P.J. Tucker Used Underdog Status to His Advantage

Is it better to be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond?

It’s a question author Malcolm Gladwell poses in his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

He cites the case of a college student who was the top of the graduating class in high school and had to choose between an Ivy League university and a mid-level educational institution. The young academic made the same choice all of us would if economics weren’t an issue. Gladwell asks an interesting quandary though, was it the right decision?

On the surface it seems to make about as much a sense as Grampa Joe celebrating when he realized Charlie had a Golden Ticket to meet Willy Wonka. But Based on statistical analysis -- or as we call it in sports, analytics, homeslice -- Gladwell determined the decision may have been detrimental.

The student went from being “big man on campus” in high school to being a borderline average learner freshman year of college based on the decision. It wasn’t because she had devolved into a less intelligent being, it was because the talent level around her had become exponentially better. Instead of thriving in the mid-level educational environment, the student left the subject she loved completely for something easier.

It’s the same story that has played out in the NBA for many players over the years. Said player enters the league after being the alpha dog in college only to find out, years into their career, that they had lost their confidence and spot in the league. The Suns have a player on their roster who took a different route, realizing the benefits of being a big fish in a small pond.

That player is P.J. Tucker.

At college in Texas, Tucker was at the top of his game. He finished his final season as the Big 12 Player of the Year, earned All-Big 12 First Team honors by unanimous vote and was an AP Second Team All America. His first year in the NBA was a different story though.

After being selected 35th overall in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Raptors, Tucker learned the reality of his situation quite quickly. By January he had been sent to the Toronto’s D-League affiliate in Colorado. By March he had been released outright by the team from across the border. He had become a small fish in the very large pond of the Association. It was a reality that hit him harder than Rocky Balboa on a side of beef.

“Me getting cut from Toronto that first year, definitely helped with the ego,” Tucker said. “It was deflating. Some people either quit or some people get hungry. ”

Tucker got hungry. Although, unlike most, the work he put in didn’t include staying around the NBA. Instead of trying to hang around the league, Tucker chose the path less traveled. He packed his bags and headed to Europe. Maybe the transition was easier because he had grown up overseas thanks to his father’s military background. Or maybe he figured out what Gladwell shared in his book faster than many others do, with a little help from his first NBA coach.

“The best thing to ever happen to my career was going over there,” Tucker said. “My coach my rookie year, Sam Mitchell, who did it as a player, said ‘I’m telling you right now, it’ll help you. I know you don’t want to hear it but it’s the truth.’ Lo and behold, it was the truth.”

"Me getting cut from Toronto that first year, definitely helped with the ego. It was deflating. Some people either quit or some people get hungry.."

— P.J. Tucker

Current Suns General Manager Ryan McDounough. who is no stranger to scouring Europe for untapped NBA potential, agrees with that Tucker’s “EuroTrip” was the best thing for his career.

"I don't think there is any substitute for playing time as a young player,” the first year GM told Suns.com. “ It can be a difficult adjustment for a player to go from the NBA to Europe, but PJ made a very nice transition overseas when he was still in his early 20's.”

Why was it so beneficial though?

While immensely talented when compared against all collegiate basketball players, Tucker found himself in the bottom third of players in the NBA upon his arrival. While many in that range do their best to hang on in the league, and even a handful make names for themselves, many rarely see playing time. As a result, they see their confidence impacted by going against players in the upper echelon thus impeding their ability for growth.

Tucker avoided the grind of being at the end of a roster and instead used that valuable time to better himself as an individual and his game. He even managed to find the skills that would make him a valuable piece to an NBA franchise.

“Growing up and maturity,” Tucker said of what he gained most playing in various league’s overseas. “Going over there, playing a lot and getting better in my game was probably the biggest thing. Finding myself as a defensive player, working on my offensive game and really growing every year was the benefit.”

And grow he did. In 2008 he won the Israeli Super League MVP. The following year he led the Ukrainian Basketball Super League in scoring and in 2012 he was named the Israeli Super League MVP.

“He dominated in Europe and proved that he clearly belonged back in the NBA,” McDonough said. “ I think that experience as a team leader and a primary scorer was invaluable for PJ's development.”

The rest is, while currently in progress as Tucker has found a niche in the NBA and is making a nightly impact thanks to his effort and defense.

Where Gladwell’s example failed in choosing a college, Tucker advanced in selecting a career path. It may not be the conventional path or the one most would choose, but sometimes being the big fish in a small pond is better than being the small fish in the big pond. That is, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.

“I got hungry and kept working,” Tucker said of his time overseas. “Here we are.”