Pekovic turns Wolves from finesse team into ferocious threat in West
Nikola Pekovic spent most of the summer improving screens to avoid foul trouble
Playing alongside Kevin Love, Pekovic has changed the Timberwolves' style
The Wolves have won seven of their last 10, are vying for the West's eighth seed
Of the NBA's two overnight sensations, one was dismissed by scouts, coaches and general managers. The other was discarded by referees. While Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin was languishing on the bench and in the Development League last season, Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic was making an imprint on the NBA, mainly with sharp elbows and deep bruises.
Pekovic played 887 minutes and was called for 181 fouls -- a foul every 4.9 minutes. By contrast, Magic center Dwight Howard, no stranger to the whistle, was called for a foul every 11.3 minutes.
"Sometimes, it seemed like Nikola would check in at the scorers' table and pick up a foul," Wolves general manager David Kahn said.
At 6-foot-11, 290 pounds, with a beard and a buzz cut, Pekovic looks like a character from a Die Hard movie -- "Yeah, one of the villains," power forward Kevin Love said -- and often plays to type. His affection for hard screens runs deeper than Ricky Rubio's love for no-look passes. Opposing players charge into his left biceps, the one tattooed with a medieval soldier holding a sword over a pile of skulls, and crumble to the court as if they've been stabbed.
"It's like running into a wall," Timberwolves small forward Wesley Johnson said.
Problem was, Pekovic went out of his way to set those screens last season, and ended up averaging only 5.5 points and three rebounds because he was usually on the bench in foul trouble. After spending much of the summer in his native Montenegro, where he clears his head by fishing alone on a river, Pekovic found some relative peace.
"I still like contact," he said. "But not too much contact."
Working with assistant coach Jack Sikma, Pekovic was reminded to stand still when he sets screens and raise his arms overhead when he contests shots. In 725 minutes this season he has committed 67 fouls, one every 10.8 minutes.
Lin just needed to get on the floor. Pek, as he is known, just needed to stay there. In February, as Lin lit up the Madison Square Garden marquee, Pekovic made a similar impact on a smaller stage in Minnesota, seizing the starting job from friend Darko Milicic and averaging 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Taking advantage of the space created by Love, and the post feeds tossed by Rubio, Pekovic ranks second in the NBA in field-goal percentage at 57.1. He has turned the Timberwolves from a finesse team into a ferocious one, with the highest offensive-rebounding rate of anybody in the last 14 years. When Pekovic was limited to 20 minutes against the Lakers in January, hounded once again by foul trouble, 7-foot, 285-pound center Andrew Bynum said: "Thank God they took Pekovic out of the game."
The Timberwolves are 7-3 since Valentine's Day and one-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, thanks to an unlikely chain of events that has spanned nearly nine months. First, Rubio signed with them, after spending the past two years in Spain. Then, coach Rick Adelman joined them, after claiming he wanted to take a season off. J.J. Barea followed, after winning a championship in Dallas, and Love agreed to a four-year extension. But Pekovic's emergence is the most startling development of all.
Pek's profile was much higher than Lin's when he entered the 2008 draft, but he slipped to the second round because he made about $4 million per year in Greece and teams knew they could not lure him with a standard rookie-scale contract. By picking him with the first pick in the second round (31st overall), the Timberwolves were able to offer more, but Pekovic remained in Greece for two seasons, averaging 13.8 points in fewer than 17 minutes. In the summer of 2010, while the Wolves were waiting on Rubio, they offered Pekovic a three-year contract worth $13 million.
"We thought it was now or never," Kahn said. Pekovic took the deal and disappointed as a rookie, but teammates saw how much time he spent in the weight room, and how he actually seemed to enjoy it. "He eats iron," Love said.
Pekovic will gleefully do what so many of his NBA peers would rather not: lift weights, set screens and wrestle under the basket like a jiu-jitsu fighter.
"He's a power player and it's hard to go against those guys," Sikma said. "I remember playing against Artis and he got you down deep and it was a torture chamber. I'm not saying Pek is Artis Gilmore, but he's a similar kind of player. It puts a lot of pressure on defenders. They have to work their tail off."
Pekovic's numbers have dwindled somewhat since the All-Star break and he sat out Minnesota's win over the Clippers on Monday because of a sore right foot. But the Timberwolves are surging, and they won in Portland on Saturday for the first time since 2005 behind 42 points from Love.
Love's perimeter prowess has obviously opened the interior for Pekovic, but their relationship is symbiotic. Love insists that Pekovic has allowed him to drift outside and still rush the paint for rebounds. "This couldn't be happening to a better guy," Love said. For the Wolves, he is more hero than villain.