We could probably argue all day about whether or not Darko Milicic and the shaping of the frontcourt is the correct thing to do for this franchise.
It’s the least confident I’ve felt in any frontcourt the Wolves have ever had since Kevin McHale informed David Stern who the fifth pick of the 1995 NBA Draft would be.
But after watching as many games I could find online, talking to people who religiously follow Euro ball and reading over Sebastian Pruiti’s perfect breakdown of Nikola Pekovic over at NBA Playbook, I’m feeling a lot better about the newest and biggest addition to the Wolves interior. Before you do anything, go read Bassy’s breakdown of Pekovic’s game. I’d say it’s a flawless summary of what Pekovic does and doesn’t do well on a basketball court.
I’ll even give you the link again. No need to rush; I’ll wait for you to finish.
Okay, are we good now? Let’s discuss what Pekovic means for this team.
At 6’11” and roughly 250 lbs, Nikola Pekovic is the best post scorer the T’Wolves have on their roster. With Al Jefferson gone to Utah and Kevin Love much more effective in the high post and facing up against his defender, Pekovic immediately becomes the guy on this roster you want getting the ball with his back to the basket. For the last three years (when Pek was with Partizan and Panathinaikos), he was one of the best scoring big men across the ocean.
Check out the scoring numbers (via Draft Express):
Nikola is impressively efficient in scoring the ball in the post. The fact that his lowest field goal percentage is 57.4% should tell you a lot about his patience and ability to get off quality shots inside. There’s not a lot of wasted movement. For the last couple of years, we’ve been used to watching Al Jefferson pump fake eight times before awkwardly getting his shot off. It went in more than it rimmed out for a rebound opportunity but it wasn’t the most efficient way to get a good flow in your halfcourt offense. But with Pekovic, you’re going to get direct movement that gets the ball into the basket in the quickest and most proficient way we’ve seen with this franchise.
This doesn’t mean that the 24-year old rookie will come in and dominate the NBA in any way. While 6’11” and 250 lbs is big, it’s not really NBA humongous. He’ll probably end up drawing the biggest defender on the floor when he’s paired with Kevin Love and Michael Beasley. He’ll have to use his physical nature to get guys out of defensive position and pounce on the scoring opportunity immediately. If he can’t create space to get his shots up, the bigger defenders will overwhelm him. And if he gets stopped in his tracks in the post, he has very limited passing skills to get something else going.
However with Darko Divac or Kevin Love in the high post, you can run a lot of good high-low stuff to get Pekovic posted and re-posted if he has to fight for better position. And if he can prove he has a nice 15-foot jumper then you might be able to have a slightly smaller Marc Gasol playing the post for the Wolves this season.
Take a look at Gasol’s European scoring numbers:
They’re sort of similar to what Pekovic was putting up the last few years. But that’s where the similarities between the two probably end.
Defensively, I’m still very worried about this frontcourt. I don’t think most big men can overpower Pekovic inside. He has a good center of gravity and uses his strength and weight well in the way he moves guys around on both ends of the floor. But put him in a situation in which he has to help and I’m a little terrified of what might be. He seems to have a hard time making up his mind of what to do defensively. And in the NBA, you simply can’t get away with hesitating to make that decision.
He shows really well on pick-and-rolls (which Sebastian showed beautifully in his post) but I wonder if that will translate to the bigger, quicker guards of the NBA. This is the biggest difference between Pekovic and Marc Gasol. Gasol has become a very exceptional defender, especially on the perimeter. He stays with perimeter players extremely well for a big man. He also retreats to the interior once he’s done showing well. Pekovic did this to a degree in Europe but at the same time, he seemed to be desperately recovering rather than rotating with a plan of defense.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare him to Marc Gasol when he hasn’t even shown what he can do on the NBA level. Even despite his success in Europe, Marc Gasol took a full year until he became an All-Star level center in the NBA. And if Pekovic can approach that in any way in the next three years of his contract, then the Wolves will have a nice piece.
But the interior defense is just as weak as it was last season if not worse. Pekovic is not a strong rebounder by any means and Darko has been an inconsistent rebounder throughout his career. As good of a rebounder as Kevin Love is (even if it’s best in the league), he can’t end possessions enough with his glasswork to make this defensive interior decent. Pekovic, Love and Darko are all mediocre to poor defenders inside.
It’s nice that they have options on offense, especially with the potential scoring Pek can bring them. But this interior is far from complete on the defensive end if this franchise wants to get serious about rebuilding.