Suns making the most of ‘X Factor’ Tucker’s experience, versatility

Teammate Jared Dudley says P.J. Tucker deserves to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — Suns forward P.J. Tucker doesn’t always know what role he’ll play for the team from game to game, and that’s just the way he likes it.

The 31-year-old NBA veteran does a little bit of everything for a Suns squad that often needs just that.

“Each game is specific. Every night is different,” Tucker said. “Whatever I can do to help this team get a win, that’s what I’ll do. That’s what it’s about.”

Tucker is averaging seven points and six rebounds per game this season, but statistics usually don’t define his impact.

“His mindset and everything he brings to our team cannot be measured with analytics, which makes basketball great because every game, anything is possible,” said Suns coach Earl Watson. “So, his intensity, his focus and passion for the game kind of feeds into the team.”

Watson has called Tucker the team’s “X-Factor,” and Tucker has proven to be as dependable as he is versatile. Tucker is one of three Suns, along with point guard Eric Bledsoe and rookie forward Marquese Chriss, who has not missed a game yet this season.

And Tucker is now the longest-tenured player on a Suns roster filled with youth. He is in his fifth season with the club following six seasons he played overseas.

While Tucker’s duties vary based on what the Suns need on a particular night, it is his defense that has garnered the most attention.

His physicality makes him a tough matchup for even the NBA’s best offensive players — including those on his own team.

Star guard Devin Booker said he and Tucker have formed somewhat of a rivalry at practice, purposely matching up against each other almost every day.

“Honestly, P.J. is the best defender I’ve ever gone up against at any level,” Booker said. “He’s so strong, and he doesn’t look that fast, but defensively he can move those feet.”

For Tucker, the goal is to help develop Booker, a second-year shooting guard.

“He’s (Booker) already a naturally-gifted scorer, and I’m a physical defender,” Tucker said. “I just try to beat him down as much as possible, so when we get in the game it’s a lot easier.”

Tucker’s value to the Suns this season was never more evident than during a recent four-game stretch in which he served as the primary defender on Cleveland star LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

The went 2-2 during that span, and Watson said Tucker proved himself to be among the NBA’s elite defensive stoppers.

“We now understand that P.J. Tucker is one of the best, underrated defenders in the NBA, and it’s not just us who feel that way,” Watson said.

Minnesota went to Towns only a couple of times during the fourth quarter with Tucker defending him, Watson said. The Timberwolves quickly abandoned that strategy.

Jared Dudley, another Suns veteran, echoed Watson’s praise of Tucker’s defensive abilities. He threw Tucker’s name into the conversation for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award with a post on Twitter last week.

Standing just 6-foot-7 at the forward position, Tucker faces a size disadvantage against many of his opponents, something he overcomes with meticulous preparation.

“Just knowing personnel, knowing what people want to do on the court,” he said. “It’s watching film, knowing people’s games, trying to put them in spots where they shoot lower percentages and wear them down.”

With success comes suitors, and Tucker is no exception. Losers of five straight games, the Suns sat in the cellar of the Western Conference at 15-34, and rumors have swirled around Tucker with the Feb. 23 NBA trade deadline approaching.

Multiple teams have reportedly shown interest in dealing for Tucker as a possible two month “rental” for a playoff run. His three-year, $15-million contract with Phoenix expires this summer.

As evidenced by his ejection Monday night against the Grizzlies, Tucker brings a fiery disposition to the court that could be valuable to a championship contender. Plus, expiring contracts are valuable to teams trying to clear salary space to sign free agents in the offseason.

But despite the rumors, Tucker said he tries to block out the distractions and focus on the job at hand.

“I don’t worry about stuff like that, I really don’t,” he said. “I just go out and play, try to help this team win.”

In the meantime, Tucker will continue to do what he does best — a little bit of everything.

“He competes at the highest level at all times, and that’s actually a skill,” Booker said. “For someone to come out every night, guard the team’s best player, do all the dirty work. He’s like a glue guy that I think every good team has to have.”