“You look at someone like P.J. Tucker, great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots,” Embiid said at the time. “It’s about what he does. Whether it’s on the defensive or rebounding the ball. You look at defensively, he plays with so much energy, believes that you can get from point A to point B, and he believes that no one can beat him and he’s tough, like he’s just physical and he’s tough.”
Four months later, Tucker is now one of Embiid’s teammates. And just about everyone in the organization appears thrilled by the early returns.
”The guy’s a warrior,” Sixers forward Georges Niang said Monday at media day. “You saw it. He’s someone that will run through a brick wall and run through the other team to help his team. And I think anytime you can add a piece like that to your team, that’s extremely valuable.
“He’s won a championship. He knows what it takes to get to the top of the mountain. Whenever you can have that experience and toughness added to your team—along with the chemistry he’s had with other guys on this team, playing alongside them—I think that’s a huge boost for us. I’m extremely excited to play alongside him.”
Head coach Doc Rivers also spoke about the wide-ranging impact he expects Tucker to have on the team.
“He’s important to us, not only on the floor but (also) off the floor,” Rivers said Monday. “I think his leadership is definitely needed.”
That didn’t take long to show up. During the Sixers’ first day of training camp on Tuesday, Tucker drew immediate praise.
“P.J. stands out,” Rivers told reporters (h/t Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire). “Especially, defensively. When he’s on the floor, when he’s off the floor, it is night and day. And that’s why we’re challenging guys, because P.J.’s not playing 48 minutes. Not just his defense. Just his talking and his knowledge. He came through the [Pat] Riley system, I came through the Riley system, so for him, defensively, it’s very easy to pick up everything. We need more of that from more people.”
Toughness and defense were buzzwords throughout media day, as the Sixers made clear that they’re angling to build their identity around those two pillars. Tucker wasn’t quite able to quantify the former, though.
“I don’t know if I can give you the exact answer of what it is,” he said when asked how to define toughness. “I think it’s different for everybody. I think people see somebody and they’re making a mean face and they’re yelling, they think they’re tough. That’s not toughness. It’s being accountable, reliable, not backing down every night. Different assignments, it doesn’t matter. Being available — not being hurt; being able to go out there and compete. There’s so many different facets that go into being tough. But for me, the biggest toughness is the mental toughens to be able to play in an NBA season, play all games — most games — and play in the playoffs. That consistency, I think that’s the biggest thing about being tough.”
Leadership is also a vital component of toughness, both on and off the floor. Tucker’s vocal leadership might be just as important as his physical impact for this year’s Sixers.
“It starts more with team defense than individual defense, and that’s where a P.J. Tucker who’s a great talker, that immediately helps your team defense and that’s where everybody—he was so loud at one point, that on both ends, you could hear him down on the other end, but you couldn’t hear the guys on the end I was standing,” Rivers told reporters. “To me, that can’t happen, so that’s where we have to get better.”
It’s fair to wonder how long a 37-year-old enforcer can hold up playing that style. He appeared to be entering the twilight of his career in 2020-21—despite playing a critical role in the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship run—before he had a bounce-back season with the Heat last year.
Team president Daryl Morey, who spent years with Tucker in Houston prior to their arrival in Philadelphia, isn’t worried about that.
“Look, I think anyone who’s counted out P.J. in the past has been wrong,” Morey said at media day. “Throughout my career — I’ve had him before, like we just talked about — and people back then were wondering, can he contribute? And he’s been contributing at a high level for quite a long time.”
Rivers said the Sixers’ medical staff will monitor Tucker this year to ensure he isn’t playing too many minutes and subjecting himself to a higher risk of an overuse injury. That might be a particular worry given the news that he underwent an arthroscopic knee procedure during the offseason. However, neither Rivers nor Morey expressed any concern about it.
“We’re not that concerned by it, obviously,” Rivers said at media day “… He’s a guy that we’re looking forward to having in the fold and we’re going to keep him healthy all year — that’s the goal.”
If the Sixers succeed in that mission, Tucker’s recent track record suggests they’ll be in title contention once the playoffs arrive. Just don’t tell Jimmy Butler.