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P.J. Tucker is like Rockets’ great Mario Elie in more than just jersey number

By Lachard Binkley
Houston Rockets P.J. Tucker (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets P.J. Tucker (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
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P.J. Tucker is living up to the prestige of jersey number 17 previously demonstrated by Houston Rockets defensive great Mario Elie.

P.J. Tucker is one of the most consistent, hardest-working players for the Houston Rockets and has been the defensive backbone of the team for three seasons. Like Tucker, Mario Elie was also one of the most consistent defensive players on the Rockets throughout his tenure of five seasons. Known as Junkyard Dog, Elie along with Vernon Maxwell would often guard the opposing team’s biggest perimeter threats.

Tucker and Elie’s impact can’t be measured by stats alone. Their hustle and determination can frequently be the difference between a two-point loss and a two-point win. Besides their on-the-court similarities, their paths intertwine even more than just the numbers on their jerseys.

Long Roads to the NBA

There are few routes to the NBA and some are easier than others. Being drafted in the first round almost guarantees you at least two years in the league. Tucker and Elie both didn’t have easy routes to the league. Elie was drafted in the seventh round in 1986 by the Milwaukee Bucks and Tucker was drafted in the second round by the Toronto Raptors. Elie did not play at all for the Bucks in his first year, instead starting his professional career in Ireland with Killester, where he won Player of the Year honors. From there, he bounced around to different international teams.

Elie didn’t end up making his NBA debut until 1990 with the Philadephia 76ers on a 10-day contract. From there, he went from the Warriors to the Trail Blazers before being traded to the Rockets right before the 1993-94 season.

P.J. followed a similarly difficult path. After being drafted by the Raptors in 2006, Tucker spent most of his time in the NBDL. Later that season, Tucker was waived and began his own odyssey through international basketball. Tucker played in the Israeli Premier League, Ukrainian Basketball Super League, Italy, and Germany for the Brose Baskets Bamberg. He went on to help Brose Baskets win the 2012 championship, winning the Finals MVP award in the process.

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In 2012, Tucker signed a two-year deal with the Phoenix Suns after turning down an offer in Russia to play in the Summer League. Both Elie and Tucker did not have anything handed to them as they played all around the world before making their marks in the NBA.

Earning NBA Roles with Toughness and Defense

Unsurprisingly, P.J. Tucker has been drawing comparisons to the Junkyard Dog throughout his time in the NBA. In an interview with Johnathan Feigen in April 2018, Tucker spoke about how he looked up to Elie as he made his way to the NBA.

“He was my comparison,” Tucker said. “They used to talk about who you can be like coming into the league. My comparison was Mario Elie.”

Tucker also spoke about how NBA scouts would notice similarities between him and Elie as he was making his way into the league.

“That was great,” Tucker said as the Rockets prepared for a second-round playoff series against the Jazz. “Mario Elie is one of my favorite players of all time. My coach, Rick Barnes, used to show me tape on Mario Elie all the time.

Similar in height, playing style and grit, Elie and Tucker fought their way into the NBA by embracing the term “role player” and becoming great defenders and reliable outside shooters. In Tucker’s case, he came into the league right around the time when being a small-ball power forward was all the rage. Both players embraced making plays that didn’t always show up in the box score but made all the difference in the final score.

After his career ended in 2001 with the Suns, Elie went on to coach for six teams as an assistant coach. In an interview with Josh Robbins of the Orlando, Sentinel Elie spoke about being a coach in the NBA.

“This is what I love to do,” Elie said. “I’ve been part of the NBA as a player and coach for over 20 years. I love everything about basketball. I love watching film. I love working with kids. I love getting in the coaches’ offices arguing, going back-and-forth. Coach Skiles allows you to be a coach. He gives you a voice on the floor, and I really like that about him.”

Elie’s time as a player demonstrated that he can be a leader and also the backbone of any team and that translated to his time on the bench. Tucker still has time left in his career and shares the same on-court traits that would make him a great coach one day. Most people wouldn’t be surprised if one day Tucker is on the sideline leading a team from the bench just like he has on the court.

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It is rare though to have two players of similar stature, similar paths to the NBA, the same team and the same number only a decade apart. Elie and Tucker have made the number 17 represent toughness, resilience, and fighting for what you want to achieve in life, and the Houston Rockets certainly are thankful for that.

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