Transfers and roster departures have elevated Dr. Phillips senior forward Justin Tucker from role player to leader in less than a year — a task he’s met head-on, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
DR. PHILLIPS Justin Tucker remembers what it was like as a freshman, playing on a Dr. Phillips varsity basketball team that had scoring phenom RaShawn “Pookie” Powell.
Then there were Tucker’s sophomore and junior years, in which his minutes increased to that of a role-player, while players like Jonathan Laurent and David Stephen guided the ship.
Even going into Tucker’s senior year, this year’s Panthers were not initially going to be the dynamic 6-foot-7 forward’s team — the team supposed to belong to blue-chip prospect Chaundee Brown.
Then, with the transfer of Brown and two other teammates to The First Academy last summer, Tucker became “the guy” for coach Anthony Long’s program in the blink of an eye.
So far, all he has done is average a double-double and lead a team that wasn’t supposed to contend after losing all its starters from a season ago to a 15-3 record.
“(Tucker has) really developed his game to the point where he’s one of the most athletic and versatile players that we’ve ever had at Dr. Phillips — and that’s a huge statement,” Long said. “He can defend any position on the floor, point guard through center. He gives us 15 (points) and 12 (rebounds) about every single night. And that’s not even speaking of how he impacts the game, defensively, with changed-shots.”
More recently, the load on Tucker’s shoulders got even heavier.
“(Tucker) knew when we lost those kids to transfer that this was his team and he’s really fulfilled that role well. We lean on him for leadership on the court and for leadership off the court.”
— Anthony Long, Dr. Phillips basketball coach
When some in-house issues led to senior Jaquarius “Q” Bargnare being dismissed from the program and senior Richard McKenzie left the team, Tucker suddenly became the only senior on the Panthers’ roster.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself once they left,” Tucker said. “There are a lot of freshmen on the team, sophomores, and I have to pretty much guide them since now, I’m the only senior.”
In a fitting sort of way, Tucker has now stepped into the roles players he had looked up to previously held. Where there once was Powell or Laurent, there is now Tucker, and the task of continuing Dr. Phillips’ streak of consecutive 20-win seasons is his next challenge.
“(Tucker) knew when we lost those kids to transfer that this was his team and he’s really fulfilled that role well,” Long said. “We lean on him for leadership on the court and for leadership off the court.”
Tucker’s breakout season has led to recruiting interest from a host of suitors, including Florida Southern, Wofford, Florida Gulf Coast and FAMU, among others. The frequent visits from college coaches after games have made him all too aware that he is playing for a scholarship.
But Tucker also is playing to prove people wrong. The most recent wave of departures surely will have the doubters around the region flaring up again, but Tucker has a lot of faith in underclassmen like Daniel Love, Nick Smith and Jaquan Burton, among others, as they step into more prominent roles.
As he tells it, the “next man up” at Dr. Phillips is usually better than the next man up most other places.
“We’ve just got to keep our head on straight and just prove everybody wrong,” Tucker said.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].