From Tom Ziller's Good Morning It's Basketball Newsletter on Substack:
This NBA free agency has, like many others, been focused on unrest. In particular, Kevin Durant’s trade request in Brooklyn, the Utah Jazz’s implosion and Russell Westbrook’s uncertain future are dominating attention. We should, though, take a step back and acknowledge the stories behind some of the free agency contract worth celebrating.
Back on June 30, two deals of note were quickly announced. JaVale McGee signed a $20 million contract at age 37, a monumental achievement for a player whose early years were mostly an NBA on TNT punchline. The second contract was a 3-year, $33 million deal for P.J. Tucker, who has never been a laugh but whose journey to this point is even more amazing.
Seriously, let’s look at P.J. Tucker’s path to this point, signing a $33 million contract at age 37.
He played college ball with LaMarcus Aldridge and Boobie Gibson. In the Big 12 he played against guys like Tony Allen, Wayne Simien, Joey Graham, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers. Tucker left Texas the year as a junior before Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin arrived. He was THREE recruiting classes before Durant and Augustin.
Second-round pick in the NBA. One of four rookies on the Raptors with Andrea Bargnani and two international players, Jorge Garbajosa and Uros Slokar. Tucker finished third in Raptors rookies in total minutes, just edging Slokar with … 83 minutes on the season.
The Raptors cut Tucker toward the end of his rookie year to sign Luke Jackson. Luke Jackson. Jackson played 10 games for the Raps, and then a couple hundred minutes with the Heat the following year, and then left the NBA, never to return.
Tucker, meanwhile, ended up on the Cavaliers’ 2007 Summer League team, also featuring Shannon Brown, Tucker’s college teammate Boobie Gibson, Kevin Pittsnogle and Friend-of-LeBron Romeo Travis. Tucker was seventh in minutes per game on that team. The effort did not result in an NBA contract. So he decided to go to Europe.
Tucker had huge success across the ocean: he won MVP of the Israeli league in 2007-08, was an All-Star and scoring champ (scoring champ! P.J. Tucker!) in Ukraine and won Finals MVP for a German club. He played in Greece and Italy, too.
And he clearly worked really hard to build out his game. He came back to Summer League in 2012 for the Suns. Tucker was 27 years old at this point, with all of 83 career NBA minutes. It had been nine years since he arrived at the University of Texas, six years since he’d been drafted by the Raps. And here he was, fighting to make an NBA roster again, back in Summer League, starring alongside a 22-year-old Markieff Morris and a 20-year-old Kendall Marshall.
His effort in Summer League didn’t wow anyone outside of Phoenix, but the Suns did offer up a minimum contract. Once the regular season hit, Tucker got opportunities on a bad team under Alvin Gentry and his midseason replacement Lindsay Hunter, and Tucker made the most of them. He became an important piece for a weird Suns era, earned a modest-for-the-NBA but life-changing 3-year, $16 million contract in 2014. He made it.
And then he made it some more.
In the post-Bledsoe Phoenix teardown — Tucker got traded back to Toronto a decade after his last Raptors appearance. At this point, he was 31 and about to be an unrestricted NBA free agent for the first time since 2012 Summer League.
You know the rest: he signed with the Rockets and became a key part of a team that could (would?) have won a title if not for those pesky juggernaut Golden State Warriors (starring Tucker’s Texas successor Durant), then Tucker got traded (for Augustin!, among other things) and helped Giannis Antetokounmpo win a championship in Milwaukee (beating the Suns in the Finals, poetry), had to decamp for Miami to get a 1-year contract worthy of his contributions and now gets his last big multi-year deal in Philadelphia.
Talent and potential capture our attention most of the time. There’s something inherently cool about a young athlete who can do amazing things. But there’s so much beauty, too, in the mundane reality of hard work and maximal effort that players like P.J. Tucker exhibit. Maybe it’s corny, but the grind and grit that Tucker has shown over his 15-year career as a pro basketball player is as inspired as anything we see in Summer League from lottery picks. And it’s a story that anyone can take something from.
This isn’t to shortchange Tucker’s physical gifts or the incredible effort that superstar players put in to remain at the top of the elite sliver of the best basketball players in the world. But Tucker’s path feels like a particularly inspiring tale, and it’s worth acknowledging how seemingly unlikely and truly amazing it is.
Cheers to Tucker and all the people out there grinding in their walks of life, working for something better and more secure.