Column: Sending The Bruise Brothers To The All-Star Game
Don’t act like you haven’t done it. I know at one point or another you’ve thought about what it would be like having to guard Nikola Pekovic in the paint. Take a deep breath—you don’t have to do it. Ever. But if you did, it probably wouldn’t be your best and brightest moment.
Fear not, because you’re not alone. Centers around the league cringe at that thought, too—even the biggest ones. Andrew Bynum said a couple years ago he’s much happier when Pekovic heads to the bench. In a league built around perimeter shooting, speed and ball handling, the big man position has become somewhat of a lost specialty. Guys who can bruise and beat you up inside have given way to small lineups.
But Pekovic is a throwback to a certain degree, and for those who play or scheme against him, it’s no easy task to handle.
“Pekovic looks like the guy from the Superman movie—he’s big, he’s strong and to his credit he’s not just a physical player. He’s skilled,” Kings coach Mike Malone said a week ago. “I think he’s really improved. I think they’ve done a good job with him and his development as a scoring big.”
We’re all familiar with Pek because we’ve watched him transform from a rookie who couldn’t step on the floor without picking up a pair of fouls into the long-term solution for this Timberwolves team at the 5 spot. He still bruises inside, but he does it tactfully and is able to log big minutes without getting into foul trouble. He’s a wizard on the offensive glass, and he’s improving his touch around the basket and expanding his range piece by piece.
For Wolves fans, it’s easy to see why Pekovic should be at the very least considered for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team. For coaches and players around the league, I think it’s fair to say when the West’s reserves are named on Jan. 30 they wouldn’t be shocked if he was on that list. It’s a long shot, I’ll admit, but it’s not because of his play. It’s because the All-Star selection doesn’t separate by position—only by front court and back court—and there are other sexier picks at the small forward and power forward spots to look at.
Kevin Love will be in New Orleans for the 2014 All-Star Game on Feb. 16—he was voted into the starting lineup by the fans this week. Pek at the very least deserves consideration to join him. President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders sent packages to coaches around the league this week trying to emphasize that point. He sent a vinyl album titled “The Bruise Brothers” out, featuring songs created to reflect the strong play by both Pekovic and Love inside over the first half of the season.
If he is voted a reserve by the coaches (which will be announced on Jan. 30), here’s why:
First and foremost, the numbers put him there. He’s second in the league among centers with 18.4 points per game while logging the fifth most minutes. Only DeAndre Jordan (Clippers) and Andre Drummond (in the East) pull down more offensive boards per game than Pekovic’s 4.2, and he’s consistently a free-throw threat late in games when other bigs often fall victim to deficiencies at the line.
Over the past two months, he’s upped his game. He averaged 20.7 points and 9.8 boards in December and is averaging 20.9 points and 9.8 boards in January. His 56.3 percent field goal percentage this month is his best of the season, and the Wolves are certainly giving him more touches around the basket. After a pair of double-doubles at Golden State and Portland, Pek has double-doubles in three of his past four contests and six of 12 this month.
Much of his improvement has to do with his determination and coachability. This Wolves staff has constantly noted Pekovic’s ability to listen and grasp concepts on the fly. Coach Jack Sikma said before the season that whenever you ask Pekovic to do something, he does it. And in watching how he worked with former assistant Bill Bayno the past two years, you can see how he welcomed putting in extra work to get better with contact around the rim.
When you put that with his physicality, you can imagine it’s a recipe for success.
“He’s the strongest player in the league—in my opinion, it’s not even close,” Kevin Love said. “He just gets in there and shoots a very high percentage and rebounds at a high level.”
He’s able to extend possessions with his offensive rebounding, and the Wolves welcome it if teams send him to the line. He’s effective at his position knocking down those shots.
His teammates know he’s put in the work over the past couple years. They’ve seen him in practice and in the weight room and having discussions with coaches about how to get better. They know he’s got the mindset to improve, and they’ve seen firsthand the type of player he’s becoming.
They’re thrilled to have him on their team, and they’d like to see him get rewarded with an All-Star selection.
“He is putting up great numbers, and I think it’s because of his work ethic,” Ricky Rubio said. “The last two summers he’s improved a lot.”
Based on All-Star roster structure, putting more than a couple centers on the West’s squad is unlikely. And there are obviously players who get more attention league-wide. But Pekovic has upped his game and is playing at an All-Star level every night. He absolutely deserves consideration for a spot on the roster, and if he and Love both make it to New Orleans this year I doubt fans will be disappointed with the type of effort and production they could provide together. They’re the Bruise Brothers, after all.
Minnesota knows what he can do. It’s time for the rest of the country to follow suit.