But there has been a profound shift in the league. Rule changes implemented a decade ago allowed more freedom on the perimeter for ballhandlers — no longer could defenders constantly hand check and harass, and shifty guards were now able to penetrate the lane, exploit spaces that even the quickest of defenders struggled to cut off, and either use floaters to score in the paint, or kick to waiting shooters beyond the three-point line.
There is a direct correlation between the rise of the Golden State Warriors and the small-ball lineups that have followed, and redefined, the NBA, and this rule change, and smaller point guards are arguably reaping the most benefits. Nate Robinson had a fruitful career with the New York Knicks (along with other teams), and Isaiah Thomas has thrived for the Boston Celtics, enjoying his best NBA season in 2016: a PER of 21.5, a career high.
This shift continued to filter down to the 2016 NBA draft, where there are two guards hoping to benefit from this culture change. Tyler Ulis spent the past two seasons drawing countless praise from announcers and analytical types alike, and it isn’t hard not to like the 5-foot-9 Ulis. He typically found his Kentucky teammates in the perfect scoring position, whether it was Jamal Murray curling around a screen or a lob to Marcus Lee, and it was rare when recipients of a Ulis pass didn’t get a clean attempt. Ulis’s assist rate of 34.3 percent ranked second among SEC guards.
Should a defense sag off Ulis to counter his speed, he has the ability to connect from deep, shooting 37 percent during his two years in Lexington. Even if NBA personnel are concerned about his lack of strength, which could negate his defense – which in truth is perhaps his greatest skill — and fret about a supposed inability to finish in the lane (though, per Hoop-Math.com, he only attempted 13 percent of his shots around the bucket in 2016), the fact Ulis is being discussed as a late first-round draft pick gives credence to the diminishing bias against smaller guards. Modern NBA teams can’t afford to bypass a player who can break down a defensive scheme with merely a quick first step and low center of gravity.
Oakland’s Kay Felder is another guard who should thrive amid this climate. Felder, who stands at 5-9, is a unique athlete, who combines absurd leaping ability with a natural strength that helps him stay on course even when guarded by more physical defenders. What is fascinating about Felder is that for a guard with such a high usage rate, he only committed a turnover on 15 percent of his possessions.
Think about that — Oakland used about 74 possessions per game, per Ken Pomeroy, in 2016, and Felder, who rarely left the floor, only gave the ball away a handful of times. He also is quick enough to slide into the paint, and then, rather than float a ball over a defender, simply take off and go around or under a shot-blocking big. His athleticism is his best attribute, and it feeds his jumpshot (which, since he made 35.5 percent of his threes in 2016, isn’t bad either) or his isolation game. Guarding Felder is like defending wearing roller skates — there is a lot of hesitation and apprehension.
At the moment, Felder is a second-round pick, but he has a greater chance to shine during NBA Summer League and potentially receive a preseason invite than any of his similarly skilled predecessors. It wasn’t clear what changes would affect the NBA since altering that rule a decade ago, but for guards like Thomas, Ulis and Felder, it has meant that fleeting cup of Gatorade in the NBA could actually become a successful career.