CONYERS – From a high school afterthought to a NCAA Division II basketball star. That’s the unexpected path that a former Rockdale County Bulldog wandered down roughly four years ago.
Darryl Tucker didn’t grace the Bulldogs’ starting five on varsity until his junior year, and for most players in that situation, hopes of playing at the next level are slim. But that wasn’t the case for Tucker.
After junior college stops at Georgia Perimeter College and Central Georgia Tech, Tucker was given a chance to play for the University of West Florida his junior year.
West Florida assistant coach Brian Benator was the man responsible for bringing Tucker to Pensacola, Fla. Tucker wasn’t sold on the idea at first. It took a deep conversation with good friend and a former Tucker High School star before both elected to take the bait and move up the ranks to Division II basketball with the Argonauts.
“(Benator) saw me play at Central,” Tucker said. “We talked and he explained to me what I had to do in order to play for West Florida. One of my good friends, Marvin Jones, sat down with me and we decided. (Benator) was a good person. I thought he was a good coach.”
Tucker hadn’t met Argonauts head coach Jeff Burkhamer until he moved down to the university. And even then, Burkhamer had no clear role for the transfer.
The athletic ability was there, but the basketball IQ and overall knowledge of the game were things that Burkhamer thought would hold Tucker back.
And at first, Burkhamer’s concerns proved to be right.
Through Tucker’s first 11 games with the Argonauts as a junior, he averaged just 7.1 points per game, and had just one double-double.
But from that point on, Tucker averaged 12.5 points per game and recorded five double-doubles in the final 18 games. And all of this was achieved by starting in just three games all season. He finished averaging 10.5 points per game, and led the team in defensive rebounds with 141.
Rebounding was always one of Tucker’s strengths. It was his offense that he wanted to improve once he arrived at West Florida.
“At Central, I had a good flow going,” Tucker said. “I was scoring a little more, and rebounding a little more. I was just a team guy. Going into West Florida, I was trying to be more of a scorer.”
His ability to score the basketball developed this past season in his final year of eligibility.
Despite starting in only one game all season, Tucker led the Argonauts in scoring (15.5) and rebounds (9.3). He also led the team and conference in field goal percentage (63.4 percent), nearly eight percent higher than the next best player on his team.
The Argonauts finished the season with a record of 28-3, propelling them into the NCAA Division II Tournament after winning the first Gulf South Conference title in program history. Their 28 wins is also a record.
Tucker and his Argonauts lost in the NCAA Regional first round to Barry University at Morehouse College in Atlanta on March 10.
Foul trouble led to him to playing a season-low 10 minutes, but his overall success is the main thing that he will remember when he reflects back on his time there.
“I didn’t play well at all,” Tucker said of scoring a season-low five points in his final collegiate game. “I barely played. I was so eager to play and when I’m eager to play, I don’t play well. I try to look back on the season to make me feel better. I was really down on myself. But seeing what we did this year, one game doesn’t define my career.”
And it was a career that he never thought would turn into what it did as a 6-foot-5, 175-pound senior at Rockdale. Tucker finishes his college career averaging more points and rebounds per game than he did in high school.
“At the time, I couldn’t really fathom doing the stuff that I’m doing right now,” Tucker said. “I just kept grinding and working every day. It’s changed a lot. Coming from Rockdale, I wasn’t really that good. My knowledge of the game has increased. I just look at the game different. I used to just look at the athletic ability as being the only part. Now it’s about outworking your opponents. I’ve become a better player.”
Tucker’s two seasons at West Florida helped turn the program around. Their 20 wins in 2016-17 also tied for the second-most wins in school history, and this past season sits atop the record books.
A big reason why he and his team were able to be successful was the bond that he made with his fellow teammates. Jones finished just behind Tucker in points per game this season with 14.6.
“Just this year so far, I’ve met not only teammates, but brothers,” Tucker said. “You just make families along the way on your journey.”
The career isn’t over yet for Tucker, or at least that’s his plan. Now 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, Tucker plans to hire an agent and take his talents overseas to continue his career at the professional level.
“The goal is to try and play overseas and start from the ground up again,” Tucker said. “I’m just trying to get an agent. I’m talking to some people right now.”
Tucker said that he hopes to start his overseas career as early as June before eventually returning to finish out his degree in social work.