Tucker_PJ_tor_061015

Let’s talk about P.J. Tucker. You may remember him as the second round, 35th overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. He also shares a birthday with me, though he’s a year older. Cinco de Mayo, represent.

One of the rare second rounders Bryan Colangelo opted to use, Tucker was taken a few spots ahead of Canadian Denham Brown, upsetting some people. Daniel Gibson (42nd) and Paul Millsap (47th) are two other notable names selected after him. With those names out there, it was a pretty weak second round beyond Millsap.

When 2006-07 rolled around, Tucker struggled to get run with the Raptors, stuck behind Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic and Kris Humphries for minutes. Ahh, the good old days. Tucker managed to get into 17 games, playing just 83 minutes and scoring 30 points with 23 rebounds.

Throughout the year Tucker also spent some time with Colorado of the D-League, appearing in 19 games and averaging 10.7-3.4-2.1 with a 14.0 PER.

Things weren’t going well for Tucker, and when the Raptors cut bait on him late in the season to make room for, of all people, Luke Jackson, things looked bleak.

After failing to catch on anywhere after Summer League, Tucker made stops in Israel, Ukraine, Israel again, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico and Germany before making his way back to North America. Though he had a contract to play in Russia for the year, the Phoenix Suns scooped him up to be a 15th-man type.

Except that the 6’6” former-power forward has changed his game and carved out a niche. Formally an “undersized big,” he’s altered his game and worked on his defense, making him an asset that the Suns can deploy at shooting guard, small forward or, in smaller sets, at his original power forward position.

I asked Ryan Weisert of Valley of the Suns (The True Hoop Network’s Suns blog) to fill us in on Tucker’s progress, and he had this to say: When the Suns signed P.J. Tucker, he was supposed to be an end-of-the-bench guy who would only play sparingly. But from the moment Suns’ training camp began, Tucker asserted himself as an integral part of the rotation through hard work and tough defense. What stands out most when watching him is how active he is compared to his teammates. His feet and hands are always moving, and his motor is incredibly high. Defensively, he guards the other team’s best perimeter player, filling Grant Hill’s role from the past few seasons. His size and active hands allow him to guard either wing position, while his quickness and tenacity help him stay in front of point guards. He’s also no slouch defending the post. Offensively, his jumper is hit or miss, but he’s increased his rebounding figures every month and he’s great as a finisher and ball handler in transition.

Now, settled in Phoenix with consistent minutes and a defined role, Tucker is thriving. Though he averages just 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds in nearly 23 minutes and his PER sits at just 10.5, Tucker has something he’s never had ay any other stop: security. The Suns have a team option for $0.9M on him for next year, which is a safe bet to be picked up. At 27, Tucker has taken the “Anthony Parker Path” to the show and looks like he’s played well enough to stick around.

You can’t fault the Raptors for “missing out” on a versatile bench defender, really. He took six years to get to this point, and it’s safe to say he would not have developed this way if he was riding the pine in the NBA for the past few years.

His path, like Parker and a handful of others before him, is evidence that perhaps the best way for a player to develop is to go overseas and learn the game with a chance to “be the man,” before coming back and settling into a niche role. It won’t work for everyone, and it takes an awful lot of hard work, dedication and positivity. But it’s there.

Anyway, let’s talk about the game, which will feature P.J. Tucker and his 21-39 Suns hosting the 23-38 Raptors at 9 p.m. on Sportsnet One.

Injuries
Just a note that the Suns currently have Channing Frye out for the year and Jermaine O’Neal is week-to-week. Goran Dragic and the Morris twins are all “probable” for tonight’s game with minor injuries, but just be aware that this could be a very thin Suns team if things break poorly in Phoenix. Then again, with their training staff’s track record, the Morris twins will probably be fine and combine for 250 points.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 106.1 (12th), Phoenix 101.3 (27th)
D-Rating: Phoenix 106.8 (20th), Toronto 108.1 (25th)
Pace: Phoenix 92.6 (10th), Toronto 90.1 (25th)
Strength: Phoenix Limiting 3FGA (4th), Toronto Limiting Fast Break (4th since Gay trade)
Weakness: Phoenix Getting to Line (27th), Toronto Hacking (30th)

Interesting Note: Since the Rudy Gay trade, the narrative has been that the Raptors are playing better in transition. The stats don’t back this up in a significant way, really, but there are minor changes.
Before: 9.0 Fast Break Pts/gm, 16.8 Pts off TO/gm, 92.6 Pace
After: 9.7 Fast Break Pts/gm, 18.1 Pts off TO/gm, 93.0 Pace

Key Match-Up
Michael Beasley and Andrea Bargnani are in a heated battle for several important titles this season: Most hated by their home team; Most hilarious final stat line; Worst player ever; etc.

Beasley: 16.9-6.5-2.8 (per-36min), 10.4 PER, 45.5 TS%, -0.050 WS/48
Bargnani: 16.0-4.5-1.4 (per-36min), 11.3 PER, 48.2 TS%, 0.004 WS/48

With a minimum of 900 minutes played, Beasley has been the worst player in the league in terms of Win Share per-48 minutes (a flawed stat but a decent approximation of “overall value”), while Bargnani is the seventh worst.

Of course, Bargs went bananas on Monday, and maybe that confidence boost will help him out – when he lacks confidence, he loses his best weapon. Because his best tool is his killer pump-fake (even though defenders know it’s coming), if his game lacks confidence, it’s a lot easier to guard him. If he doesn’t believe his pump fake, defenders certainly won’t.

And no, these guys probably won’t guard each other (much, anyway), but it’s a hilarious match-up nonetheless. Beasley is worse than Bargs, woohoo! #Schadenfreude

The Picks
Vegas: Raptors 1-5
Hollinger: Pick ‘em
Blake: Raptors by 9.

Hell yeah, gimme a Raptor win. The Raps have lost five straight and things have been ugly, but they’re actually a better team than Suns. They’re also “due,” if such a thing exists, but I just have a positive feeling about tonight’s game. Beasley shoots his way to the bench, Bargnani looks like a capable player once again, and Kyle Lowry goes HAM. Just a feeling.