To this point, one of the defining moments of the Phoenix Suns’ magical 2013-14 season was a beaten and battered P.J. Tucker throwing his body around at both ends of the court in the team’s 122-115 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last Sunday.
Tucker, who was forced to play the final minutes of the contest with stuffed Kleenex inside his bloodied nose, scored a career-high 22 points, while also making life difficult for Oklahoma City’s three-time scoring champion, Kevin Durant, down the stretch.
It was a night emblematic of Tucker’s two-year tenure in Phoenix.
From failed former second-round pick to D-League castoff to international star to training camp invitee to fan favorite, Tucker’s career arc hasn’t exactly been conventional but it’s led him to his current role with Phoenix.
Simply put, he’s the heart and soul of the organization.
The 6-foot-6 forward has embraced his place as the team’s glue guy, an emotional presence who sets an example with his play at both ends of the court.
There’s great value in that type of asset, something that is surely not lost on his general manager.
“I think P.J. has a ton of value for us on and off the court,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns & Gambo Wednesday. “He’s certainly our emotional leader. He’s one of the toughest guys on our team, if not the toughest guy on our team. He takes on any challenge — in terms of guarding anybody from Steph Curry to power forwards. He’ll go and bang with Blake Griffin or guys that are a lot stronger than he is if he has to.
“So, there’s certainly value in that. He’s certainly expanded his game. He’s become a pretty consistent three-point shooter, especially from the corners. In basketball, there’s a term that when there’s a loose ball, it’s a 50-50 ball. Well, when P.J. is involved there are no 50-50 balls. It’s like a 95-5 ball, because there’s a 95-percent chance he’s going to come up with it.”
The one potential snag in this modern-day rags to riches NBA story is the fact that Tucker’s increased production will come with an increased price tag.
Tucker has averaged career-highs in points (9.6), rebounds (6.6), steals (1.3) and minutes per game (30.9) this season — a major reason why the Suns are in still in contention for the postseason during the final week of the regular season.
But the 28-year-old is also set to become a restricted free agent at season’s end, having only signed a two-year contract with Phoenix back in Aug. 2012.
So the question remains: Will the veteran small forward be returning to the franchise come 2014-15?
“No, not really,” McDonough said when asked if he’s worried by Tucker’s impending free agency. “P.J. really likes it here. I think he feels like the Suns gave him this opportunity to make it back in the NBA. Last year and this year, we’ve expanded his role.
“He is restricted, and we’re in pretty good shape financially going forward. We don’t have a whole lot of big money, long-term commitments financially. He’s certainly a guy we’d like to bring back. He and Eric Bledsoe will be at the top of our list in free agency.”
Additionally, McDonough noted that the team has interest in bringing back Channing Frye, as well, depending on what he does with his player option.
The way the first-year Suns GM sees it, all three could have a hand in making Phoenix an upper-echelon Western Conference team going forward — especially Tucker who reminds him of Tony Allen, who played in Boston from 2004-10 when McDonough worked in the Celtics’ front office.
“He does [remind me of Allen],” said McDonough. “They’re different players. Tony is a little bit better off the dribble, slashing. P.J. is a better spot-up shooter. But [they’re similar with] that intensity, and I think more than anything the focus and the desire to shut down an opposing team’s best player.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how tough that is.”