Posted Feb 23 2012 10:07AM
He arrived in the NBA without fanfare, slipping in without the David Stern introduction or cap-tugging introduction in New York accorded to the league's first-round draft picks. He got here late, tardy by the standards applied to the game's top prospects supposed to. He didn't fit the demographics, exactly, or check off all the most desirable boxes on the preferred list of skills.
But Jeremy Lin -- wait, no, that's not right. Hit the reset button...
But Nikola Pekovic wasn't paying attention to other people's expectations of what he could be, he was focused on becoming the player that he is. Effective in his strengths, invaluable to his team and one of the happy surprises of this unusual NBA season.
While the rest of the league -- and frankly, even the most casual, barely-know-sports-exist Americans -- has been hit with "Linsanity," the folks in the fly-over region of the Upper Midwest have been enjoying their own brand of "Pek-citement." As the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting center, Pekovic has had, in his own large way, a breakthrough season arguably second only to the New York Knicks' new point guard.
He hasn't generated the hype, he doesn't play in a media capital and he doesn't bring the numbers globally that might get energized by his ethnicity the way Lin has -- Pekovic is from Bijelo Polje in tiny Montenegro. But lately, his individual performances have ranged from solid to stirring and he has his team in a better place for it.
Pekovic scored 17 points with 12 rebounds, playing on a sore right ankle, in the Timberwolves' come-from-behind 100-98 victory over Utah Wednesday at Target Center. It got the Wolves to the All-Star break at 17-17, the first time in eight seasons they've made it so far with a .500 record or better. (When you're Minnesota, you grab for the positive notes where you can. In the past two All-Star breaks, the Wolves were a combined 26-83, or winning at .239 clip.)
Meanwhile, Pekovic has been putting some PEK in PER lately. His team is 8-6 since he took over as a starter for his friend Darko Milicic. The 31st pick in the 2008 NBA draft -- Pekovic has been playing professionally since 2005, staying in Europe the way Lin incubated in Cambridge -- he is averaging 12.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, while shooting 58.3 percent. But he's been way better than that lately.
In a breakdown of the NBA centers in February -- the 30 players at that position most often for their teams -- Pekovic ranks fifth in efficiency, based on the PER stat, at 24.1. The only players doing better are Utah's Al Jefferson (26.5), San Antonio's Tim Duncan (26.5), Orlando's Dwight Howard (25.0) and the Lakers' Andrew Bynum (24.4).
At 17.2 ppg and 10.4 rpg, he's one of nine averaging a double-double this month (Howard tops that group with 20.8 and 15.5). Only Pekovic, of the 30, has grabbed more offensive (71) than defensive (64) rebounds this month. He was tied in offensive rating (103.2) through Wednesday's games with OKC's Kendrick Perkins at No. 16 and, at 101.9, was No. 13 in defensive rating.
Heading into the Jazz game Wednesday, Pekovic led his team plus/minus, his +3.2 per game better than Wolves' media darlings Ricky Rubio (+2.3) and Kevin Love (+2.2). He also topped the team in dunks and "James Bond henchman" references from broadcasters and writers.
"I don't think he's really had a poor game in the last two weeks," coach Rick Adelman said a week ago, though Pekovic has done nothing to make a lair of him since. "He doesn't try to do anything that's really not with his strengths. He stays with his strengths and he's aggressive. You need people like that."
Said Pekovic: "I knew what I can do. Maybe I don't know that I can do it like this so much, but I knew that I can play. ... I was just waiting for my chance."
Freeing up Love from some of the Wolves' dirty work down low, the physical side of Pekovic's game should not be overlooked. And he sticks to what he's good at, where's he best at it -- at or near the rim. He's making tons of in the paint and his team's rebounding rate has risen along with his minutes.
Speaking of that, it's a shame that Pekovic won't be in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge to get a little exposure at All-Star weekend. But if he continues to play the way he's playing, he will deserve strong consideration for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award.
His persona reminds some of Chief, the big guy Randall McMurphy drilled on the outdoor court in "Cuckoo's Nest." But Pekovic has been that coachable, too.
"What a professional and committed player Pek is," said Wolves assistant coach Jack Sikman. "I really enjoy working with him. He receives information and puts it to use as well as any big I have worked with." Sikma, a Hall of Fame-worthy center himself, worked in Houston with Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes.
Said Pekovic of the lessons he got as a 25-year-old NBA rookie: "I was trying to learn many things to try to improve myself in every segment. I know that if you want to play in this league you must learn how to play defense because defense here is very important. I'm just trying to play as much as I can without getting into stupid foul trouble."
In the process, he has become a fan favorite, the star of a goofy "Where in the World is Nikola Pekovic?" timeout video on the Target Center scoreboard and, already, a legitmate contender as one of the franchise's best centers ever. Admittedly, that's a little damning with faint praise considering the all-time roster of big men includes the likes of Brad Lohaus, Mike Brown, Sean Rooks and Andres Guibert, the "Cuban Big Dog" when Jack McCloskey brought him in for a failed and brief run a decade ago.
The Wolves burned consecutive lottery picks in 1990 and '91 on Felton Spencer and Luc Longley. Randy Breuer played for Minnesota, as did Michael Olowokandi, Cherokee Parks, Marc Jackson, Mark Blount and Stojko Vrankovic, who contributed little between cigarette breaks. Oliver Miller and Stanley Roberts had their runs (or jogs) with the Wolves.
Dean Garrett was a relative godsend when he arrived as a 30-year-old rookie in 1996-97 and vet Ervin Johnson was 37-10 as a starter on Minnesota's Western Conference finalist club of 2003-04. But Rasho Nesterovic, who held the job for most of the Wolves' eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997-2004, is the guy other Minnesota bigs have to topple.
The guy they have right now has a chance to put himself first in that modest Pek-ing order.
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