so I just went in the gym and worked hard."
Plenty of hard work went into the Tyler Ulis you see today from the 5-foot-3 freshman that walked through Marian Catholic's doors as a new student a few years ago. Although the Spartans aren't known as a basketball power — or really even a basketball school — Ulis and his family made the decision to attend the school for academic and athletic reasons after he spent his childhood in Lima, Ohio.
[MORE: Is Tyler Ulis the next Buckner, Thomas, Puckett?]
With his parents divorced over 10 years ago and his father re-located to Matteson, the decision was made for Tyler to move to Illinois from Ohio for high school. Some in the local basketball community were puzzled that a gifted middle school basketball player would choose Marian Catholic, but Ulis and his family have stuck by the Spartans.
"When I first came to Marian everyone was asking, 'What is Marian?' and 'Why are you going there?' and stuff (like that) and how I need to transfer," Ulis said. "And now we're making a name for ourself so you know it's good that everything worked out. It's still not that much of a basketball school, but we're winning and getting the job done."
Others doubted Ulis early on, but Marian Catholic head coach Mike Taylor was instantly a believer in his young point guard almost immediately after witnessing him play.
"He played in a summer league game with us his freshman year and within the first five minutes I knew that we had something," Taylor recalled. "I saw him make a pass from half court on a break where he put spin on it and brought the ball back to a kid, around a defender, right to him. And, within 10 minutes he was telling juniors and seniors where to go and what to do and right then we knew."
With the full backing of his coach and his family, Ulis continued to work hard and play well for Marian Catholic, and soon, his self-confidence skyrocketed.
"I was always confident. My Mom and Dad kept me confident and never let me down on myself," Ulis said. "We always knew that I could play, so it was just a matter of growing, getting stronger and developing if I stayed in the gym."
[RELATED: Ulis plays tall for college coaches]
Taylor began hearing from college coaches and although it was clear that his star point guard could run a team at an elite level and make other players around him better, the questions always remained about his size.
"The biggest thing (asked) is, 'What do you need to improve on?' and the running joke was his size," Taylor said. "But we just tried to tell them to watch him as a basketball player and forget about the athletes. Once you take into consideration how good of a basketball player he is, I think he's the best player on the floor."
In his junior season, the hard work really began to pay off for Ulis as high-major scholarship offers started trickling in and the Spartans won 29 games and their first sectional title in program history.
Although Ulis was hearing from mostly lower-level high-major programs entering this spring and summer's AAU season, soon the big dogs came calling. After an impressive summer at the Nike Peach Jam with local AAU power Meanstreets, Ulis was down to Iowa, Kentucky and Michigan State as his final three contenders this fall.
In the end, Kentucky and head coach John Calipari won out for Ulis, in-part, because of Calipari's impressive point guard lineage that includes NBA players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague.
[MORE: Tyler Ulis glad he can focus on the season with commitment pressure lifted]
"Coach Cal is great at developing point guards," Ulis said. "You see guards like Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague and they struggled in the beginning of the season and you see now the Harrisons have struggled a little bit but as the year progresses everybody gets better. To be committed and signed to that program is just a great opportunity."
Since committing and signing his letter of intent with Kentucky, Ulis is already facing plenty of questions about a school known lately for producing a high number of yearly one-and-done NBA draft picks. Ulis acknowledged that he isn't trying to be one-and-done at Kentucky — once again because of his size and strength — but he's heard plenty of the same questions at the high school level about his size and is prepared to overcome similar obstacles at the college level and beyond.
"I never got frustrated (by my size)," Ulis said. "The only thing I would get frustrated about was people saying I wasn't good enough. But it's just a matter of proving yourself and working hard. God gave me this height for a reason and he didn't give me a 6'10" height, so I have to work with it. So I just have to go out there, work hard and just play."