It's Tucker time

The Toronto Raptors are hoping that 2006 draft pick P.J. Tucker develops a good outside game and...

The Toronto Raptors are hoping that 2006 draft pick P.J. Tucker develops a good outside game and pushes second-year forward Joey Graham to become a better player. (File Photo)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

LAS VEGAS -- As he wandered off the court at suburban Spring Valley High School, an institution that has better sports facilities than some Canadian universities, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell was asked what he was doing to his players.

The Raptors free agent and rookie camp, you see, is beginning to look like a MASH unit.

First, third-year forward Pape Sow goes down with an injured neck on Tuesday. Yesterday, rookie forward James Maye shows up with crutches, the result of a sprained ankle.

And when each workout session ends, other guys wander over to the trainers to have sore limbs and knees looked after.

It turns out that Mitchell is pushing this collection of young prospects and wannabes hard. As one coach explains, this is the NBA Summer League, not summer camp.

After three days of two-a-day workouts, the Raptors play their first Summer League game tonight against the Washington Wizards and Mitchell wants his players ready, especially first overall pick Andrea Bargnani.

The organization is anxious to see what the 7-foot rookie will look like against NBA-calibre competition. What they have seen so far has been positive. Apparently, there's no sense of entitlement with the kid. He has shown up every day and worked his tail off and he apparently does have a marvelous outside game.

"I love the guy," said assistant coach Jim Todd, when asked what he thought so far of Bargnani. "He can play. Believe me."

But the excitement felt around Spring Valley High (home of the Grizzlies, although Grizzlies aren't really known as desert animals) towards the rookies isn't limited to just Bargnani.

The Raptors drafted Texas forward P.J. Tucker with their 35th overall pick, and Tucker also is here, working hard. Unlike his draft mate Bargnani, however, Tucker does not have a guaranteed contract and will have to play his way on to the team.

Media types don't actually get to watch NBA practices or workouts (we feel fortunate that they let us watch games). Therefore, we have to rely on the coaches for updates on the progression of players. Given that, Mitchell was asked what he thinks, so far, of Tucker, an undersized forward (6-foot-5) who was one of the top rebounders in the Big 12 last season and one of the most physical, intense players in the NCAA.

"He's a man. He has a man's body," the coach said.

When asked to elaborate, Mitchell replied: "Well, I'm going to tell him that you called him a bad name, so you can find out how manly he is."

At first glance, Tucker has an intimidating presence. With a scowl etched on his face and tattoos up and down his stove-pipe arms, the Raleigh, N.C., native looks more like a college wrestler than basketball player. But his numbers at Texas speak volumes. He averaged 13.7 points and 8.2 rebounds in 87 career games. More than numbers, it's his defence and intensity which projected him to be a late first-round pick in this year's draft. That the Raptors snatched him with the 35th pick was considered a steal by some basketball insiders.

"That's how I feel about it," Tucker said yesterday, following a morning workout. "But it's cool. I'm just happy to be here."

Tucker spent three seasons at Texas and almost left school at the end of his sophomore season when he was ruled academically ineligible after skipping some classes -- a pattern of behavior that got him into some trouble in high school as well.

But thanks to some university officials who believed in his promise, as a person as much as an athlete, and the guidance of his mother Aleshia, who told him straight out that he wasn't ready for the NBA, Tucker returned for his junior year and put together a fine 20005-06 season, being named a Second Team All American and the Big 12 Player of the Year. He also led Texas in scoring (16.1), rebounding (9.5) and steals (66).

Though he is undersized, the sky seems to be the limit for the intimidating, but it turns out, very personable forward.

The Raptors are hoping that Tucker develops a good outside game and pushes second-year forward Joey Graham to become a better player.

If he can do that, the 35th pick will be a steal.


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