Balkan bond: Milicic finds friend in Pekovic
When Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis looks at Pekovic, he sees someone who may - finally - help bring out the best in Milicic.
The enigmatic Milicic and Pekovic are both competing for playing time at center for the new-look Timberwolves, but have formed an instant bond because of their similar backgrounds.
''It's good to have a guy from back home,'' Milicic said Saturday ahead of a practice to prepare for the preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers at London's O2 Arena on Monday. ''It makes it much better.''
They're not exactly compatriots - the 7-foot Milicic is from Serbia and the 6-foot-11 Pekovic hails from Balkan neighbor Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia in 2006. But that's enough to ease the transition for both as they adjust to new surroundings.
''They'd never met before, prior to coming on this team,'' Rambis said. ''And they are forming a nice little bond, so it's good they have that relationship.''
The connection is easy to spot on the court. The two centers stayed together during warmups Saturday at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in south London, chatting and joking with each other between drills - with Milicic doing most of the talking.
''He's helped me a lot,'' Pekovic said. ''He's a guy who has been in the NBA for many years, and he can show me many things. About life, about everything.''
Milicic joined Minnesota at the tail end of last season following a disappointing stint with the New York Knicks that seemed to cement his status as a flop after having been the No. 2 draft pick in 2003 - ahead of stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Only five players remain on the Timberwolves roster from last year after a major overhaul of a team that only won 15 games. One of the changes was to sign the 24-year-old Pekovic, a second-round draft pick in 2008 who was one of the top big men in the Greek League last season.
Together with Milicic, he adds the kind of size Minnesota was desperately lacking for much of last season.
The fact that the duo is competing for the same spot doesn't seem to be a problem.
''We're good friends,'' Milicic said. ''The playing time and stuff, it's business. But for me personally, friends come first. I don't (care) about fighting for a spot. If you're playing better than me, you go.''
They may even see quite a bit of playing time together, as Rambis seems excited about the prospect of having a Balkan twin-tower tandem on the court.
''I can see a lot of circumstances where they're playing together,'' the coach said. ''Nikola does a terrific job of playing with his back to the basket, and Darko is a high-post player. He loves to pass the basketball and moves his feet well enough to guard any four in this league.''
There's still the issue of whether Milicic will one day live up to what many see as his true potential. But Minnesota was encouraged by what he showed when given the chance to start 18 games at the end of last season. He averaged 8.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, and Rambis thinks he has a lot more to offer.
''I don't think he or any other player worries about living up to someone else's expectations that was heaped on him because of where he was drafted,'' Rambis said. ''He's going to get the playing time to get comfortable out there. If you think about it, he hasn't played consistent minutes for a consistent time in a long time. So he has to get his basketball spirit back and confidence back. I think he's going to be terrific for us.''