Tucker's circuitous route to NBA all about work
The marching orders were simple.
"Just work," P.J. Tucker said.
That particular directive was issued by Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry to a player who’d returned to the NBA from Europe just looking for an opportunity to prove his value.
"He said, 'Push everyone to get better,'" Tucker said in regard to the training-camp game-plan provided by Gentry, "and while I’m doing that, I’ll get better."
Although he hasn’t provided a statistical revelation, Tucker became better enough for Gentry to move the 27-year-old former Texas star into the Suns’ starting lineup six games ago.
And while it’s true that Tucker’s opportunities have been abetted by less-than-hoped-for production from the Suns’ other small-forward acquisitions, what he brings to this team is greatly needed.
"He works his butt off," Gentry said of the Big 12 Player of the Year, 2006 vintage. "He plays as hard as he can, he makes the hustle plays, guards whoever we ask him to guard ... that’s why he’s on this team."
And getting here wasn’t exactly a breeze.
"These things don’t happen overnight," Tucker said.
No, after being selected by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound swingman followed a circuitous route on his professional hoop odyssey.
"We had so many wing players in Toronto, man, it was tough getting on the floor," Tucker said of a rookie season that included a mere 17 on-court appearances for the Raptors.
With opportunities for career advancement and solid pay available overseas, Tucker -- whose father was stationed at a U.S. Army base in Germany until P.J. was six -- began his foreign hoops career in Israel.
But he didn’t approach his work abroad as on-the-job training for an eventual NBA revival.
"First, you have to go over there and prove you deserve to be there," Tucker said of playing in another country. "They don’t care that you played in the NBA ... it doesn’t matter to them.
"There’s a lot of pressure over there. You’ve got to win ... you’ve got to produce."
For Tucker, producing wasn’t a problem. During his five-year journey, he was named to several All-Star teams, won a slam-dunk contest and was the Import Player of the Year while playing in Germany last season.
Along with fine-tuning the strengths of his game, Tucker developed an appreciation for basketball’s interest level around the world and how he was embraced off the court.
"Aside from the states, Israel’s my favorite country," he said. "I love it there. I still go there to visit."
And Israel was the scene of what's still his most vivid recollection of playing abroad.
"It was a big game, we were on the road and a kid, a fan of our team, was upset that we were going to lose," Tucker said. "He had an M80 and he just threw it on the court. It was crazy."
Tucker embraced that type of crazy passion for basketball and kept going back. He eventually demonstrated enough game to flourish in his role overseas and attract interest from the Suns.
The journey is far from over, but -- for now -- the story is a happy one for Tucker.
But years before, his relentless style of play enabled him to take another, not-quite-as-epic journey on this NBA path.
Tucker, whose family left Germany for North Carolina, grew up a devoted fan of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Even though his favorite players growing up were non-Heels Bernard King ("my absolute favorite"), Adrian Dantley and Charles Barkley, P.J. spent considerable time following the players who starred for Carolina.
Michael Jordan, of course, was his favorite former Heel, and Tucker said a special room in his North Carolina home is the resting place for a sneaker collection that includes every pair of Air Jordans ever released.
And former UNC guard Shammond Williams "is like a big brother. He was a huge influence on me."
But when it was time for Tucker, who averaged 29 points and 14 rebounds per game as a senior at Raleigh’s Enloe High, to pick a college, the choice was simple.
"They recruited me," he said of the Heels, "but they only had one scholarship available that year, and I had to wait around for Carolina."
In the meantime, Texas coach Rick Barnes had designs on bringing Tucker to Austin.
"Rick Barnes told me to come to Texas first," Tucker said of his visit schedule. "He said, 'I don’t care who you see, just come to Texas first.
"I went and committed on my visit. It was perfect. I didn’t want to see anything else."
After three successful seasons at Texas, Tucker became the 35th player chosen in the ’06 draft. Without the first-round guarantee, his initial NBA adventure was loaded with uncertainty.
"You have no idea what’s coming or how it’s going to come or how you’re going to fit in," he said. "You’re just so anxious to be in the NBA ... but everything can change at any time. It’s a process."
And despite providing the Suns with needed defense and general hustle, Tucker also realizes that a five-points-per-game scorer on 12-25 NBA team has no time to feel cozy.
"I never feel comfortable," he said in regard to his near or distant basketball futures. "I still want to get better and reach new heights.
"It’s been a nice little run, but I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of what I want to do."