Column: Pekovic Is A Rare Type Of Big Man In Today's Game

Column: Pekovic Is A Rare Type Of Big Man In Today's Game

When the Wolves signed Nikola Pekovic this month, they accomplished a couple things simultaneously. One, Minnesota secured their biggest offseason question mark heading into the 2013-14 season while effectively putting an end to their major free agent moves. Two, they secured a 6-foot-11, 290-pound bulldozer of a big man to a contract over the course of five years.

Translation: Get ready for offensive rebounds, powerful screens on pick-and-rolls, painful-looking shoulders into the midsection of would-be defenders on the block and a reliable free-throw shooting asset from the 5 spot that isn’t always typical in the NBA—ensuring coach Rick Adelman doesn’t need to worry about that Dwight Howard-like factor late in tight games.

This is a rare commodity in today’s NBA. The big men of the George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal eras have been replaced by the emphasis on perimeter players driving to the rim and connecting from long range.

Today’s NBA favors the shiftiness of Russell Westbrook and the freakish athletic ability of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It is a new era where the big man isn’t always a major part of the schemes—where teams like Miami go small and still make championship runs.

But it is wrong to look at that model of play and think the powerful, dominant bigs are a thing of the past. Not so. When the right pieces are put together and the right style of basketball is executed, centers like Pekovic, Howard, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert can bring devastating power in the paint that few other teams can replicate.

That’s why the Wolves put such a high priority on bringing Pekovic back, and it’s why Pekovic really was a big part of forming the team’s identity moving into the franchise’s 25th season and beyond.

“There are not very many centers that have the ability to score in the low post. Pek does—he’s one of the best, if not the best,” President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said. “And we all know he’s a great rebounder, especially an offensive rebounder….This league has proven that you need to have three star-type players, and when I say that I’m saying there players at their respective positions that could be considered top five in the league. And I believe that Ricky (Rubio), Kevin (Love) and Pek, all three of those guys have the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions.”

You’ve seen his transformation from a little used backup trying to avoid foul trouble into one of the core three players on this roster in the span of two short years. Over his three-year career, Pek has not only gradually upped his games started, minutes, points, field goal makes and attempts, free throws, total rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, but he’s done it in convincing fashion. He’s become a clear-cut glue guy on this roster. His teammates love him both for his productivity on the court and his personality in the locker room. His coaches love him because once they tell him to do something, it’s a lock that he’ll not only convert his on-court behavior but will master it almost instantly.

He’s shot 56.4 and 52.0 percent from the field, respectively, over the last two years. Last year, he finished scoring 16.3 points and adding 8.8 boards per game.

He separated himself from other bigs on the roster in 2011-12 with his hard work both in the half court and running the floor with rookie guard Ricky Rubio. Over the past two seasons, he’s been a constant motor up front for the team. He’s learned to play physical but avoid racking up quick fouls, and in expanding his minutes he’s blossomed into the type of player that can score, open up lanes for teammates and control the paint. That led to what Wolves brass thought could have sparked an invite to play in the 2012 BBVA Rising Stars Challenge over All-Star Weekend in Orlando.

And when he’s put in the front court with Kevin Love, he creates the type of formula that makes other teams adjust and take notice. Hibbert once said Love and Pekovic are a “dynamic duo,” and with good reason. On the boards, you can pencil the two in for a combined 20-plus per night—and while Love is a gifted, innate rebounder on both ends of the floor, Pekovic has the unique quality of being an offensive rebounding machine. He averaged 3.9 per game in 2011-12 and 3.7 per night on the offensive end in 2012-13.

Offensively, the two are a perfect blend. While Love can play on the block, he also is the rare power forward who can step out and connect from 3-point range with ease. Pekovic can score around the basket with his physical play, and he can create room for his perimeter teammates through his footwork and commitment to the team’s schemes.

Together, Minnesota has a 1-2 punch in its front court that could produce near double-double numbers every night. And with the Wolves’ other offseason moves focused on perimeter production—adding Kevin Martin and re-signing Chase Budinger—Saunders said stretching the floor will only help Pekovic and Love when they are operating in the paint.

“The way our team is built and the way Coach Adelman likes to play, we feel Pek’s in a great situation,” Saunders said. “He’s got to be one of the top two or three producing centers in the league.”

They key to Pekovic’s long-term success will not be on the offensive end—he’s proven that’s his biggest strength—it’s his defense and his health. At 6-foot-11, Pekovic isn’t a traditional rim protector. And he only played 62 games last year, which is a career-high.

On the defensive end, Saunders said Pekovic’s strength is his physicality below the rim. The shot-blocking will, hopefully, come from backups Ronny Turiaf, Gorgui Dieng and Chris Johnson. And when it comes to his health, Pekovic said sometimes his style of play creates issues in that area. It’s something Adelman addressed on the last night of the regular season, saying Pekovic might need to adjust part of his game to avoid some of that wear and tear.

“Sometimes injuries are part of what I’m doing…sometimes danger will happen. It’s kind of part of my job,” Pekovic said. “That’s what I’m trying to work on, me and the medical staff, that the injuries are small. That I only miss a game or two.”

If Pekovic, Love and the rest of the crew limit those injuries—and after last season’s onslaught, one would think the law of averages plays in the 2013-14 Wolves’ favor—Minnesota certainly has put itself in position to be a successful team in the coming years. Pekovic will be a big part of that. He’s always had the mindset and the determination to be successful, and now he has the contract to prove it.

He, and the Wolves, are looking to take the next step. And each one depends on the other to make that next step successful in the years to come.

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