P.J. Tucker has been a lot of things during his basketball career: a Big 12 Player of the Year, an NBA wash out, an international success story, a spark plug and a defensive bull dog.
In 2013-14, he’ll add another title to his long-winded resume.
Outside of Channing Frye (30) and Marcin Gortat (29), the 28-year-old is considered one of the veteran leaders on a team that might be more green than purple, orange or black.
The concept is somewhat ironic given Tucker’s status exactly a year ago.
After being waived by the Toronto Raptors in 2007, the former second-round pick bounced around the globe gaining experience on courts in Puerto Rico, Greece, Israel and Germany. The former Texas standout came back to the United States in 2012 and played for the Suns’ Summer League team in Las Vegas. He was so impressive that general manager Lance Blanks offered him a two-year deal — one of the only positive signings from his short-lived tenure.
It wasn’t a done deal that he would make the team coming out of training camp or an absolute that he’d crack Alvin Gentry’s rotation, but Tucker became an instant fan favorite after his 10-point effort off the bench on Opening Night almost single-handedly led the Suns to a victory over the Golden State Warriors. Phoenix, of course, lost that night, but the performance proved to be far from an aberration.
Last season, Tucker played in 79 of 82 games, making starts in 45 of those appearances. His stats (6.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.8 steals per game) don’t exactly jump off the page, but they fail to really capture who he is as a basketball player
Look up toughness in any basketball dictionary and there’s likely a picture of Tucker guarding any number of the league’s top players, from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Kevin Durant and even Chris Paul.
He’s fearless personified and a third-year player who just so happens to have the type of instincts head coach Jeff Hornacek desperately needs in a game changer at the defensive end.
On most teams, Tucker would be just a nice piece to throw in off the bench for about 10 to 15 minutes. On a Suns’ squad fully in the midst of a rebuilding project, he is far more than that.
Based on preseason lineup trends, the 6-foot-6 swingman will likely begin the year the same way he finished last year: as a starter.
Six-year pro Gerald Green has shown flashes during Phoenix’s slate of exhibition contests, but the small forward position appears to be Tucker’s to lose at this point heading into the team’s season opener against the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 30.
Tucker won’t give Hornacek and Co. the type of sheer athleticism or playmaking ability that Green can provide, and he’s not as confident in his shot as Marcus Morris — who will also challenge for minutes at small forward this season — is. However, for a team that lacked any semblance of a defensive identity just a season ago, he’s the perfect fit to get the nod.
“I think he really helps set the tone for our guys in terms of intensity defensive-wise,” Hornacek told Arizona Sports 620’s Craig Grialou. “He’s a great defender. He gets after guys. He’s physical. When guys see him out there, especially for the young guys coming in, they all kind of buy into that.”
There are plenty of limitations to Tucker’s skill set, but he is not short on the intangibles. If the Suns were a playoff contender, those intangibles would make for a good bench conductor. But the Suns are not that team. They are youthful. They are a collection of unknown parts. They are in need of guidance from a player who can command respect from every teammate simply by the way he conducts himself on and off the court.
The reigning Dan Majerle Hustle Award winner appears to that description.
This summer, as the Morris Twins were working on their craft, as Archie Goodwin was getting his feet wet, as Dionte Christmas was trying to make a lasting impression, there was Tucker right by their side in Las Vegas for a second consecutive year.
“He was asking about it,” said Hornacek. “He was going to be in Vegas working out anyway. I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be in Vegas working out anyway, why don’t you just play? Get those reps in with our guys and you’ll see what we do. We’ll put a little of our stuff in now. It’ll be a good starting point.’ He was like, ‘Okay, Coach, I’ll do it.’”
From the looks of it, at least, being an elder statesman will suit P.J. Tucker just fine. Consider it another chapter on what’s already been a wild ride of a basketball career.