Photo by Keith Allison/City Pages
In almost every situation, Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves’ massive Montenegran-in-residence, seems a stranger in a strange land. He appears truly comfortable only when conversing in Serbian with his good pal Darko Milicic. At most other times he appears to be regarding the world–with that blunt, bemused face of his–with a combination of puzzlement and wonder. Speaking for the world (at least our Midwestern American corner of it), the feeling is mutual.
His magnificently gothic tattoos, his penchant for the well-placed obscene gesture, his stony eagerness to crush opponents with that thick, dense body of his–and his incredulity at being whistled for said crushing–all inspire an amusement at his adolescent stoopidity, melded with something maybe close to fear at the cold, latent violence that seems buried just under the surface. The man is totally amusing.
That said, for most of this season, Pekovic has been far from the technically sound, NBA-ready big man we’d all expected. In the offensive post, he looked earthbound, unskilled and overmatched. His defensive play was physical and intense but his all-too-apparent lack of lateral quickness made him an unreliable pick-and-roll and help defender, not to mention a fouling machine. For me, the signature Pek image over the first half of the season is the big man, his swarthy cheeks puffing at the effort, desperately–usually futilely–trying to slide his huge body fast enough to deter some significantly quicker opponent from turning the corner on a pick and roll.
“We’ve talked on and on about players having to adjust to the league,” says Kurt Rambis, “and that includes him. Getting used to what’s allowed, the rule changes, the speed and quickness of players in the game. And you’ve got to be able to adjust and adapt to that, whether its coming out of college or Europe.” Players in the NBA must make difficult decisions and perform precise acts–and they must do it extremely quickly but also with great poise. Because of his all-too-human quickness, Pekovic is in the tough spot of simultaneously catching up to the speed of the game and learning to play more deliberately and intelligently.
But both Rambis and Bill Laimbeer believe that Pek possesses the natural intelligence to make the adjustment: “Well he’s never gonna be a shotblocker,” says Laimbeer. “He doesn’t jump very high, but he’s already a very sound team defender. He’s very smart and he understands what we’re trying to get accomplished.” Indeed, thanks to Darko’s various absences, Pekovic has had the chance to gain some comfort on the floor. Over the past 10 games he has begun to show some skill in the post–he’s hit 60.5% of his field goals in that time–and make quicker and better defensive decisions.
“He’s much more confident in his offensive post moves,” says Laimbeer. “He doesn’t have the greatest lift in the world, so he has to use crafty moves and his strong body, and he’s getting better at that…Basically [we’re just working on] his footwork in the post, getting not as many travels, catching the ball in traffic and finishing.”
It remains to be seen whether Pekovic can learn the intuition and anticipation necessary to overcome his physical limitations, but the past weeks have to give us a little hope that it’s at least possible. As for solving the riddle of his foul trouble, the burden one acquires by being the biggest, slowest, most aggressive player on the floor, Pek remains a little baffled. He replied to my question on the subject with his typical straightforward amiability: “I don’t know. That’s the answer to your question. I don’t know.”