McNeill on NBA: Tucker’s long trek to Phoenix

December 4, 2012, 12:52 AM

A few hours before the Phoenix Suns took on the Toronto Raptors on Friday, Michael Beasley was transfixed with the blister that was festering on the toe of P.J. Tucker.

Before Tucker could escape to the trainer’s table to get his blister popped, Beasley joked, “Man, I want to see him pop that thing!”

It has taken six long years, but, unlike his blister, Tucker’s dream of playing in the NBA won’t be popped again soon.

Back in 2006, Tucker was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA Draft with the 35th pick. Tucker’s time in Toronto was nothing more than a blip in the team’s history as he only played 17 games before being waived by Toronto on March 24, 2007.

“Man, it seems like such a long time ago,” Tucker admitted. “So much has changed since I was here last.”

It hasn’t just been the city of Toronto or the faces around the Air Canada Centre that have changed. Tucker came into the NBA as a power forward trapped in a guard’s body. He was comfortable banging under the basket and cleaning the glass, however at only 6’5″, he was at a severe height disadvantage every night.

While Tucker was able to get away with this style of play in college at Texas, it became clear in a hurry that his game would need to evolve if he wanted to stick around in the NBA.

Sure, there were nights when he scored in double-figures like the game against Phoenix on December 19, 2006, where he scored 12 points and corralled nine rebounds, but those kinds of games were few and far between.

For the most part he languished on the Raptors bench his rookie season while averaging 7.1 points and 1.9 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game.

Since leaving the Raptors, Tucker has played in Puerto Rico (Quebradillas), Italy (Fabi Shoes MGR), Greece (Aris), Ukraine (BC Donetsk), Israel (Bnei Hasharon), and most recently in Germany (Brose Baskets).

Tucker averaged 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds in 44 games last season in Germany and was named the MVP of the German League Finals.

“Things were different because I was getting 15-17 shots each game while being the main guy on the team,” Tucker said about playing in Germany. “When I came here (to Phoenix) I needed to play a specific role. For me, it’s about seeing both sides of it. It’s about growing and maturing, on and off the court, seeing how I can affect the game not only with scoring. It’s about grabbing rebounds and doing all of the little things to help my team win.”

Even though Tucker had a successful season in Germany by all accounts — he was named an All-Star, Import Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and First Team Selection, all while winning the 2012 German Bundesliga Cup — it’s clear playing overseas had it’s share of challenges.

“It’s different because you’re not in America but the game of basketball was different, too,” Tucker explained. “It’s a lot harder to get plays run in the paint because there aren’t as many defensive fouls, there are no three seconds and you can knock the ball off the rim. Its a lot different (than the NBA) because the game is slowed down. It’s a lot more compact because the court is smaller and the three-point line is in closer than it is here in the NBA. You also have to get used to the way that they play, too.”

While playing overseas was an adjustment, it was an experience that helped him grow and evolve as a player. Now, instead of just being a gritty rebounder, he’s shown this season he can stick an open jumper and he has become a pesky defender that can guard multiple positions.

“I think this is exactly what we expected from him,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry explained Friday. “We were lucky enough to have him on our Summer League team and this style of play is what he brought to the team in the summer. Toughness. Very good defender. Relentless worker. He gives us a huge energy boost off of the bench.”

While being heralded as a bench player isn’t what most players dream of when they are dominating in high school and college, just having the chance to play in the NBA this season is something Tucker relishes and he doesn’t take it for-granted.

“Oh, man, it makes being back in the NBA a million times sweeter,” admitted Tucker while cracking an ear-to-ear grin. “Coming back here to Toronto has put me back in the mindset of being a rookie. For me to be able to come back here now after all of these years is amazing to me.”

After traveling around the globe playing basketball dreaming of returning to the NBA, having the chance to play in front of friends and family once again is something Tucker appreciates.

No wonder a pesky blister wasn’t able to slow Tucker down from playing 12 minutes off the bench in his return to the city where his NBA career started six long years ago.

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