Nikola Pekovic is one of basketball’s very best centers, but has had an unfortunate lack of media coverage (aside from internet memes based on his surly appearance and love of meat) because he plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
That could change this year as a revamped Timberwolves team (assuming good health from Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio) could be good enough to make the playoffs this year.
The Montenegro native had himself a very good season last year. After his playing time increased midway through the season, he found himself filling up the stat sheet. His per-game averages of 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds are a bit misleading, as he played just 31 minutes a night for the year.
He racked up 18.6 points and 10 boards per 36 minutes and his PER, at 20.2, was at a borderline All-Star level.
On offense, he relies on his brute strength to bully opposing big men on the low block. Few centers in the modern NBA have the bulk to keep him from getting deep in the post position, and his strong post play can wear down an opponent’s interior defenders.
He doesn’t have silky-smooth post moves like Pau Gasol or Al Jefferson, but he has a very simple, yet effective back-to-the-basket game. He’s also a solid free throw shooter, attempting more than five free throws a night while converting at a 74.4 percent clip. With Kevin Love out of action for much of last season, Pek carried a heavy offensive burden and performed ably while maintaining a low turnover rate.
The Wolves scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (about a league-average mark) as opposed to 100.8 without him (almost as bad as the Washington Wizards’ NBA-worst rate).
He’s also surprisingly effective as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, picking up 1.23 points per possession (with 62 percent shooting) in those scenarios, the 16th-best mark in the entire league. With Rubio back to full health, he should expect a steady diet of pick-and-roll opportunities, which should grow even more dangerous with Kevin Love and Kevin Martin providing much-needed complimentary outside shooting.
He’s also a very good offensive rebounder (he had the league’s ninth-best offensive rebounding rate last year) who can create tons of second-chance points for his team.
Defensively, he’s a decent player. The Wolves defended about as well with him off the court as they did with him on, suggesting that he’s a steady, if low-impact performer on that end. The T-Wolves finished in the top half of the league defensively with him starting at center, the most important position in basketball from a defensive standpoint, but much of Minnesota’s defensive improvement was owed to the tremendous versatility of the now-departed Andrei Kirilenko.
Without AK-47’s great sense of timing, shot-blocking and ability to generate takeaways, some of Pekovic’s defensive weaknesses could come under more scrutiny. Though he’s improved greatly in this regard from his rookie season (when he averaged a ridiculous 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes), he’s still a little foul prone, and his lack of explosiveness makes him a less-than-ideal rim protector.
With the Timberwolves looking to take the next step and compete for a playoff spot, Nikola Pekovic will be one of the key cogs. He’ll help lead a potentially very explosive offense that could carry them to the postseason for the first time since 2004.