CHICAGO HEIGHTS | In the past 20 years, three boys basketball players have managed to win back-to-back Times Player of the Year awards.
The trio — Thornton's Melvin Ely (1995-96, 96-97), Thornwood's Eddy Curry (1999-00, 2000-01), and Homewood-Flossmoor's Julian Wright (03-04, 04-05) — have something else in common. They all reached the NBA.
Seated in a remote corner of the Marian Catholic library, Tyler Ulis smiled. Another log thrown on his ever-burning fire.
"That's good to know," he said. "My dream is the NBA."
Ulis, a junior, has positioned himself to join those two-time winners by snaring this season's Player of the Year honor. But, another Times honor would be easy pickings compared to reaching the NBA — Wright, at 6-foot-8, is the shortest of the two-time winners.
Ulis, listed at 5-10, concedes he is actually 5-8.
Marian coach Mike Taylor sighed ever so slightly when what he calls "the height thing" came up.
"If you look at his feet and his wingspan," Taylor said, "he's gonna grow some."
Besides, Taylor noted, as more people see Ulis play over the summer with Tai Streets' Mean Streets AAU club — and Mean Streets' schedule will take Ulis to Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Virginia, Dallas, Minnesota and South Carolina — the height issue "will go away."
It is already vanishing. On Thursday, Purdue joined the list of schools that includes Colorado State, DePaul, Iowa, Loyola, Northern Illinois, Oregon State and UIC to offer Ulis a scholarship.
"And Ohio State just sent me a letter for the first time since eighth grade," Ulis said.
Over the 2012-13 season, Ulis averaged 22 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game for the Spartans, who won a team-record 29 games and the boys program's first sectional title. His season total of 693 points and career mark of 1,612 are both school records, the latter 168 points better than Cedrick Middleton's previous standard, accumulated over four seasons.
Ulis exploded from the blocks, averaging 25.8 points per game over Marian's first 10. At that point, transfer Terrone Parham joined the team and Ulis' scoring went down while his assists went up.
Not that Ulis didn't have a few more big nights. He had 30 points and six steals in a visit to St. Viator, 25 points and eight assists against Brother Rice his next time out, and 25 points — including 12-of-13 from the line — in the sectional title win over Bloom.
Then there was his 29-point effort against Bloom as Marian won its first Rich South McDipper title ever, in 37 tries, that Ulis called "my favorite moment" of the season.
Taylor can't pick one.
"What we'll talk about as these guys move on is what happens in practice every day — his will to win in everything we do," Taylor said. "Put him on defense in a drill, and you're scared for the kid who has the ball."
Describing Ulis to someone who's never seen the Matteson resident play gives Taylor fits.
"The first thing I'd do is have someone think about the best point guard they've ever seen," Taylor said. "The contemporary guy is Chris Paul, but you can go back to players like John Stockton. … What Tyler brings to the floor is not only a talent level, but an intelligence about the game. He brings knowledge of what needs to be done and an ability to get the other four guys to understand it while he's on the floor."
Unlike four-time NBA scoring champ Allen Iverson, Ulis considers himself "a pass-first player."
On that topic, Taylor offers as close as he'll come to a harsh assessment of Ulis' skills.
"I think Tyler is probably a better shooter than even he thinks he is," Taylor said.
Ulis shot the three-pointer less frequently late in the season. He took at least seven treys six times in his team's first 24 games, and only once in the last eight. For the season a 36 percent three-point shooter, he made 21 percent over that final stretch.
Ulis seemed more pragmatic than shaken about the dip.
"I had a rough shooting year toward the end," he said. "Everyone thought it was in my head. But some shots weren't falling, so I stopped taking them."
Some shots, however, he won't stop taking.
"I want to take basketball as far as I can," Ulis said.
Taylor knows as much, having been on the receiving end of more than one 10 p.m. text asking if the gym might be unlocked by 6:30 the next morning.
"This is his passion," Taylor said. "He has very high goals."
The most immediate goals involve hitting the weight room.
"At this stage, as a shooter, his shot is there, his skills are there," Taylor said. "What he needs to bring to his senior year, he's got to improve his strength."
A stronger Ulis will be better prepared not simply for his senior campaign.
"I know I'm small," Ulis said. "I've been small all my life. When I was younger, I could go through the lane, finish a little better. But now I've got to stop and dish, or pull up and shoot.
"I need to add weight — good weight, muscle — not to dominate on the high school level, but on the next level."