A funny thing happened on the way to Nikola Pekovic’s contract year: Kevin Love broke his hand and gave Pek the chance to show just how much he’s worth.
The timing of this injury — in line with Pek’s last season before restricted free agency — couldn’t have been more perfect for the third-year center. In fact, it’s a complete win-win for him. If he plays well and helps carry the team for the first month or more, he probably guarantees himself a max offer in restricted free agency, just to put pressure on the organization to match (I see you, Paul Allen). If he doesn’t play well and help carry the team, nobody would fault him at all for not being up for the task.
Pekovic came into this season with the preseason buzz phrase “best shape of his life.” He looked like a lean pitbull, ready to patrol the dog run without a glimmer of fear. With eight-ish pounds shed off his immense frame, Pek has not only taken the pressure off his surgically repaired ankle, but he’s allowed himself to move a lot freer than before. And somehow he even got stronger.
And Pek yesterday… coming back yesterday as my first day, I’m in good shape now and I’m going to use training camp to get into better shape. I had to guard him for five games yesterday. And in the second game I was already tired. My shots were short and my shots were long. I mean he’s really in shape. He’s running the floor and having to guard him… I think he’s really going to have a tremendous year.
If anything he’s stronger, more agile. It’s just crazy watching him do workouts down there.
I don’t know what he’s on but… first of all, it’s not illegal substances. But whatever they’re lifting over there in Montenegro, he’s unbelievably strong. I don’t know what he’s eating either.”
That was Kevin Love on September 25th when he had a press conference to talk about his Olympic experience and the season ahead. He had just come back to join the team and noticed that Pekovic was a lot harder to deal with in workouts. Then Rick Adelman said this in a Jerry Zgoda article less than a week into training camp:
“He’s slimmed down, but he’s stronger,” Adelman said. “You just watch him. Guys in the scrimmages just want out of there. They don’t want to go against him. He’s going to be crucial for us. If we have a guy who has to be our Iron Man, it’s Pek. When we have him out there, he’s such a force around the basket. It makes everybody else better.”
And if you asked Pek where the lost weight went, he gave you a pretty simple answer that explained how he got stronger:
Big Pek on his weight loss… “Where did my weight go? To muscles. I just try to come here lean as I can, so I know that will help my game."
— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) September 13, 2012
Yep, his weight went to muscle.
Not only did it go to muscles but he let us in on one of his favorite past times when he told Mark Remme that he loved to fish and got to do so this offseason in both Montenegro and in Minnesota.
The new and improved and opportunistic Pekovic couldn’t come at a better time for the Wolves. With Kevin Love nursing a broken hand for the next month or so, the Wolves need an offensive focus. When you’re looking for an offensive focus for a team or five-man unit on the floor, the biggest key is taking advantage of your biggest advantage. It would be easier/lazier to just look at Brandon Roy, believe in his past, and ask him to do it again for a month.
It would also be easy for a coaching staff to look at Pekovic’s rookie season, at the age of 25, and think he didn’t belong in the NBA. He was a foul machine and overmatched in nearly every way on the court. But even in limited time, Bill Bayno, Jack Sikma and company turned Pek back into the prospect he showed us during his European play. He showed solid footwork, great touch around the basket, and brute strength that would clear the way to the castle much easier than Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. He is the brute squad.
It’s easy to look at last year’s Pekovic as a fluke. He had Ricky Rubio feeding him perfectly under the boards and nobody was figuring out how to handle both Love and Pek at the same time without proper practicing/scouting because of the lockout-shortened schedule. It was almost a perfect storm of opportunity for Pekovic when you factored in Darko’s incompetence and Anthony Randolph’s inability to be a consistent basketball player. The Wolves needed an anchor and a month into the season, Pekovic planted himself in the lane.
The efficiency of Pekovic was astounding last season. According to mySynergy Sports, Pekovic had the 14th best overall points per possession (PPP) of anybody in the NBA. He was 55th in the NBA in post-up PPP too. Where he destroyed opponents the most was on plays moving toward the basket. Coach Adelman mentioned Monday after practice:
“I think he can make that, but I think now he’s real comfortable in the post, Adelman said. “He puts a real pressure on the other team just being out there, he puts pressure on everyone else.”
As a pick-and-roll man, Pek registered as the fourth most efficient player in the NBA, scoring 1.33 PPP and making 69.7% of his shots. On plays in which he was cutting to the basket, he was the 31st best player in the league, scoring 1.35 PPP and making 70.2% of his shots. And in transition, Pek was the 5th most efficient player in the league. He made 78.9% of his shots, scored 1.5 PPP, but only had 26 possessions in transition.
With Pek scoring so well by moving toward the basket and needing relief from ankle surgery that removed bone spurs, becoming lighter and leaner only seems logical. But really, this will help him in all facets of his game.
His rebounding should be better, which is scary for the guy who posted the best offensive rebounding rate in the NBA. His defense will be much better, allowing him to move side-to-side in help and maybe even alter a few shots. And being lighter/quicker allows him to fit more naturally into the high post, so he can move around the floor and be a weapon from more areas. This sounds like something Adelman has helped him embrace:
Adelman praised Pekovic’s passing, of all things, after Thursday’s practice, saying the big guy is seeing plays unfold and making passes that he didn’t see from Pekovic all last season. Adelman also wants Pekovic to expand his offensive game, which apparently means shooting the ball from beyond 2 feet. ”He can really shoot the ball from 15, 16 feet, he just never looks for it,” Adelman said. “I offer him the three-pointer every time I talk to him about it, and he has not accepted that yet.”
Really, Pek’s understanding of the offense and ability to see things develop on the floor will make the next month of basketball much easier. It’s one thing to adjust to the Wolves’ plight due to injuries right now and just adjust to dump things into the post and hope for the best. Instead, it seems like they get to keep Andrei Kirilenko in the small forward slot with Derrick Williams playing his more natural power forward slot. He’ll get to absorb boxouts while Dante Cunningham flies in for rebounding chances. They get to still run the offense out of the high post and every wrinkle that comes with Adelman’s free-flowing system.
And if the Wolves can play the kind of defense they showed in the preseason against lesser lineups and talent (or even 80% of the defense they showed us), it’s not unrealistic to think they won’t hold their own until Love comes back. If you told me I’d be thinking this way under these circumstances a few months ago, I would have assumed I had been drinking heavily when I wrote this. But really, this is just a testament to the roster the Wolves have assembled and the dedication Nikola Pekovic has displayed to becoming a better player.
Maybe it’s just a result of him getting into great shape for his big contract year. Maybe it’s just an attempt to get a huge payday with one and a half seasons of stellar play inside. Or maybe it’s just in Pek’s nature to continue to get stronger. Whatever it is, this is a perfect chance of him to take advantage of his new opportunity.
And really the Wolves get a chance to take advantage of it too.