P.J. Tucker came into the NBA more than a decade ago and crashed out almost immediately. He was a 6-foot-6 player stuck between positions—too small to be a forward but too big to be a guard. The league had no place for him. After playing only 83 minutes in the NBA, he disappeared to another continent.
“P.J. was in, out, and to a large degree forgotten about by a lot of people,” said Andre Buck, his agent.
Then something funny happened. The strategic revolution in basketball over the last decade made teams reconsider their old prototypes and resulted in what Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently called the NBA’s three positions: ball-handler, wing and big. There is a premium on players who can be all three. Tucker is now one of those players.
That’s how someone who literally couldn’t play in the league has become one of the league’s most useful players. It’s also why the Houston Rockets signed Tucker to a four-year, $32 million deal this month—the longest and richest contract of his career. In the first year of his new deal, he will make about 43% more than he was paid last year and nearly 1,000% more than five years ago. There may be no one in the NBA whose value has increased so much in such a short amount of time.
Tucker wasn’t the most expensive Rockets signing (James Harden) or the splashiest addition to their roster (Chris Paul) and may not even be their biggest small forward when the season begins (Carmelo Anthony remains a trade possibility).
But the pursuit of Tucker was the most revealing move from the NBA’s most aggressive team. It’s his incredibly unlikely career that best explains the evolution of basketball. He is a role player with a role that’s more important than ever.
“It’s just how the game has changed,” said the 32-year-old Tucker, “and I’ve been lucky enough to play long enough to see it change.”
The only way he could benefit from the game changing, though, was by changing his own game.
Tucker was a second-round draft pick in 2006 and played in just 17 NBA games before he spent the next five years bouncing around leagues in Ukraine, Israel, Greece, Italy and Germany. The odds of him being in the NBA again were as long as his exile. In the decade prior, according to Stats LLC, Anthony Parker was the only player who had done what Tucker was trying to do: begin his career in the NBA, leave for more than five seasons and then return on a prolonged deal.
But he realized something while maturing overseas that eventually brought him back. It’s a lesson that he imparts to younger players who want to be like him. “Figure out your niche,” he says, “and maximize it.”
It was obvious what Tucker’s niche had to be: playing defense and shooting 3-pointers. As it happens, those skills are coveted in today’s NBA.
THE FUTURE OF BASKETBALL
- The Houston Rockets Shoot From Outer Space
- The Golden State Warriors Have Revolutionized Basketball
- The High-School Team That Never Takes a Bad Shot
- The Princeton Coach Who Changed the Game
- The Great 3-Point Experiment
Tucker is able to defend every player on the court, point guard through center, because of his peculiar build. The very thing that had been a disadvantage—that he was an oversized guard but undersized forward—had become his advantage. “He’s a bear that’s as quick as a cat,” Buck said.
It was harder to imagine Tucker as an outside shooter. He didn’t take any threes in his first NBA stint. He attempted a total of four in his three years of college.
But he knew he couldn’t play if he couldn’t shoot. NBA teams didn’t need Tucker to score. They needed him to create space for the rest of the offense. He could help a team simply by standing in the corner and taking selfies with fans as long as he dragged a defender with him. By his last season in Germany, Tucker was hitting 48% of his threes. He was ready to come back to the NBA at the exact moment the league was ready to embrace him.
The best teams in the NBA understood that frontcourt versatility was increasingly valuable. And suddenly Tucker found himself in demand. He was no longer a tweener. He was now positionless.
“He turned himself into this player who’s super useful to all these NBA teams,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
The Phoenix Suns offered him a contract in 2012 for the league minimum with no guarantees he’d make the roster that year. Tucker was there for the next five years. He then re-signed with the Suns in 2014 to his first multi-year, million-dollar deal.