NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – Tyler Ulis trots to the back of the pregame layup line inside of the frigid gym at Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., meticulously dodging spectators who are spilling onto Court 4 to scour the bleachers for an open spot.
No luck there; packed house. Really packed. And every coach from Michigan State’s Tom Izzo to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski line the court across from the bleachers to take in Nike Peach Jam’s day two nightcap between Ulis’ Mean Streets (Ill.) squad and the Howard Pulley Panthers (Minn.).
“That’s him” points and stares are in abundance. Cell phone cameras raise and snap away at the court while Ulis, who runs the point for Mean Streets, drains trey after trey as the seconds wind down to the opening tip.
Still, amidst the organized chaos, Ulis goes virtually unnoticed.
That’s because the vast majority of the crowd – save college coaches and recruiting nuts – doesn’t know who the 5-foot-8, 145-pound pregame warmup superstar is.
Frankly they don’t care.
Not with Howard Pulley point guard Tyus Jones, the top point guard in the ESPN 100, gracing the court.
“I knew they all knew Tyus; I mean I did too,” Ulis said. “I really respect his game and had wanted to play against him for so long. Most of the time people just think I’m some random guy on the team. They look at me and think I’m too small to make any real noise. I always figure I’ll just prove them wrong.”
Thirty-seven minutes – including an extra five minutes of overtime – 22 points and 17 assists later and Ulis has once again earned a contingent of new believers.
“I’m always having to prove myself,” Ulis said. “At this point it doesn’t even bother me anymore. It used to though. I had to get to this point where I don’t care. It was hard at first.”
When Ulis was 6 he attended his first basketball camp, the Donya Witcher camp in Harvey, Ill., and, much to his dismay, was immediately lumped in with the group of kids that competed on the lowered rims.
“He came over to me crying because he didn’t want to play on the small goals,” Ulis’ father James Ulis said. “So I talked to the camp officials and told them that even though he’s small he’s very capable of playing on the regulation rims. So they let him.”
Ulis went on to take home the camp’s MVP hardware.
“I instilled in him a very young age that, because of his size, he’s gotta be the best player on the court,” James said. “That’s the mindset that he’s had to have. That’s what’s been working for him.”
Especially this summer.
Ulis entered the AAU season unranked, but after consistent strong showings he’s up to No. 38 in the ESPN 100 for 2014. Just over a week ago at Peach Jam, Ulis averaged 19.1 points and 6.8 assists per game, and went head-to-head with two of the top three point guards – Jones and No. 3 Joel Berry of E1T1 (Fla.) – in the class. Ulis is ranked No. 8 among point guards.
Putting in that kind of work has got schools like Michigan State, Florida, Southern Cal, Florida State, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, among others, all putting on the full-court recruiting press trying to land Ulis. He plans to cut his massive list of potential suitors down substantially in early August.
“He’s lightning quick,” said E1T1 shooting guard Grayson Allen, a Duke commit. “When he gets in the middle of the lane, if you come to him, he’s gonna find the open guy and if you don’t come to him he’s gonna knockdown the jumper 90 percent of the time. He never gets tired either.”
Credit that to his foundation as a track star.
In his preteen years, Ulis won AAU national gold medals in the 1,500- and 800-meter runs.
“Whatever I do I try and be the best at it,” Ulis said. “It’s the only way I know how to approach things.”
That mindset worked well last season at Marian Catholic (Matteson, Ill.) where Ulis led the Spartans to a school record for wins (29-4). Marian fell one victory short of its first state appearance.
For that reason, don’t expect to see Ulis’ name on the ever-expanding list of elite players transferring to high-profile prep schools in order to play national schedules.
“Oh no!” said Ulis, who averaged, 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals last season for the Spartans. “My goal is to win a state title and I plan on doing everything I possibly can to get that done next year. I’m always thinking ahead with stuff like that.”
That’s been the key to Ulis’ emergence this summer.
Whether it’s seeing the opening in the lane before it’s there, mentally calculating the best possible angle to thread the pass to his teammate or knowing the tendency his defender has to go under the high screen, Ulis sees the game on a level that few can comprehend.
“It’s weird, sometimes my teammates are like ‘how did you get that one through there,” Ulis said. “For me, I just want to win. I want to be the best. That’s my drive. People don’t consider me the best so I’ve got to keep working. Then when they consider me the best, I’ll work even harder to stay there. It never stops when you want to make a big impact.”
No matter how small you are.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY