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Pekovic: Minnesota’s Next Dominant Force?
Posted By Stephen Litel On February 5, 2012 @ 4:00 pm In All,NBA | No Comments
In only his second season in the NBA, Nikola Pekovic has learned a lot about the game he loves. He is contributing to the Minnesota Timberwolves more than he was able to in his rookie season, during which he struggled to stay out of foul trouble. There is one lesson above all that has allowed Pekovic to find a way to become a steady contributor for his team in the NBA.
“If you’ve got some balls, you can do some stuff,” Pekovic told HOOPSWORLD. “Just everything depends on how much you’re going to play and I know here the most important thing is playing defense. If you can’t play defense, then it’s tough to play here. I’m just trying to play defense when I have the chance and to use that the best way I can. I think I improved on the defensive end and I’m trying to improve myself every day. I speak with the coaches, the players and everything just trying to give all of what I can do and give all I can for the team.”
Last year Pekovic struggled to find a footing in the NBA, yet still had enough confidence in his abilities not to put his head down. Playing in the NBA was always a dream, it was now an accomplished dream and he was determined to put in the work to find a level of success acceptable in his own mind.
“For sure, it was difficult,” said Pekovic. “I was playing back in Europe for many years and when I came here, I was a little lost. It was tough to get used to all this stuff, but I think this year I’m doing a little better because I tried to figure out all this stuff, all these things. I think this year with every day, every month I just come here and train and try to improve myself. Of course, you’re most trying to figure out how everything is working, so that’s my part.”
After spending time unable to get into games early this season due to injuries and matchups, Pekovic finally broke into Rick Adelman’s rotation. Since that time, Pekovic has been a major factor in the Timberwolves’ 0.500 record, which is the latest into a season they have been at that mark since the Kevin Garnett days.
“First of all, I get some minutes, so when you get minutes and spend some time in the game, you get more opportunity to score and show what you can do on defense and all this stuff,” said Pekovic. “That’s all I’m going to do. If I keep getting the minutes and opportunity, I will score points.”
“I’m trying to play really close to the basket,” adds Pekovic. “I’m trying to do all these things in the paint and play hard, setting good screens on offense and going hard for rebounds. I’m trying to use all of my things that I can do, so I can show what I can do.”
Timberwolves assistant coach Jack Sikma knows a thing or two about playing the center position. While he is not the only coach working with Pekovic, he is the one whom Pekovic works with the most and connects with. Pekovic’s head may have been spinning some after his rookie season in the league, but Sikma was able to help simplify the game for him.
“I think there’s a lot of different ways to play the post in this league and you have to start with the assets that you have and make sure you make the most of those,” Sikma told HOOPSWORLD. “Development comes with time and there’s things you can do where there are maybe holes in your game and that type of thing, but the season isn’t really the time to experiment. Go with what you do best and the thing about Pek is he does know what he does best. He knows his strengths and he goes to them all the time. I think it shows in his effectiveness on the court.”
“He’s always saying to me to just play hard and don’t try to do any other things than what I’m doing,” adds Pekovic. “Stay with what is working, so he’s just giving me some good advice and I’m trying to listen to all of them. Know yourself and the things you are trying to do and that is all.”
Obviously, another help to Pekovic’s play is by playing alongside an All-Star in Kevin Love. After a year of experience, Pekovic is finding how he and Love can play together to best help the Timberwolves’ cause.
“Kevin’s skills, to have somebody deep in the paint that somebody has to guard, definitely helps from loading up against him,” said Sikma. “There’s ways to take that away from other teams and one is to space Kevin, but we still like him in the post. The fact that they can’t forget about Pek on that backside, offensive rebounding and stepping in really helps Kevin too. They definitely are a compliment to each other and I think Pek is also a great compliment to Ricky. They run the pick-and-roll and Ricky looks for that late pass to the big. Pek has great hands and can grab everything and as he rolls and gets closer to the hoop, the more dangerous he gets and it causes problems for the other team.”
Of course, playing with a pass-first point guard like Ricky Rubio is helping Pekovic on the court as well. Knowing that if you get open or beat your man to a spot in the post and the ball will be there makes players give maximum effort. When that player is “Pek,” it helps to create havoc close to the basket, which is good for the Timberwolves.
“To me, it’s easy because we get easy points,” said Pekovic. “He really passes the ball and that’s great because we get some easy points. You don’t have to fight for points and it’s much easier if you go in the game and get some easy layups, that’s really great. It’s opening up the game and you start to play with more confidence. It’s really nice to play with him.”
His teammates know he’s put in the work because they have witnessed it and they know he has higher goals for his individual game although he’s played well as of late. He also made the choice to play overseas again during the NBA’s lockout, which helped keep him in shape for his ever-so-important second season in the league.
“He’s definitely earned it,” Anthony Tolliver told HOOPSWORLD. “He’s worked his tail off. He did something that was able to help keep him in shape in the off-season, playing in Belgrade and was able to come in here in tremendous shape. Coming in here, he probably had a little bit of a heads up on all of us because he was the only one of us who played overseas. He was able to get a little bit of a head start as far as getting in shape and I’m sure that helped in some instances.”
“That helped me a lot for sure because I was playing for two months and in the summer I was playing for my national team,” adds Pekovic. “It helped me a lot, first of all to stay in shape, but I already had played when I came here. Even before that I was just trying to work hard and to practice hard because I know they are waiting and what they expect here because we don’t have so much time for practice.”
They’re excited in what he’s turning himself into and one of the biggest reasons is the growth in his confidence. He is much more comfortable this season for a number of reasons, but most notably is the fact he has coaches who believes in his abilities.
“It’s definitely a big deal for the coaches to show a lot of confidence in him,” said Tolliver. “He’s gaining confidence in himself and he’s a pro. He’s known how to play, but now that he’s getting used to the NBA game, he’s really showing how good he is.”
The coach’s confidence comes from seeing all the hard work Pekovic puts into his game, accept their coaching and incorporate it into his game. He has earned everything good that is happening for him during the 2011-12 season.
“He does his work,” said Sikma. “If you watch him in the conversion from defense to offense or offense to defense, he runs faster than anybody we have or, at least, works hard to get back. He doesn’t give in. He understands what he needs to do and where he needs to get to get ahead of the play. He’s a player you know if there is success out there, he is going to find it because he’s going to put in the work.”
Just as Pekovic simplified his life on the court, he also is able to keep his role on the team in perspective. He is well aware that if any of his teammates give the team a better chance at winning on any given night, he will watch the game from the bench. However, in recent weeks when a game is on the line, you will notice Pekovic is one of the five players in the game for Minnesota.
“I’m just trying to do what Coach is asking of me,” said Pekovic. “If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then we need to change something. Right now, I’m happy and we’re playing good and everything is fine.”
Right now, the only change the Timberwolves need to make is find even more minutes for the ever-improving Pekovic.
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