Point guard was arguably Nebraska’s biggest need this offseason after losing its starting backcourt in Sam Griesel and Emmanuel Bandoumel, and the coaching staff cast a wide net in the transfer portal looking to fill the void.
The Huskers hosted Kerr Kriisa, Latrell Wrightsell Jr., Javian McCollum and Hunter Sallis for visits, but one by one they each chose to commit to a different program. After missing out on those four, Fred Hoiberg and his staff turned their attention to an intra-conference transfer, hosting former Iowa Hawkeye Ahron Ulis for a visit the final weekend of April.
On May 1, Ulis announced his commitment, finally plugging that hole on the Nebraska roster. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard from Chicago started 27 games last season for the Hawkeyes, though his stats are pretty pedestrian at 6.1 points and 2.1 assists with a 45.6 effective field goal percentage in 22.6 minutes per game as a junior.
To get a better feel for what Ulis brings to the table, I dove into his film with the help of Synergy Sports to break down his game and his fit in Lincoln.
As the surface numbers indicate, Ulis hasn’t been much of a scoring threat to this point in his career. He scored just 0.821 points per possession (PPP) this past season, ranked in the 33rd percentile nationally and considered “average.” In halfcourt settings alone, he was at 0.769 PPP (29th percentile, “below average”).
The biggest issue for Ulis is that he isn’t great in either of the two most efficient shots from the field — at the rim and from the 3-point line. He’s average around the basket at 1.08 PPP (39th percentile) on 54.2% shooting at the rim, and he doesn’t have a reliable runner/floater game (3-of-13 on runners according to Synergy). He shot 31.9% from 3 overall, though his catch-and-shoot numbers weren’t terrible at 35.3%. Unfortunately, he shot 4-of-20 from deep off the dribble to tank his overall percentage.
He actually has a good mid-range jumper, shooting 42.6% on jumpers inside the arc, but more than half his jump shots were off the dribble, which accounted for nearly 40% of his shot attempts overall. It’s hard to be efficient that way.
Let’s dive into the tape to break down the various parts of his game.
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler
Ulis is first and foremost a pick-and-roll guard. Pick-and-roll scoring made up 27.4% of his possessions, though he scored just .703 PPP (39th percentile, “average”). He shot 44.2% overall but turned the ball over at a 25% rate. Ten of his 16 turnovers in ball screen situations were simply him losing the ball or having it knocked away from him, while the other six were bad passes.
When running pick-and-rolls, Ulis is often looking to get to his mid-range pull-up, especially against drop coverage where the big man hands back near he rim and the guard defenders goes over the screen. He occasionally shows good burst to the rim when a lane presents itself but more often methodically probes the defense. He mixes it up between using and refusing the screen to keep the defense on its toes.
He’s actually really good with that pull-up, shooting 12-of-22 on mid-range 2s out of ball screen situations. Unfortunately, he’s not really a pull-up 3 threat if the defense goes under the screen (2-of-6 from 3 including a heave that banked in), he’s just 5-of-10 on layups and he missed all five of his runners. So he’s fairly limited as a pick-and-roll scorer and it drags his overall efficiency down despite hitting that pull-up at a high rate.
Here’s a look at some highlights of Ulis scoring out of the pick-and-roll.
The pick-and-roll is a two-man game, however, and Ulis is better at utilizing that second man than scoring himself. He logged 64 individual pick-and-roll possessions and another 89 passing possessions.
Ulis is at his best setting up the roll man, displaying terrific vision and creativity in getting the ball where it needs to go. Pocket passes, bullets over the top, even a live-ball dime with his off hand — he can make all the passes he needs to in that situation and does a good job of creating passing lanes with his dribble. I didn’t see the same level of creativity or playmaking on his passes out to the perimeter, and that probably has a lot to do with him lacking the juice to force defenses to collapse. A lot of his passes under the “spot-up” category were simply him giving the ball up more than him getting somebody wide open for a good look.
Here’s a look at some of Ulis’ best pick-and-roll passes.
It’s probably worth noting that his ability to hit the roll man is one of his biggest strengths on offense, and I’m not sure he has the kind of rim-running partner that will allow him to maximize that ability. Bradley transfer Rienk Mast wasn’t a terribly effective roll man from what I saw when I broke down his film. They’re really going to miss Derrick Walker in this area.
One part of his game that fits what Hoiberg wants is his ability to push the pace in the open floor. He logged 69 transition possessions (53 scoring, 16 passing). Individually, he scored 1.000 PPP (47th percentile, “average”), shooting 46.7% overall. He actually shot 60% inside the arc (15-of-25) but went just 5-for-17 from 3 to drag down his efficiency.
Ulis looks to push the pace every chance he gets, advancing it via the dribble if he’s the one to secure the rebound or steal or leaking it himself if someone else grabs it. He does a much better job of getting to the rim and finishing on the break than in the halfcourt where space is more cramped, though he’ll still pull-up for the mid-range if the defense gets back. he also displayed solid vision on hit-ahead passes, two-on-one dump-offs or kick-outs to shooters.
Oh, and that last clip was his lone dunk as a college player to this point.
Third on the list for Ulis is spot-up offense, which includes both catch-and-shoot opportunities and putting the ball on the deck to attack closeouts. He logged 53 spot-up possessions (22.6%) and scored 0.981 PPP (65th percentile, “very good”). He shot 35.3% overall with roughly 80% of those attempts coming from the perimeter.
Ulis actually shot 13-of-36 (36.1%) on catch-and-shoot 3s in spot-up situations. He’s usually shot ready and willing to let it fly on the catch if he’s open, even if he isn’t a great 3-point shooter overall. He shot just 1-of-5 on 3s after a dribble in spot-up situations, however. He also isn’t a big threat to attack closeouts as he only put the ball on the deck to get inside the arc eight times. He show 1-of-2 at the rim plus a made runner, and he shot 2-of-5 on mid-range jumpers as well.
As his scoring average might indicate, Ulis isn’t a big-time scorer. He’s not a guy who can go give you a bucket whenever you need him to. Individually, he shot just 3-of-13 on isolation possessions, averaging 0.556 PPP (18th percentile, “below average”) with two fouls drawn on 18 possessions.
He utilizes hesitations, crafty handles and quick acceleration to get past his man, but he’s not a great finisher and he didn’t get any jumpers to fall on his ISO plays with all three buckets coming at the rim. However, what I did like was that he always kept his head up when he looked to isolate and hit the open man when he collapsed the defense or drew a help defender. He added another 17 passing possessions that resulted in 22 points as teammates shot 7-of-13 including 3-of-7 from 3.
I’ve more or less alluded to this in touching on his weaknesses on offense, but Ulis isn’t a great athlete. He can get the job done, but the lack of explosiveness that limits his ability to get to the rim in the halfcourt also serves as a limitation on defense. He’ll give good effort at the point of attack, but he sometimes struggles to stay in front of his man depending upon the matchup and situation. That being said, he’s a good help defender and his effort can make up for his limitations in some areas to make him a positive on defense overall depending on the scheme.
In ball screen situations, he typically does a solid job of fighting over or under the screen and reattaching to his man to cut off the drive or contest the jump shot, though sometimes the screen just takes him out of the play and he can’t recover or stay in front if he does clear the screen.
In spot-up situations, he lacks the elite quickness or change of direction to stay in front when opponents get downhill against his closeouts. He’s also familiar with playing in a zone as Iowa used one on 16.4% of its possessions last season, which puts him in a lot of closeout situations. However, an area of strength you can see in this part of his game is his effort and intelligence in scramble situations as he does a good job of identifying the open man and hustling to him when the team gets caught in rotation.
In isolation, again, Ulis works hard to move his feet and stay in front of his man, but sometimes he’s just not quick enough to hold up. He was also oddly effective as a post defender. It was only 13 possessions, but teams turned the ball over on eight of them as he battled and scrapped to hold his ground or front his man until his teammates were able to collapse and help him out. Opponents also shot just 7-of-21 on 23 possessions between handoffs and off-screen plays targeting him, which is part shot variance luck and part Ulis’ effort to get through screens.
Overall, Ahron Ulis probably isn’t going to wow you with his offensive play. His limitations as both a driver and a shooter have put a ceiling on his effectiveness to this point in his career. Even so, there are parts of his game that I think will fit really well with what Hoiberg wants to do. I’m not sure he’ll replace what Sam Hoiberg provided from a statistical standpoint at that pint guard position, but he’s a solid option with Big Ten experience who will help guys like Keisei Tominaga (if he returns) and Charlotte transfer Brice Williams do what they do best as wing scorers.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.