MINNEAPOLIS That guy is really making an impression.
You know, the big one. He's huge. That guy is so strong. Whoa.
In many opposing NBA locker rooms, Nikola Pekovic doesn't yet have a name. He's the big guy, the source of shaking heads and shrugs, perhaps even a few unintentional bruises.
In a league in which word travels fast, the Timberwolves' 6-foot-11, 290-pound center remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps it's because he's stationed on the northernmost edge of the NBA map, rather than in New York, where a couple of high-scoring nights is enough to set off a media phenomenon rife with word play and hyperbole. Regardless, though, Pekovic should be getting a lot more attention than he is, and he may be the best thing that's happened to the Timberwolves in the past two weeks.
Hurry, then. Come up with some names for this. Peksanity? No, that's been done. Pekilicious? Pektastic? Each one sounds more ridiculous than the next, especially when you consider the man himself. That hulking frame and dark beard, the complicated, artistic tattoos, the wide-set eyes and the guttural accent none of it lends well to a craze or a phenomenon. Short answers in an impossibly deep voice are the most he'll offer, and for that, he should remain simply Pek.
Since seeing an increased role at the end of last month when starting center Darko Milicic missed games with illness and a turned ankle, Pekovic, 26 and in his second season, has left his mark on opponents. Since getting his first start of the season on Jan. 27, he's averaged 14.0 points, with three 20-plus-point nights in the team's past seven games. In the past two weeks, he's averaged 4.75 offensive rebounds per game, the best of anyone in the NBA during that time frame. Pretty impressive for a player who was mired on the bench for much of the season, stuck behind a player who's averaging just 5.6 points per game.
So yes, Pekovic's emergence as a talented young player was a huge help for the Timberwolves, but it's also in a way exasperating. Could the team have a few more wins if he'd been starting all year? There's no way to know, and Pekovic is still young, untested. It's better not to look back but rather to hope what he's been doing in recent weeks continues. And right now, he's earned himself a chance to let it.
Monday night marked the first game of the season in which Pekovic lined up on the court at tipoff while a healthy Milicic sat on the bench. Until now, he's technically been filling in for an injured player, but on Monday, Pekovic's new status became more overt, more official. And he earned it, finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds, a stark contrast to Milicic, who didn't score a point and committed three fouls in the span of 1:10. With every night like Monday, Pekovic becomes more legitimate, more ingrained in the Timberwolves' game plan. Coach Rick Adelman can exhale a bit each time, entertaining more and more the idea that this might not be a fluke.
For the cynics in the room, there's always that danger, the risk of speaking too soon, investing too much in an unproven player. It's been how many games, how many minutes on the court, since people learned to pronounce Pekovic's name? (That's Nee-ko-lah Peck-oh-vich, in case you weren't sure.) How many months since he made his NBA debut? (Sixteen.) How long has it been since he was last in foul trouble? (A week ago.) These are all valid questions, of course, but don't start asking them yet.
Instead, listen to what people are saying. Listen to Derrick Williams, who said he thinks Pekovic is the strongest player in the NBA. Listen to Anthony Tolliver, who calls him an ox, who praised his movement on the court as something rarely seen from a player his size. Listen to Adelman, who said Pekovic might be the only one of his players who's really seized an opportunity to advance himself this season. Relax, and watch him play. It can be a fun thing to witness.
Pekovic was once a novelty, and his status as such has yet to catch up with the reality of what he's doing. Each time he scores, a picture of him as the Godfather flashes across the Jumbotron at the Target Center. Reedy violin music plays. Its humor lies in the fact that it doesn't make much sense, and it was funny in the small doses of mid-January. Now, though, Pekovic scoring is routine, and it should be treated as such. Give him a space between novelty and phenomenon, and see if he can thrive.
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