PHOENIX — The question made him cringe almost as soon as it was asked.
Minutes after scoring 18 points for a second consecutive contest in the Phoenix Suns’ 106-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors Friday night, small forward P.J. Tucker was forced to talk about of all things: his offense.
“I’m still an all-defensive player,” Tucker said in an attempt to hold on to his league-wide reputation. “My focus is still all on my defense. I work really hard on my offense, but making a statement on defense is still my ultimate goal. Keeping people honest on offense is my only goal.”
The truth is, he’s doing far more than that.
Last season, Tucker’s story was one of the few positive headlines in a 25-57 campaign that couldn’t end soon enough. It was the kind of script that most Hollywood directors would have likely declined: a top-flight college star flames out during his first attempt at life in the NBA, only to return five years later after rediscovering his game in Europe.
But the former Big 12 Player of the Year endeared himself to management, his teammates and the Phoenix community almost immediately after donning the purple and orange for the first time. It was love at first sight, the closest thing in a league full of million-dollar stars to a rags-to-riches tale.
But lost beneath the six-foot-six forward’s tenacity and fearlessness at the defensive end — whether it was going up against LeBron James, Kevin Durant or an opposing team’s third-string point guard — was his inability to provide much of a threat on the other side of the court. His blue collar, no-nonsense approach defending the paint and perimeter was a thing of beauty. His flat jump shot and non-existent mid-range game were not.
To call him an offensive liability might have been a stretch, but Tucker only reached double digits in 26 percent of the games he played in.
In 2013-14, that’s no longer much of an issue.
The third-year pro out of Texas has started all 20 games this season, he’s shooting 46 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range (tied for No. 5 in the league) and 70 percent from the free throw line. Friday night’s performance also marked the fifth time in 2013-14 he’s scored at least 17 points in a game — a feat he only achieved four times a season ago.
Tucker, who won the scoring title in the Ukranian SuperLeague in 2008-09, believes his assertiveness has more to do with the style of offense Phoenix is now running as opposed to anything else.
“It’s our offense and the way its set up now,” Tucker said. “It puts me in a position now where I am knocking down shots. Now with me making them, people are trying to run me off the line and I’m getting open more. I’m just getting more available shots this year. ”
While that’s true to some extent, Friday’s nine-point win was a perfect example of how Tucker has turned his prowess at the defensive end into a weapon at the offensive end.
During the first three minutes of the contest, Tucker batted down a hand-off between Tyler Hansbrough and Rudy Gay and turned it into a breakaway layup, he contested a Gay three-point shot and then finished on the other end for an uncontested layup and then drew two quick fouls on Gay — one of which occurred while trying to curl off a pick for an open jump shot.
Although he finished the night shooting 4-of-12 from the floor, two early buckets combined with a pair of back-to-back corner three-point shots in the third quarter and eight conversions from the charity stripe more or less summed up what Tucker has become to the 2013-14 version of the Phoenix Suns.
He’s more than earned the right to be called versatile, or as ValleyoftheSuns.com’s Ryan Weisert put it, ‘The best Swiss Army Knife in the NBA.’
“Obviously, every team would love to have a defensive stopper,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “That’s P.J. for us. We can put him on anybody. Even at six-foot-six, we feel like we can even put him on a big guy if we need to. We know he’ll box him out. We know he’ll make it tough for him. He’s a great piece to our team.
“Maybe in the past it was all defense, but I think this year he’s done a nice job with his offense. He’s not forcing anything. If he gets the ball in the post, he makes a move. He’s making the corner three-point shots. He’s playing an all-around game now, which is great.”
Whereas in 2012-13, it felt as if at times Phoenix was playing short-handed on offense, Tucker has now found a way to not only make himself serviceable, but a tangible option in both halfcourt sets and fast break situations.
“Last year was my breakout year,” said Tucker, who is averaging 9.7 points per game. “I just wanted to add to my game to be able to help team. My confidence level wasn’t there last season. I still worked at it, but it wasn’t there offensively. Coach Hornacek was really big about that this summer. He pushed me to continue believing in myself. That was big. Now he’s just letting me be free.”
And as Suns guard Goran Dragic noted, Tucker’s offensive presence is a big reason why the team is off to a surprising 11-9 start.
“We always used to say when he got the ball, ‘Shoot it, shoot it P.J.’ He was always alone but didn’t always fire it away,” Dragic said. “This year, he’s really worked on his shot, especially those corner three-point shots. I don’t know what it is. The teams are looking at the film, but sometimes they still help off of him. When that happens, we’re looking to get him the ball. And he’s knocking them down. He’s huge for us defensively, and offensively, he’s huge as well. He’s getting those boards on live balls and hitting key shots or setting them up.”
Setting them up indeed. In addition to his 18 points, Tucker grabbed a season-high 13 boards, including six on the offensive glass.
After the Raptors’ cut a 15-point fourth quarter deficit down to six with under two minutes remaining, the 28-year-old hauled in the game’s most pivotal loose — an offensive rebound that led to a wide-open three-point shot by Eric Bledsoe.
He might get all defensive about being all-defensive, but Tucker should freely embrace his new label as easily as he’s embraced his new role under Hornacek.
For the greatest development in P.J. Tucker’s feel-good story — one that stretches thousands of miles from Austin to Toronto to Israel to the Las Vegas Summer League and back to the NBA — is that he’s longer a one-trick pony.