A Pektacular Season
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Ask anyone from last year’s team who the nicest player in the 2011-12 Timberwolves locker room was, and the answer more often than not is Nikola Pekovic. His sense of humor mixed with his laid back demeanor made him a favorite among Wolves players and fans alike last winter.
“If you spend five minutes with him, you’ll find out that he’s just a special guy,” Anthony Tolliver said. “A really, really good guy, just down to earth.”
But on the court it’s a much different story. The 6-foot-11, 290-pound Pekovic became known league-wide for being one of the most physical, bruising players in the paint a year ago. As he heads into his third season in the NBA, and his first as a projected starting center, the Timberwolves feel fortunate they have a player like Pekovic who can anchor their team in the middle while bringing such a genuine personality to the locker room on a day to day basis.
Pekovic played only 13.6 minutes per game during his rookie season and battled himself more than anything trying to tailor his game from his native Montenegro to the NBA’s style of play. I took some time, but in his second year while working with coach Rick Adelman’s staff, including former NBA big man Jack Sikma, Pekovic became more and more acquainted with how to position himself offensively and defensively while picking up less and less fouls.
Suddenly his fouls decreased and his minutes skyrocketed. He took over as starting center for Darko Milicic midway through the season and never relinquished that role except during battles with injuries. In February, Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while connecting on 56.4 percent of his shots. In March, he upped that total to 17.4 points per game while snagging 8.5 boards and shooting 53.6 percent.
Starting the year as a relatively unknown reserve, Pekovic suddenly became a player opposing teams needed to slow down. Teammates said Pekovic is near the top of the scouting report as someone opponents game plan against.
Pekovic said he spent much of last offseason playing in Serbia getting himself in shape during the lockout, and when he returned this season he had more opportunities to show what he can do.
“All the time I just try to improve myself, rebounding, scoring, helping my team in defense,” Pekovic said. “Especially in defense, not picking up fouls.”
His teammates said Pekovic is vital on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, guard JJ Barea said Pekovic was a big part of the team’s improved ball screening on the perimeter while also being a good catch and finisher around the basket. He draws attention from defenders and opens up lanes to the basket for others.
And on the offensive glass, Pekovic is a rarity. Of his 346 total rebounds last season, 181 of them were on the offensive end. By comparison iconic rebounders like Dwight Howard and Dennis Rodman never had a season in which their offensive rebounds eclipsed their defensive board totals.
“When he was playing, starting playing amazing doing 20-10 every game, we felt that Pek was the guy who they wanted to stop,” guard Ricky Rubio said. “That helped a lot of players to step up to have more confidence in us, and in the paint he was like a beast.”
On the defensive end, Pekovic brings a tireless approach. He goes head to head with some of the biggest bodies in the NBA and often wears them down. Lakers center Andrew Bynum commented after a game at Target Center this season he was thankful when Pekovic left the game. Pacers center Roy Hibbert said he knows how to use his body to position himself and make it difficult for opposing players to do their jobs in the paint.
The funny thing is none of the Wolves seemed surprised by Pekovic’s production, even though he hadn’t put up dominant numbers in his first NBA season. They see his preparation on a daily basis, how he hits the weight room and how he soaks up lessons he’s learning from the coaching staff about how to improve his game.
It was all about adjusting.
“Coming over from Europe, playing there his whole life and then coming here, it’s a completely different game,” Tolliver said. “I struggled too when I played in Europe earlier in my career, because it’s just so different. For him to come in this year and do as well as he’s done and really nobody even knowing his name, people saying, ‘Who is this guy giving us 25 points and 15 rebounds?’ It’s like, he’s somebody you should get to know, because he’s going to be around here for a long time.”