At the age of 32 and in his sixth season in the NBA, P.J. Tucker was fourth among active NBA players with 418 regular season games played without a playoff appearance until this year, when a midseason trade brought him to a Toronto Raptors team with hopes of contending in the East. For Tucker, his decade-long journey from a second-round draft pick by the Raptors in 2006 to his first postseason appearance has included overseas stints in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico and Germany.
"[Playing overseas] just became my life for a little while," Tucker said. "It was tough being away from family but it was still pretty cool. You get tired, you miss your family, but you're still able to do the thing you love most, and that was play basketball."
In Israel, Tucker was named Most Valuable Player and won a title with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Premier League. In Germany, Tucker led Brose Baskets Bamberg to a championship and won the Finals MVP award. Tucker still has all of the trophies he won overseas in a collection at his house.
While out of the NBA for five years from 2007 to 2012, Tucker needed to grow, as a person and a basketball player. His initial foray into the NBA was humbling. After D-League stints and 17 games with the Raptors in which he averaged 1.8 points in 83 minutes in his rookie season, he was waived in March when Toronto needed a roster spot for Luke Jackson. In a 2012 personal essay, Tucker admitted he was immature and needed to evolve his game to get back into the NBA.
At 6'6", 245 lbs with the ability to guard multiple positions, Tucker often finds himself as an undersized defender against bigger forwards, but admits enjoying the challenge of going up against taller players. Defense was not a priority while Tucker was overseas though, where he was often the best player on the floor. Casey Jacobsen, who was drafted 22nd overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2002, was Tucker's roommate on the road while they played for Brose Basket Bamberg in Germany together. "He was not a defensive stopper, but a do-it-all player," Jacobsen said, comparing Tucker's role on the team to what Draymond Green does for the Golden State Warriors.
Tucker and Jacobsen roomed together for an entire season, and during downtime, they would chat about how their basketball careers brought them overseas. "You gain a bond with somebody who has gone down the same path," Jacobsen said. "We were humbled." The two bonded over their shared love for Ferraris, while Jacobsen got an up close look at Tucker's obsession with sneakers. According to Jacobsen, Tucker -- who owns a pair of Jordans that even Michael Jordan himself doesn't have -- would stay up or wake up at odd hours in order to purchase new sneakers online.
"I would travel with so many sneakers, and when my wife would visit she would bring extra bags with all my shoes," Tucker said, laughing. "I didn't have as many sneakers in my rotation overseas, but it was still a lot. I would have about 20 to 30 pairs in rotation."
A pair of Space Jam Jordan retro sneakers did not make it out of Germany. After a loss to rival Munich, disgusted with his own performance, Tucker tossed his sneakers into the garbage to the astonishment of Jacobsen and fellow teammates, some of whom were in disbelief Tucker would throw out a perfectly fine pair of sneakers. According to Jacobsen, Tucker told his teammates: "Nah, I got thousands more at home. I played so bad in them I don't want to play in them again."
While Jacobsen was nearing the end of his basketball career, Tucker was in his late 20s, hoping to get back into the NBA. Jacobsen saw his teammate's growth up close. "P.J. became a better mid-range and three-point shooter," Jacobsen said. "Once he had a second chance to be a more invested defensive guy, he used his physical skills to defend multiple positions."
Tucker's second chance came in 2012, when he signed a two-year deal with Phoenix after playing for their summer league team. Tucker credits Suns head coach Alvin Gentry with delivering an important message that helped shape his second go-around in the NBA: if you play defense, you can earn minutes, stay on the floor, and stay in this league. By the time the Raptors acquired him at this season's trade deadline, Tucker had become one of the best individual defenders in the league.
Jacobsen calls Tucker a top-10 defensive player, although he admits to be surprised by his former teammate's evolution. "The only reason I say that is because he wasn't as good a defender as he is now when he was in Europe," Jacobsen said. "He was still learning. He didn't rest on his laurels. He continued to evolve as a basketball player. I'm not surprised he made it back to the NBA, but I am surprised he's turned himself into a legitimate defensive terror."
After a red-eye flight from Phoenix, Tucker made his debut with the Raptors in their first game after the All-Star break, and helped lead a fourth quarter comeback win over the Celtics at home with his defensive play, finishing with a team-high 10 rebounds in 29 minutes, and adding nine points and three steals. After the game, Tucker talked about being a vocal leader on the floor. His impact with Toronto was immediate and evident. With Tucker on the court, per NBA.com, the Raptors had a +7.8 net rating and allowed 98.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that topped San Antonio's league-leading defense this season which allowed opponents to score 100.9 points per 100 possessions. "I love his emotion, I love his grit, love his fire," head coach Dwane Casey told reporters shortly after Tucker's arrival. "I love his passion, everything about him. There's nothing about P.J. Tucker that I don't like."
With just a week before the playoffs began, Tucker was excited to be in the postseason for the first time in his NBA career. "It definitely hit me," Tucker said. "I get to show what I can do on the highest stage. I think people know [what I can do] but now, on this stage, it means everything." So far in the playoffs, Tucker has faced the challenge of guarding two of the most imposing players in the league: Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. While the Raptors could not contain Antetokounmpo for long stretches, Tucker was the best individual defender on him during their first round series win over Milwaukee. Toronto had no answers for LeBron in dropping the first two games in Cleveland, but Tucker has not shown any stage fright, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Game 1, as one of the lone bright spots on a night when Toronto lost by 11 points.
For Tucker, who will be a coveted free agent this offseason, his overseas experience has prepared him well for his NBA playoff debut. "I've been in all the situations before," Tucker said. "I've played in major games and big games and championship games. I've had a lot of experience. To me, it's just translating that to the NBA."