The marching orders were simple.

"Just work," P.J. Tucker said.

That particular directive was issued by Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry to a player who'd returned to the NBA from Europe just looking for an opportunity to prove his value.

"He said, 'Push everyone to get better,'" Tucker said in regard to the training-camp game-plan provided by Gentry, "and while I'm doing that, I'll get better."

Although he hasn't provided a statistical revelation, Tucker became better enough for Gentry to move the 27-year-old former Texas star into the Suns' starting lineup six games ago.

And while it's true that Tucker's opportunities have been abetted by less-than-hoped-for production from the Suns' other small-forward acquisitions, what he brings to this team is greatly needed.

"He works his butt off," Gentry said of the Big 12 Player of the Year, 2006 vintage. "He plays as hard as he can, he makes the hustle plays, guards whoever we ask him to guard ... that's why he's on this team."

And getting here wasn't exactly a breeze.

"These things don't happen overnight," Tucker said.

No, after being selected by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound swingman followed a circuitous route on his professional hoop odyssey.

"We had so many wing players in Toronto, man, it was tough getting on the floor," Tucker said of a rookie season that included a mere 17 on-court appearances for the Raptors.

With opportunities for career advancement and solid pay available overseas, Tucker -- whose father was stationed at a U.S. Army base in Germany until P.J. was six -- began his foreign hoops career in Israel.