P.J. Tucker fulfills promises, finds his place

Failure’s traditional plot in the NBA — where niches are as important as the fairytale dreams of superstardom — generally begins with talent and bloated heads. It’s not P.J. Tucker’s story, though he’ll admit to once having a bloated head.

If there was one success of former general manager Lance Blanks’ tenure, it was bringing the former second-round draft pick back to the NBA. In a very Ryan McDonough type of way, Blanks kept his eye on Tucker, although it might’ve only been because the two have the same alma mater.

Nevertheless, things worked out. Tucker’s reclamation project began with himself, not anything the team did to develop him. Tucker said that he entered the league out of Texas with an immaturity that as the 35th overall pick in 2006 made his time with the Toronto Raptors short. Traveling from Germany, to Israel, to Puerto Rico, Tucker grew into a league MVP in Ukraine and learned that he was no NBA star – but he had the talent to make the league as a gritty defender.

“At some point you have to take in account your actions, what you do and what it takes to be able to grow in this business,” Tucker said after signing with the Suns, “to be able to have people want to bring you in, have people want to always say your name, and having you be around in the topic of conversation.”

Whether it was then-coach Alvin Gentry, Summer League coach Dan Majerle, interim Lindsey Hunter or Blanks, the Suns’ staff could always circle back to Tucker’s name. It was, after all, one of the few positives in a lost year.

Tucker was also arguably the most consistent player on a Phoenix Suns team where even its best players – Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat – displayed varying levels of inconsistency. He promised before the season that was one thing he could bring.

Of all the Suns’ goals set before the year, Tucker’s might’ve had the only ones that panned out.

Signed as a fill-in 12th man, fight and consistency became Tucker’s M.O. in 2012-13. It came quickly, too. Gentry turned to Tucker as a starter on Dec. 12, 2012, to stop eventual scoring champion Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The nod on New Years Eve was representative of Tucker’s resolution as a person to mature into the teammate he is today.

Often, he was the one Suns player that spoke both candidly and with the most genuine tone.

“It sucks,” Tucker said after a 117-86 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 22. “I don’t know how to put that. It sucks. I hate losing. I’m a competitor, I hate losing. I hate being in positions where … I got to do these interviews. It pisses me off. So for me, we got to get ready for Sunday. Brooklyn ain’t going to come in here and say, ‘Aw they ain’t got no bigs, ah, we going to lay down, we going to take it easy on ‘em.’ They’re going to try to knock our heads off.”

Tucker, whose contract is unguaranteed and ends after this season, showed throughout the year that he wasn’t a terribly great offensive weapon, but he wasn’t a black hole either. He didn’t let the ball stick and played within the offense well enough. In the 28 games after the All-Star break, Tucker scored 8.1 points per game and grabbed 5.3 rebounds in just more than 27 minutes a game. During April, he shot 54 overall and from three-point range while averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per night in eight games.

Many of his points came from offensive rebounds or hustle points.

As the year went on, he grew more comfortable taking shots, especially as a corner-three-point shooter. That could help him remain as a piece of the pie should the Suns do work on upgrading the roster this season – or it could help him build value as an upcoming free agent.

Tucker had 17 games of NBA experience with the Raptors in his first NBA stint. After a five-year hiatus across the world, he finished his first full season with 79 games played and 45 starts for Phoenix. Any advanced statistics on the defensive end probably do Tucker less justice than any other player on the Suns roster. He was often given the toughest defensive assignment on a team whose team defense was still learning proper rotations in April, allowing zero room for error.

From point guards, to wings, to stretch 4s, Tucker saw it all. Hunter often leaned upon him to save Dragic’s legs against a league deep in point guard talent. When it wasn’t that, it was likely the task of attempting to frustrate Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Whatever it was, whenever it was, Tucker was fighting.

A Jan. 30 game against the Lakers ended with a 92-86 Suns victory and might be more well-known for as Steve Nash’s return to Phoenix or for one of Michael Beasley’s rare big games. But Tucker’s defense was just as important in the scheme of the individual game, and by the end of it Hunter said that Tucker “has got to be one of the best defenders in the league.” This was early in Bryant’s sudden phase of being a distributor, but the Suns small forward held the future Hall of Famer to 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Bryant also had six turnovers. He went 0-for-5 in the final six minutes, including a contested airball and the most important play of the game.

The Suns led 88-86 and with 23 seconds left, and Bryant blew by Tucker on the left wing. Tucker didn’t give up on the play. He hustled to meet Bryant at the cup and did just enough to shoulder into Bryant, who put up the shot with his left hand.

Bryant missed the layup.

As if to sum up his place with the team and his belonging in the league, Tucker solidified his status as the warrior who will plug away during the good times and the bad.

Counting the number of successful NBA players who entered the league with maturity problems and less-than-ideal talent might take a single hand. But credit to Tucker’s redefined NBA role shouldn’t go to the Suns for noticing him or developing him. All of it should go to Tucker himself, one of the few players to grow from a rookie bitter over playing time to a starter leaning on not being the superstar, but stopping them.

Coaching search continues

Both Adrian Wojnarowski and Paul Coro report that the Suns have begun their head-coaching search with interim coach Lindsey Hunter. He met with GM Ryan McDonough in Chicago as the front office staff attends the draft combine. The rest of the list includes Lakers assistant Steve Clifford, Jazz assistant Jeff Hornacek, CSKA Moscow’s Quin Snyder and Rockets assistants Kelvin Sampson and J.B. Bickerstaff.

Coro reports that the team would very much like the coach in place as draft workouts begin in the next few weeks. That seemingly hurts coaching candidates who are in the middle of playoffs runs. Top assistants in that group include Brian Shaw of Indiana and the Spurs’ Mike Budenholzer, who is from Holbrook, Ariz.

There is the possibility the Suns could also take a look at Warriors assistant Mike Malone following Golden State’s exit from the postseason last night. Malone has developed quite the reputation as a defensive mind under head coach Mark Jackson.

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