HOUSTON — P.J. Tucker will play in his 618th career NBA game when the Houston Rockets host the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series on Monday night. But he will play it as if it were his last.
Twelve years ago, he thought he’d already played in his last game in the NBA when he was waived as a rookie in Toronto.
“Right now, while I’m in the playoffs, I don’t try to look back at it,” Tucker told The Undefeated. “I remember it. It keeps me ticking. It keeps me going. It keeps me strong. But it makes me super humble to be here with every game, every moment. People ask me why I play so hard. I say, ‘I’m happy to be here.’ For real.”
The former University of Texas star was the 35th overall pick in the second round of the 2006 NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors. But the 2006 Big 12 Conference Player of the Year averaged only 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in 4.9 minutes per game during the 2006-07 season. He also had four stints that season playing in the NBA Development League with the now-defunct Colorado 14ers. And on March 24, 2007, Tucker was stunned when he was waived by the Raptors to open up a roster spot.
Tucker said he did “everything wrong” his rookie year and admitted his ego caused him to believe he was destined for NBA stardom instantly.
“That was one of the worst years of my life,” Tucker said. “You come from the college, you’re the man. I was second-team All-American. I got drafted by Toronto, but they just took me because I was the best man on the board. They didn’t need me. I didn’t get a whole lot of help or guidance. …
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“I wasn’t playing. I couldn’t get reps in practice. And it’s big-boy basketball. Grown men. You had guys feeding their families. I’m thinking I’m all-world, and that is how every college guy thinks that coming in. You feel like you’re better than anybody. But I didn’t know what it meant to be a pro.”
Tucker played for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ summer league team in 2007, but no NBA contract offers followed. So the Raleigh, North Carolina, native went on an international odyssey over the next five years. From 2007-12, Tucker played in Israel, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Puerto Rico, Germany and Russia. He said he “learned how to play professional basketball” while overseas.
In 2012, he led Brose Baskets Bamberg to a Basketball Bundesliga championship in Germany after averaging 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds and earned Finals MVP honors.
“It was tough being away from home,” Tucker said. “You have to learn how to play over there. Over there, it ain’t dropping 30 every night and being the man. Most of the guys who think like that don’t last over there. They care about winning over there. If you’re a winner, you can play forever over there.”
By the summer of 2012, Tucker was making a comfortable living for himself overseas and signed a two-year contract paying at least $2 million with BC Spartak St. Petersburg of Russia. While his agent Andre Buck put an NBA out clause in the deal, Tucker was content being a star overseas.
“I was done, man. I was done fighting, trying to prove myself,” Tucker said. “I made my way overseas. I got successful. I signed a two-year deal in Russia for all the money. I made my name over there. I was comfortable with it. … I got tired all of the stories about, ‘He is a tweener. He doesn’t have a position.’ I knew I could play. I played hard. I played both ends of the court. I know what I could do.
“Coming back? I’d rather be the man in Europe and win that respect. I’d rather be here than be the last man on the bench in the NBA and never have a chance. That was a decision I had made.”
While Tucker fully expected to play in Russia in the fall of 2012, he accepted an offer from the Phoenix Suns to play for their summer league team.
Although Tucker didn’t average eye-popping numbers (5.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game), then-Suns summer league coach and former Suns star Dan Majerle loved him. Majerle called Tucker “a man after my own heart” for how hard he played and for taking all the tough defensive assignments. He told Tucker he believed he could have a place in the NBA as a primary defender.
“Dan told me, ‘I want you to get the best player on every team and shut them down,’ ” Tucker said. “I was like his prodigy. Dan Majerle was already one of my favorite players. But now Dan is like a big brother to me. Dan used to sic me on people.
“I knew that defense was my way, but that is where I learned to enjoy it and saw how much of an effect it could have on games. You can really change games that way.”
Then-Suns general manager Lance Blanks offered Tucker a non-guaranteed training camp invite during summer league play. Tucker and Blanks were actually friends with University of Texas ties. Still, the best-case scenario if Tucker made the Suns was a $762,195 minimum salary — a pay cut of more than $1 million from what he would have earned in Russia.
But Tucker said his wife, Tracy, and his agent told him he should give the league one more try. Buck said Tucker reluctantly exercised his out clause in Russia and signed with the Suns on Aug. 1, 2013.
“My wife just had my son. She said just give it one more shot. I was like, ‘I am going to turn this money down?’ It was for way less money,” Tucker said. “My [NBA] minimum was so low. I was going to get paid a couple million [in Russia]. I gambled on myself, but I didn’t want to. Trust me. …
“If it wasn’t for my wife and my agent, I wouldn’t have come back. It’s crazy.”
Said Buck: “We took a chance. We bet on him. A foundation of success and high performance had been set.”
Tucker’s gamble paid off, as he made the Suns’ roster for the 2012-13 season. He said he thinks about his gamble “all the time” and remembers guarding then-Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant during his first start on Dec. 31, 2012.
“By New Year’s Eve, I was starting,” Tucker said. “I went from 15th man and non-guarantee contracts to starting. My first start was against KD and OKC. … I was like, ‘I’m about to have my first NBA start.’ I was just in Germany, and nobody was thinking about me starting in an NBA game. That was crazy for me.”
Seven years later, Tucker is still in the NBA and guarding Durant.
In the Rockets’ second-round matchup against the Warriors, it hasn’t been easy. Durant is averaging 36.6 points per game in three contests against the Rockets. But Tucker is making Durant work.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said his team won Game 3 because of Tucker, who had 7 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. If the Rockets are to upset the champs, Tucker’s defense and overall play against his fellow former Longhorn will likely have played a key role.
Tucker is relishing the daunting challenge.
“I got the utmost respect for Kevin,” Tucker said. “I take pride in it. This is something I want to do. I can’t wait to guard Kevin Durant. Nobody wants to guard Kevin Durant. I respect [Los Angeles Clippers guard] Pat [Beverley] for stepping up and saying, ‘I got him’ [in the first round]. Nobody wants to do that.
“Everybody dreams about scoring 30, getting the game-winner. No, no, no, not me. I love my role. I love what I do. … It sounds crazy, but this is my dream. I’m living my dream right now guarding Kevin Durant in the NBA playoffs.”
Tucker went from one-and-done in the NBA to an eight-year veteran who has made $26 million in the league. The 34-year-old says it is important for him to share his story with young players, especially when they get frustrated or their egos get in the way. One player Tucker has been mentoring is seldom-used forward Gary Clark, who was kept on the roster this season over 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony.
“The guys that are trying to make it and the G League guys coming up, I try to help them as much as possible,” Tucker said. “That is like a part of my job too. I really take pride in being a good vet and helping guys see the way. …
“I try to help guys who are on the brink of getting out. I tell them, ‘You’re going to remember this when you’re on that bus in Europe, that you have older guys trying to help you see through this, and you wouldn’t see that. You are going to come back and tell me, “I wish I would’ve handled it different.” ’ I’m trying to tell them about the sacrifice now because I did that.”
Tucker said he sees the NBA through a different lens now and truly appreciates every single game he plays.
“I’m still persevering through to make it so guys that are like me can have that lane to say, ‘I can do it,’ ” said Tucker, who played in all 82 games in each of the past two NBA regular seasons.
“To be out of the NBA for that long to now having played as much as I’ve played and have an impact that I am having on a team like this, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it.”