P.J. Tucker took an extremely scenic route to reach his first NBA Finals. Even his first taste of the postseason took considerable time.
After he returned to the NBA following stops in places like Ukraine, Israel and Italy, it took another five seasons before Tucker would experience playoff basketball. Now at 37 and in his 15th NBA season, Tucker has developed a reputation as a strong playoff performer with nearly 100 games played and a championship ring.
Now, his teammate Jalen McDaniels will embark on his first postseason run. The advice from Tucker is simple.
“Just embrace it. Embrace every round, embrace every moment,” Tucker said after practice Wednesday. “Don’t take any of it for granted, because you can have a streak for a long time without even going to the playoffs and even having a chance to do this. It’s an opportunity, it’s a blessing, and take full advantage.”
McDaniels, acquired from Charlotte in the deal that sent Matisse Thybulle to Portland, is 25 and just completed his fourth NBA season. The closest he’s gotten to the playoffs: playing 26 minutes in the Hornets’ blowout loss to the Hawks in last year’s play-in tournament.
“The play-in is like kill or be killed,” McDaniels said. “So I got a little taste of it, I guess you could say, with what the atmosphere’s like, but not in a real series. This is going to be my first one, so I’m excited.”
Since arriving in Philadelphia, McDaniels has been mostly as advertised.
In that trade the Sixers were looking to acquire a player they thought offered more two-way potential than the defensive-oriented Thybulle. In 24 games with the Sixers, the 6-foot-9 McDaniels appeared to be a much better offensive player than Thybulle without there being a precipitous drop off on the defensive end.
McDaniels shot the ball well, especially to close the regular season, hitting 12 of 30 (40 percent) of his threes as a Sixer. He also makes his free throws (84 percent this season), something that could prove to be significant (trigger warning, Sixers fans) in a playoff series. His activity level and athleticism are refreshing — even if they can lead to occasional foul trouble.
But, as was the case with Thybulle, the playoffs are a different animal. McDaniels has already noticed a difference in the way the team is preparing.
“[Wednesday] was our first real playoffs practice, and it was way different,” McDaniels said. “Locked in. If we mess it up, we’re doing it again and not stopping. … Just making sure we get it perfect on everything. That’s what I noticed. There’s a lot more time, there’s a lot more focus, and everything has to be sharp.”
A big reason for McDaniels’ early success as a Sixer is his ability to play off the team’s superstars, especially James Harden.
The Sixers have had success this season with Harden running bench-heavy units. The added athleticism of McDaniels —along with Paul Reed solidifying the backup center spot and Danuel House, Jr. sneaking back onto the floor — has led to intriguing lineups ... albeit for a brief time with Harden’s Achilles injury. While the units might not be as bench-heavy during the postseason, McDaniels should expect to play with Harden a ton.
And McDaniels, who shoots well from the corners and is an excellent cutter, should continue to benefit from playing alongside The Beard.
“In my career, I haven’t been the go-to guy, so I’ve always been playing off of other players,” McDaniels said. “When I got here, it was a little bit easier because they have so much attention on them. Joel [Embiid is] always getting double teamed. James, same thing. So it’s just me finding those little pockets to be open and make plays for other guys and myself. I feel like I’ve been getting better at that.”
Nobody will confuse the games of the 6-foot-5 tank that is Tucker and the long and sinewy McDaniels, but the parallels are obvious when it comes to buying into roles.
Tucker has flourished by being a star in his role next to stars. The blueprint is there for McDaniels.
“Not really,” McDaniels said when asked if he thought about how his game fits the playoffs. “I just know that my game is translatable wherever I play, just being a versatile player. So I never really think about that. When I get on the court, I’ve just got to be myself.”
Embracing the moment. Taking advantage of the opportunity.
We’ll see how McDaniels fares soon enough.