EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker excited to have old Suns practice battles in Finals
Jul 5, 2021, 4:53 PM | Updated: 5:48 pm
(AP Photo/Matt York)
PHOENIX — Back in 2015, not as many people had their eyes on Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker as they do now. With his team now in the NBA Finals six years later, that makes sense.
But those watching closely back then through a grind of losing in Phoenix until the team’s rise saw a young player with tons of promise. He was beyond just a, “Hey, I like that Booker kid.” There was potential stardom on the horizon.
His former teammate P.J. Tucker was one of the first, and now as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Tucker gets to see what he foresaw coming to fruition on the league’s biggest stage.
“Everything he’s doing now, we knew,” he said Monday. “We just knew, and when you’ve been around and played against a bunch of guys, in this fraternity, we all know each other. We all played against each other. We all knew that he was going to be really good. Like, he wasn’t just good, he was really good.”
Tucker had found his footing in the league by the time Booker was drafted in 2015. Booker’s first year with the Suns would be Tucker’s fourth, and by then, the older of the two had cemented himself as one of the toughest guys in the league.
That made Tucker a fan favorite. He’s the only player to win the franchise’s Dan Majerle Hustle Award more than twice, and he got it four straight years from 2013-16.
Tucker has a special connection with Phoenix, the city he called his “second home.”
It’s also the team that gave him another chance in the NBA. Tucker spent five years overseas after only one season in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors, the team that drafted him in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft.
“Phoenix is honestly everything to me,” he said. “Like, I literally turned down my contract I had to go back to Russia, which was the biggest contract I was ever going to sign, and it was a really big decision for me to do that. I wasn’t happy about it at first, but my wife and agent talked me into it, and it ended up being the best decision I ever made in my life and it changed my life. So I’m super grateful and indebted to Phoenix and the staff and the people that were here.”
With that in mind, though, it was understandable for the 36-year-old to honestly say his first crack at a championship is the only thing on his mind, not so much what the Suns and Booker have accomplished the last two years.
But even with the competitor he is, can part of Tucker be happy for the Suns’ rise and the position they are now in?
“People I know and love here, like of course. But no,” he said while noting how it’s pretty awkward in a way. “I’m sorry, no. No.”
Tucker jokingly said after another question that this was turning into something where he’s rooting against Phoenix, but you have to understand what this type of opportunity means to a heart-and-soul, tough-as-nails player like Tucker.
Which takes us to him and Booker going at it as teammates.
With Tucker a consummate starter by Booker’s first season and a young Booker working his way into the rotation, that led to a whole lot of matchups between the two in practice over that season-and-a-half before Tucker was traded to the Raptors in February of 2017.
Tucker knew what his role was in those battles.
“Being his teammate at that time and being the vet on the team, it was my job to make him better,” he said. “I knew what I had to do for what he was going to see and what was coming and what he needed to be ready for. So I would literally just — (laughing), it was like that. It was really like that.”
What Tucker is alluding to is was what Booker back in November of 2017 described as “a lot of fights, a lot of pushing, a lot of arguing,” but all out of love to make each other better.
Through that, Tucker had just about the best view of anyone for what Booker would become now, a two-time All-Star who has plenty left to achieve at 24 years old.
“He showed that he was one of the ones. He just took it, and he just elevated,” Tucker said. “He became who he is and who he’s continuing to be. He’s — yeah.”
Tucker with a smile back in 2017 said he was “taking liberties” with Booker.
“I would play mind games with him. He’s a kid, so I would just mess with him a lot and he would get frustrated,” Tucker said. “He knew he couldn’t beat me up but he would just get frustrated and push (me) and whatever. He had heart, and now you see that; you know he can be a player.”
With Booker much more seasoned over the four-plus years since the two were teammates, there’s undoubtedly got to be a part of him ready to get the best of Tucker after that type of dynamic.
“So excited. So excited,” Booker said Monday of being defended by Tucker in the series. “We have obviously had those matchups before in practice that have gotten heated at the highest level, but he’s a competitor, and I have a lot of respect for that man, so we’re going to be out there battling for sure.”