Rockets forward P.J. Tucker didn't lack pedigree when he came to Texas in 2003, joining the Longhorns as the 2002 North Carolina Player of the Year. Still, the 6'5" forward was far from the physical force he is today before playing for former Texas head coach Rick Barnes. Tucker was an intriguing prospect when he arrived in Austin. But an uphill climb remained before his first game in burnt orange.
"When we got [Tucker], he was completely out of shape," Barnes told Inside The Rockets. "His very first workout, we put a ball in his hand and said we wanted him to start on the baseline, dribble down to the other basket for a left-hand layup. Then he had to dribble down, make another layup, do that three times in 30 seconds. He couldn’t get close to it. I think he even got sick to be honest with you."
Fast forward just over 16 years. Tucker enters Houston's stretch run as the linchpin of their small-ball experiment, taking over as the Rockets' starting center after they shipped Clint Capela to Atlanta. Tucker will turn 35 on May 5. He's third on the Rockets in minutes per game, and he hasn't missed a contest since April 2017. Tucker is an iron man and an interior enforcer.
So how did an undersized (and out-of-shape) teenager become one of the league's toughest players? Tucker says he had no other choice.
"If you don't work, you don't play" Tucker told Inside The Rockets. "[Barnes] taught me how to play hard. Taught me how to be a teammate. I learned everything. Those years in college were hard, they were tough. I learned my capacity, how far I could go. You may think you’re playing hard but you’re not."
Tucker quickly got in line with Barnes' program during his freshman season, and the results on the 40 Acres were encouraging. The Raleigh, N.C. product averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in 33 appearances, playing a valuable role on a Sweet 16 team.
Tucker's stature grew over the next two seasons. He nearly averaged a double-double as a junior in 2005-06, and he won Big 12 Player of the Year that same season. Tucker carried the torch from former Longhorns guard Royal Ivey, anchoring a Texas defense that was among the toughest in the nation. Tucker was far from the biggest defender in Texas' rotation alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Brad Buckman. But Tucker was certainly the toughest.
"He has a tremendous competitive ego about himself," Barnes said. "P.J. isn't backing down from anybody."
The parallels between Tucker's time in Austin and Houston are clear. The nine-year NBA veteran exits the All-Star break as a secondary scoring option alongside James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but Houston's entire defensive scheme hinges upon Tucker. Surviving even limited minutes without a center can be a tall task. The Rockets are looking to ride their small-ball units to the Finals.
Tucker stands at least a head below most bigs on a given night, but he is far from overmatched. Tucker sports a 7'0" wingspan, and more importantly, he's a brick wall on the block. Post-up Tucker at your peril. He rarely gives an inch with his stout upper body, and the former Longhorn is seldom fooled by an upfake. Tucker's feet are in constant motion. His hands are active. Tucker doesn't shy away from contact; he invites it.
Houston's de-facto center is allowing less than a point per possession as an isolation defender this season, and the number dips to 0.85 points per possession on post-ups. But Tucker is much more than a quality one-on-one defender. He's the de-facto quarterback of the Rockets' defense. Tucker shouts out coverages and sniffs out picks. Stand within an earshot of the floor at the Toyota Center, and you can hear Tucker's deep, gravelly voice dictating the defense. There are certainly more imposing rim protectors across the league. But few affect his team's success quite like Tucker.
Tucker's impact extends far beyond the floor. He's a leading voice in the Rockets' locker room on a pair of fronts. Tucker isn't afraid to challenge a teammate. He demands full effort. But Tucker's criticism is anything but unearned. He's the most prepared Rocket on a given night, and his knowledge of opponents is elite. Tucker makes no sacrifices in the film room. It's a strategy that's fueled an unlikely career.
"He has a top of the line competitive spirit," Rockets assistant coach Elston Turner told Inside The Rockets. "He understands concepts and game planning. He is up on top of the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents, both individually and as a team. He knows personnel."
Tucker has been a critical piece of the Rockets' success over the last three years, and while next season marks the end of his four-year, $32 million deal, it's hard to imagine Houston parting ways with its defensive backbone anytime soon. Tucker is a film hound and a ferocious rebounder. He's a bully near the block and a reliable corner-three shooter. On one of the most unconventional Finals contenders in recent memory, Tucker is perhaps the league's most respected role player.
"Everybody knows what P.J. is about," Rockets guard Austin Rivers told Inside The Rockets. "He takes pride in guarding the bigger, better players. He doesn’t have lapses. Every night, he's the same P.J. as he's always been."