MINNEAPOLIS It was April 12, and the Timberwolves were set to face the Clippers for their final matchup of the season. Reporters gathered around Vinny Del Negro in the bowels of the Target Center before the game as he explained his plan to defeat a losing team that had beaten his playoff-bound squad three times already.
It was all talk of Kevin Love, Kevin Love, Kevin Love, the Timberwolves lone threat, it seemed, in the season's final days. But then a Clippers reporter posed another question:
"What are you going to do to shut down Darko Milicic?"
Eye contact was quickly made. Facial muscles twitched as the question hung in the air. And Del Negro, as smooth as his slicked-back hair, handled it perfectly, answering the question with a fluid and pointed reference to another tall, Eastern European center: Nikola Pekovic.
By April, Milicic had not consistently started for two months. He hadn't played more than one minute in a game since March 5. He was emotionless on the bench, rarely even a part of the team's in-game huddles while plagued with injuries myriad and vague. But rather than create a gaping hole in the Timberwolves' offense, Milicic's ineffectiveness had inadvertently made room for his overachieving successor.
Pekovic was the 31st overall pick in the 2008 draft, and after a 2010-11 season that he spent almost constantly in foul trouble, he began 2011-12 injured and with little hope of earning consistent minutes. Even when he'd recovered from that early-season injury, Pekovic was only slowly phased into the Timberwolves' rotation. It was a decision coach Rick Adelman would come to regret later in the season when his new starting center was averaging 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and earning himself a mention as a contender for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, but there was no way to expect what Pekovic was about to do.
So now, two years since Milicic was "manna from heaven" and not even a year since Pekovic was a tall, thick, fouling unknown, the 26-year-old Montenegrin stands poised to inherit the Timberwolves' starting job. The team has added just one true center this offseason, Greg Stiemsma, who will back up Pekovic and, as its salary cap situation stands, it can sign another such player to only a veteran's minimum contract. The talk of Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill is finished, and Pekovic seems entrenched for now.
After watching the Timberwolves last season, Pekovic's looming role seems like little more than a given. He was fun to watch, the larger and gruffer Jeremy Lin of Minnesota. He blasted Eastern European rap music at practices and delivered quotable one-liners about work ethic and the team's late-season struggles, his thick accent not quite obscuring the pointed wisdom.
"If you don't want to play basketball, if you don't want to win, go work at the office," he said in April after a particularly bad loss. "Sit at a table and do whatever."
It was hard not to fall a little bit in love with Nikola Pekovic.
But as much as his role seems the logical next step for a Timberwolves team that appears poised to fight for a playoff spot in 2013, Pekovic is anything but a sure thing. That's not to say he'll fail or that last year was a fluke, just that he is still a gamble. We've seen just 47 games of this new Pekovic, 35 of them starts. We've seen 1,266 minutes and 346 rebounds, just the tiniest sample size. For a team that hasn't had a true center worth much of a mention in years, that might be enough, but Pekovic still has a long way to go to prove himself to the league.
Even so, he deserves the chance. It's not as if he's a nobody, a player who mysteriously appeared in Minnesota and had warranted no mention in the past. He's no Pau Gasol, no Spanish legend, but he's closer to that than he is to a Stiemsma. In Europe, Pekovic was a force. He was picked before Mario Chalmers, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik, among others in 2008, and he was widely believed to have a bright NBA future. Just look at his seasons overseas, where he played full-time as a pro from 2003-10. With Serbia's Partizan, he came into his own in 2007-08, averaging 19.6 points and 16.4 rebounds per game. From there, he posted averages of 14.0 and the 14.9 points with Panathinaikos in Greece, and in his final three seasons in Europe Pekovic averaged 16.5 points and 5.0 rebounds.
European basketball is different, of course, but when considered in the context of Pekovic's overseas career, last season wasn't necessarily an aberration. It was 2010-11 that didn't fit the mold, and upon further examination, that makes much more sense.
When the Timberwolves signed Russia's Alexey Shved in July, he was the same age as Pekovic was when he began his NBA career and had a similar professional background in Europe. Granted, the two might look like polar opposites, but one similarity applies: the learning curve of an NBA transition. Ricky Rubio seemed immune to it, but when Timberwolves' president of basketball operations David Kahn announced Shved's signing, he was clear that the team wouldn't expect its Russian point guard to contribute heavily in his first year as he adjusts to the league. Perhaps that's a lesson Kahn learned from watching Pekovic, but likely it's a larger truth of the game.
Basketball is different in the United States. Players' skills do not always seamlessly translate. (Not to bring up Rubio again, but he was a completely different player once he arrived the NBA, a European whose game fit better in its new venue.) A good player in Europe can be a good player in the United States, but maybe not instantly, and perhaps not by replicating his overseas performance.
Pekovic in Serbia and Greece was a different player than he is today, and he fit in seamlessly to an offense led by Love and Rubio last season. If and when Rubio returns and is healthy, the anchors of that offense will be nearly the same as they were when the Timberwolves were threatening to snatch the Western Conference's eighth playoff seed, and Pekovic played a large part in that fledgling contention.
So, yes, he's still a gamble. Yes, he hardly boasts a wealth of NBA experience. But after what he did last year, it's impossible to hold that against Pekovic. He has earned the opportunity to succeed after it defaulted to him last year, and though he's not yet a national name, Pekovic could be well on his way to becoming the kind of player the Timberwolves can build around.
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