Player Profile: Nikola Pekovic

by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Player Profile: Nikola Pekovic

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

Email / Twitter

Editor’s Note: Throughout the summer, will profile members of the 2012-13 team and take a look at how they performed as well as their preparations for next season. In Part II of this series, we profile Nikola Pekovic and his ever-growing game that has made him an enticing restricted free agent this offseason.

Three seasons ago, Wolves center Nikola Pekovic had trouble breaking through. Limited by fouls, Pekovic averaged just 13.6 minutes per game his rookie year and began last season down the depth chart tasked with tweaking his game and trying to earn his minutes.

Over the past two seasons, he’s done just that.

When Pekovic began getting minutes under coach Rick Adelman and his assistant coaching staff in 2011-12, there was little doubt Pekovic had a spot in this league as a starting center. As Darko Milicic missed time with injury, Pekovic increased his playing time and secured his role with the Wolves. That blossomed further this past season, leading to career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks. The future is bright for Pekovic, whose game is a rare commodity in today’s NBA.

If you ask his coaches, it’s no coincidence he’s continued to improve and grow.

“He’s really comfortable in his own skin, confident in the fact that he can absorb things,” assistant coach Jack Sikma said. “For instance, we’re talking about different things this summer. All you’ve got to do is have a conversation with him, you agree, you buy in, he does it. Make a plan, he’ll do it. Coachability. He’s very coachable.”

Pekovic is about as well liked as you can get inside a locker room. His coaches marvel at his dedication and his willingness to listen, learn and grow. His teammates love his personality—he’s a guy who some deem the funniest, and with good reason. Pekovic is more than able to send groups of teammates and media members into a collective laugh with one-liners and quips.

And coaches and players alike agree that Pekovic is a player that can make an incredible impact on the court, because there aren’t many big men in the league like him anymore. As lovable as he is off the court, Pekovic is a handful in competition. He bruises opponents with his power, he can play with his back to the basket and he sets screens in the pick-and-roll game that opens up avenues for the Wolves’ shifty point guards.

In a league currently dominated by perimeter play, Pekovic is a throwback. There are only a handful of players who have his type of skill set on the offensive end, a guy who averages 3.7 offensive rebounds per game while posting up and controlling the paint.

Pekovic is entering a summer in which he’s a restricted free agent, meaning come July 1 he can talk with other teams about potential offers. The Wolves have the opportunity to match any offer sheets Pekovic signs with another team.

No question, the Wolves hope to hang onto Pekovic. When he and Kevin Love share the court together, they provide the type of offensive rebounding few teams can match. Neither play above the rim when pulling down boards—instead, they have an innate knack for positioning under the glass.

Another thing Pekovic continues to improve upon is running the floor. Watching him move from basket to basket is a testament to the type of work ethic he puts in each game. You’ll find him receiving passes as a trailer when the Wolves are in transition from time to time, benefiting from Ricky Rubio’s court vision on a number of occasions.

And late in games, Pekovic is not a liability on the floor. He knocks down free throws at a 74.4 percent clip, meaning the Wolves don’t need to worry about situations where their big man is vulnerable down the stretch because defenses send him to the line. Pekovic proved throughout the season he not only can make free throws, but he expects to make them. That’s a luxury in this league, as we’ve seen through the years with dynamic All-Star centers having a difficult time from the line.

“Free throws are a big part of his game,” Sikma said. “He’s going to average multiple free throws a game, and if his game expands a little bit more, if he shows some things, his ability to get to the line will increase because you’re putting the defender in a position where he’s not quite sure what you’re going to do and you may be able to get him to commit more.”

Highlight of the Year

Down by two with under a minute to play on Dec. 15 against Dallas, Pekovic rolled hard to the hoop down the middle of the lane and took a sweet pass from Ricky Rubio underneath the basket. Pekovic scored, tying the game with 49.6 seconds to play. It was the final basket of regulation, and the Wolves went on to beat the Mavs 114-106. Pekovic ended up with 21 points and nine boards on 10-of-21 shooting for the game.

Top Performance of the Year

Pekovic had several games in which he was a dominant factor in the paint, but his performance in a 101-93 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 29 was perhaps his best game of the season. Pekovic led the Wolves with 22 points and shot 10-of-16 from the field. On the glass, he pulled down 15 boards and recorded seven offensive rebounds. But on the defensive end, Pekovic was a major factor in helping slow down the Thunders’ front court. Starting center Kendrick Perkins finished with just two points and five boards, while Hasheem Thabeet had three off the bench. OKC got a 36-point effort from Kevin Durant, but their productivity inside was sparse. Pekovic was a game-high plus-10 in the plus/minus department against the eventual No. 1 seed in the West.

Offseason Objectives

Last year, Pekovic returned from Montenegro having dropped around eight pounds and looking incredibly lean. He worked on being able to post up, make to parallel steps with the basket and become effective with baby hooks in the paint. He improved his scoring with his left hand, giving him more options near the basket.

This offseason, there is room to grow with his pivot feet, ball positioning and passing.

Sikma said Pekovic does a good job when he’s working out of the left box and passing out of double teams. When Pekovic steps away from the basket, the coaching staff hopes to see him continue to grow as a facilitator. Right now, Sikma said the majority of the time Pekovic touches the ball it’s followed by a shot. As Pekovic continues to evolves, he hopes we’ll see more of the ability to create from the elbow for others—moving a little bit away from the pick-and-roll-centric offense they’ve played the past two years and adding a little bit of the variety and big-man facilitating he orchestrated in Sacramento.

Adelman said toward the end of the season that adding a little more finesse to Pekovic’s game could help keep him on the floor more frequently. Pekovic missed 20 games this year, and he was sidelined with a series of minor injuries a year ago. Part of it is due to his powerful nature—he’s going to get contact every time up the court. Adelman said if he learns to avoid some of that contact, it could help in keeping him healthy year-round.

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